Ikan Bakar

Cooking and eating whole fish is revered all around the world… except here. Americans are taught to fear bones and favor fish that looks and tastes like chicken.  No reminders of what we’re actually eating, no scales or fins, and definitely no eyeballs on our plates. snapper and grouperBecause of this, we’re missing out on some of the best fish on the planet. Whole fish recipes utilize fish that are smaller, more sustainable, and often less expensive. marinating snapperWhen cooked whole, the bones and skin retain heat and the fish is infused with moisture. It has a sweet taste and pillowy texture you won’t experience in a fish fillet. bad key deer(As you can see, key deer like whole fish recipes, too. I was supposed to be guarding it. Sorry, Mom.)  
fishesMy favorite hails from Indonesia by way of my stepdad, Mark. He’s been traveling to Bali for decades, returning with sauces and cooking methods that have been woven into our family favorites. Ikan bakar is a classic Indonesian fish recipe that translates  to “burned fish” or, Mark says more literally “cremated fish.” It’s fish marinated in kecap manis (pronounced ketchup mah-nees), a sweet soy sauce made with palm sugar, then grilled over a very hot fire until the outside is charred.  fish on fireI might have been squeamish about eating this the first time I tried it. Ikan bakar, cremated fish? But that disappeared with my first bite. The crackly skin is like potato chips. The fillets inside are so soft. Each bite is infused with the aromatic marinade. Now I say it dreamily, ikan bakarsnapper bakarTo serve and eat, gently slice just below the top fin and remove it along with any bones. Slice around the rest of the top fillet and gently lift it away from the backbone using a spatula.  Now take the tail and lift it to remove the whole backbone in one piece, revealing the bottom fillet.  Don’t flip the fish over, that’s bad luck and is said to make your boat capsize.

Ikan Bakar
  1. 3 whole yellowtail snapper (about 1.25 pounds each), gutted and scaled
  2. 1 1/2 cups kecap manis or other sweet soy sauce
  3. 1 1/2 cups grapeseed oil
  4. 1 large Vidalia onion, diced
  5. 3 hot chile peppers, sliced
  6. 2 tablespoons minced ginger
  7. 1 tablespoon minced garlic
  8. 3 kaffir lime leaves, stems removed, sliced
  9. additional grapeseed oil for the grill
  10. garnish with sliced green onions or fresh herbs, if desired
  1. Rinse the fish and pat them dry. Place them in a large shallow pan or a 2-gallon ziplock bag.
  2. Combine the kecap manis, grapeseed oil, onion, peppers, ginger, garlic, and kaffir lime in a large bowl. Pour over the fish. Make sure plenty of the marinade goes inside the cavities of the fish.
  3. Refrigerate it for about 30 minutes.
  4. Prepare a charcoal grill with a hot fire and make sure the grates are scraped clean.
  5. Pour grapeseed oil into a small bowl. Fold a paper towel into a 2-inch square. Using tongs, dip the paper towel into the grapeseed oil and wipe over the grill grates. Repeat this 3-4 times to season the grill.
  6. Place the fish on the grill and cook for 4 minutes. Once the edges start to get charred, use a spatula to gently lift underneath the fish. If the fish will not lift off of the grates easily, it's not ready to flip. I like using two spatulas to flip it, one to slide underneath the fish, and the other to guide it over. Grill on the other side for 4 minutes. Once the edges are completely charred and you can easily slip a skewer through the thickest part of the body, the fish is done.
  7. Garnish with green onions or herbs. Serve with rice, kecap manis, and sambal.
Suwannee Rose https://www.suwanneerose.com/
Ikan Bakar, Indonesian char-grilled fish


7 Comments Ikan Bakar

  1. jane May 28, 2016 at 11:44 am

    This sounds delicious. Did you leave out a step? Step 1. clean (and scale?) the fish…….

    1. Toby May 28, 2016 at 12:08 pm

      In the ingredients it says “gutted and scaled” and that should include the gills. You can also make slits on the sides, but we’ve done it without and it comes out fine.

      1. suwanneerose May 28, 2016 at 3:07 pm

        Yes, that’s noted in the ingredients, not an extra step, just like dicing onions or mincing garlic. Fishmongers are happy to do it for you. One of these days I’ll make a video. As for scoring the fish: I found when we didn’t score it, more of the fish skin stayed intact when we flipped it.

  2. COLEY May 31, 2016 at 9:19 am

    I CANNOT wait to make this recipe!! I love whole grilled snapper and these flavors are right up my alley. Do you grow the kaffir limes?? They leaves show up everyone once in a while at my Asian market, and I stock up when I see them. I have some dried and some frozen, but they’re never as fragrant as when they’re fresh. Also, how do you say Ikan Bakar? Eye-kan?

    1. suwanneerose May 31, 2016 at 9:56 am

      I’ll definitely send some lime leaves your way, Coley. We finally planted our own after years of sneaking them from a roadside tree. Since you have Meyer lemons, I bet you could grow them too. Ikan Bakar is pronounced EE-khan bah-CAR, and thanks for asking!

  3. Nicole June 1, 2016 at 12:35 pm

    Whole fish are SO tasty, and this looks lovely and delicious. I’m going to try the marinade the next time we grill a whole fish 🙂

    1. suwanneerose June 1, 2016 at 4:48 pm

      I hope you like it, Nicole! And I hope you’re catching lots of fish. 😉

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