Ikan bakar is a dish of charcoal-grilled fish (or other forms of seafood) and the name literally means “burnt fish” in Malay, and as well as Peninsular Malaysia, the dish is also extremely popular in Indonesia. At any time of the day, ikan bakar is served plentifully; it is always piping hot and smells so wonderful that it is hard to turn down!
Almost all kind of fish and seafood can be made into ikan bakar, with some of the most popular being cakalang fufu (skipjack tuna), kakap merah (red snapper), and pari (stingray). Some of the popular forms of seafood besides the actual fish themselves are sotong (squid) and udang (shrimp). With Malaysia having an extensive coastline – and with Indonesia being an archipelago – seafood is always going to be plentiful, and believe me, Malays certainly know what to do with it!
Usually, the fish is marinated with mixture of spices, pastes, and sometimes with belacan or kecap manis (sweet soy sauce). When marinated, it is then grilled; sometimes protected with a sheet of banana leaf placed between the seafood and grill to avoid the fish being stuck to the grill and broken to pieces. You can see this process on the streets of Kuala Lumpur as you are walking past – Ikan Bakar really makes great street food! In Indonesia, ikan bakar usually tastes sweeter than what you’d typically find in Malaysia due to the inclusion of a local condiment known as kecap manis, which is used as a marinade or a dipping sauce, and not used as often in Malaysia.
Maybe I just got lucky, but in the pasar malams of Kuala Lumpur and Penang I found both the Malaysian and Indonesian varieties, and I think I prefer the Malaysian kind, even though it is much more spicy due to the influx of chili pepper (I think the Indian community must have given this culinary tip to the Malays long ago). There were plenty of ikan bakar dishes with sambal kecap, which is sliced chili and coriander in a dosage of kecap manis – with plenty of lemon slices for garnishing. And of course, as with most meals in Malaysia and Indonesia, all fish dishes come with a lot of white rice!