Otak Otak is a mixture of fish paste together with other spices. The fish paste differs from place to place but more commonly mackerel is used. Just like the recipe differs from place to place, its name is known differently among different cultures and groups. Here are the more common names: otah-otah, otah or otak. The idea behind the name Otak comes from the Malay or Indonesian word “brains”, as the fish paste, literally, looks grey, soft and squishy.
It is well known across Southeast Asia, where it is traditionally served fresh. The people of outside of South East Asia also get to enjoy Otak Otak as it is being sold as frozen food to them. Modern versions of Otak Otak often utilizes crab and prawn meat.
The southern Malaysian town of Muar in Johor is a popular destination for it. In places like Singapore, Malayasia and Indonesia the fish paste is wrapped up as a thin slice using banana or coconut leaf and grilled over a charcoal fire (barbeque). In Penang, the Peranakan version of Otak Otak is known as Otak Otak Nyonya where it is steamed as a cake in pandan leaf.
It is completely up to how you want to eat it. While most people have it eaten as a snack, you can eat it with some bread or as part of a meal. In Indonesian Otak Otak found its origins from Palembang, South Sumatra. The Palembangese have Otak Otak with Cuko, a local spicy tamarind sauce. The influence has spread over to Jakarata and Makasar where people enjoy it with peanut sauce.
There are other Indonesian dishes cooked with a mixture of spices using the fish sauce as the main ingredient. Namely, they are, pais ikan, botok, and satay.
In Central Europe, a similar variety called Szczecin paprikas has a more distinctive taste, spicier than Otak Otak due to the larger content in the use of fish paste. It is made with mixing fish paste with rice, onion tomato concentrate, salt and a mixture of spices.