Ikan Bakar (Malaysian Grilled Fish)

Ikan Bakar is a popular grilled fish dish (say that 3x fast) in Indonesia and Malaysia, usually sold by street vendors. The fish is marinated in sambal – a Southeast Asian chili-based condiment – and grilled over banana leaves. Popular fishes used for the dish include tilapia, skate, snapper, sea bass, or stingray.

While this is a very exotic-sounding dish, it’s surprising that all of the ingredients can be easily found during a trip to your local Asian market. Banana leaves are commonly sold frozen in large sheets for very cheap – usually a dollar will get you as many as 20 leaves. Bear in mind that frozen banana leaves are more brittle than fresh, and don’t hold up to heat as well – so you’ll want to get plenty of them, at least five leaves per fish.

Serves two

2 whole fish (tilapia, skate, snapper, etc), cleaned, approx. 1.5 lbs each
6 large red chiles, deseeded
4 medium shallots
1″ fresh ginger
2 stalks lemongrass (mostly the white part)
juice of 1 lime
1 tbsp water
1 tsp each shrimp paste, salt, ground turmeric
2 tbsp coconut oil
10 banana leaves, about 1 ft wide each

When it comes to peppers, the common red peppers used in Southeast Asia are just called “red peppers”, and they are long and skinny. I used red jalapeños because I can’t find the Asian ones near me. If you want a very spicy sambal, add a few bird’s eye chiles as well.

To create your sambal, blend or process the chiles, shallots, ginger, lemongrass, lime juice, water, shrimp paste, salt, and turmeric until smooth.

In a pan, heat up the coconut oil on med/low heat for a couple minutes, then add the sambal.

Saute until aromatic, about six minutes, stirring often. Set the sambal aside to cool for about 20 minutes.

Once your sambal has cooled, you’re ready to put it on your fish. Make large cross-section scores across the fish, like three big letter Xs, to help the marinade penetrate the fish.

Spoon some of the sambal over the fish, flip it over, and spoon more over it. Be sure to put a nice big spoonful inside the fish’s chest cavity as well. Cover and marinate for at least one hour in the fridge, but up to eight hours.

Heat up your grill, then turn the burners on one side down to low. Place the banana leaves on the cooler side of the grill (five leaves per fish), then place the fish on top. The reason you want to keep some heat under the fish is to help the banana leaves char, which is part of this dish’s signature aroma.

Cover and grill for eight minutes, then carefully flip the fish, and grill for eight more minutes. The meat should be firm, flaky, and should easily come off the bone.

Garnish with fried shallots and chopped cilantro.

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14 thoughts on “Ikan Bakar (Malaysian Grilled Fish)

  1. So so glad you left the head on, nothing pisses me off more than ordering a whole cooked fish at a restaurant and it comes sans head. And it happens in Seattle with surprising regularity, where we’re supposed to be all about seafood.


  2. I use fish sauce often, so I have it in stock, but have never needed shrimp paste before. I would prefer to avoid having to hunt down this one ingredient if I can, unless I can find it in the Asian section in a local grocery store. Would you recommend substituting the shrimp paste with fish sauce? Or could I leave it out?

    Love your blog and recipes. Made your pizza crust the other day and found it to be hands down the best gluten free pizza we’ve tried to date! Thanks for sharing your experience and recipes!



    1. Hi Jennifer, you might be able to find it at your local grocery store – Lee Kum Kee has a shrimp sauce that’s fairly clean. Otherwise you could add a little fish sauce for a similar effect.


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