Banana leaf is not merely nature’s placemat. Asian cooks use it like plastic wrap, foil, and parchment paper. The beauty of using banana leaf is that it imparts a wonderful tea-leaf like scent to food during the cooking process. It’s kinda like the Southeast Asian version of French cooking en papillote (in paper)!
In the Vietnamese kitchen, banana leaf perfumes silky sausages and headcheese and many dumplings. But we seldom wrap large whole fish in banana leaf and grill it like our Southeast Asian brothers and sisters tend to do. Fresh lotus leaves, which are huge and easy to wrap with, is more typically used. Or, you use mud to encase the whole fish, usually freshwater snakehead fish (ca loc in Vietnamese). Or, you just grill the fish in a wire frame basket.
But who has fresh lotus leaves and mud at their disposal? Or the right size wire basket? Not me.
The other night, I thought of a wonderful lunch of grilled whole fish that I enjoyed with Robyn Eckhardt and David Hagerman in Kuala Lumpur in 2008. It was served with a briny-spicy-sweet dipping sauce made of funky shrimp paste, sweet kecap manis soy sauce, and chiles. A terrific harmony of Malaysian ingredients.
Wanting to recapture those flavors, I found a similar recipe in Christopher Tan’s Singaporean cookbook, Shiok! Chris is among the leading experts on Southeast Asian foodways and I trust him immensely. His ikan panggang recipe was modestly called “Barbecued Fish” in English. The flavors were fabulously big. I’ve adapted Chris’s recipe here for you.