Ikan Pepes – East Timor National Dish

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Hello adventurers!  After a brief but restful hiatus, we are all set to return to the high seas.  This time we are heading to the heart of Indonesia deep in Southeast Asia.  In fact, our destination is far closer to Australia geographically and historically than it is the rest of Asia.  To get to our destination we need to travel to the other side of the planet from the Dominican Republic.  There is no fast way to go so let’s head west through the Panama Canal and all the way west across the Pacific Ocean past Micronesia, Polynesia and most of Indonesia. East Timor or Timor-Leste is located in the Timor Sea  some 400 miles (650 Kilometers) north of Darwin Australia.

Timor Leste as it is officially known is an island nation in the southern part of the Indonesian Archipelago that includes several islands and has its capital city Dili on an Island called Timor which it shares with Indonesia.

Timor Leste was a territory of Portugal from the late 1700’s although exploration of the area by the Portuguese can be traced back to the 1500’s.

In 1975 Timor Leste was effectively abandoned by the Portuguese and declared independence from Portugal.  Nine days later they were invaded by Indonesian forces and a battle began that would last 25 years and would claim 102,800 lives.  I try to be specific in the numbers of people killed in conflicts rather than estimate as I think it pays more respect to the victims.

The killings and the starvings or disease related deaths fell on the hands of the Indonesian invaders and the Fanitil Guerilla forces eventually earned a victory when Indonesian forces withdrew in 1999.  Afterward a referendum was held to determine the future for the nation.  78% voted for independence from Indonesia.  Violent clashes with Pro-Indonesian elements resulted and the transition took nearly three years with the guidance of the United Nations.

Oddly the currency of East Timor is the US dollar.  This is the result of a transitional treaty in post independence East Timor.  So if you travel there from the states, you will not need to change your cash.

East Timor was declared a member of the UN and an internationally recognized nation on September 27th 2002, becoming the first new nation of the 21st century.

The food of East Timor is similar to the cuisine of Indonesia and contains local produce such as fish and rice with spiced curries, lemongrass, ginger, chilies etc.  The national dish is Ikan Pepes.  Ikan means fish and Pepes refers to the method of steaming in banana leaves then cooking over a grill.  I have modified the recipe thanks to a rainy day.  I steamed the fish, then finished it under the broiler for about 5 minutes.  If I cooked it on the grill, I would have left the fish wrapped in the banana leaves which would aid in keeping it moist.

This dish gets a 3 for difficulty.  The ingredients are exotic and include some hard to find items like candlenuts.  This particular ingredient is similar to a large macadamia and should not be eaten raw for any reason!  I found this in a Thai Grocery.  The resulting curry paste is similar to many dishes in the region.  It is sweet and spicy with incredible citrus notes and pungent earthy aromas.   It makes my tum hungry!!

By way of promoting a friend and her uber-cool and environmentally responsible business, I would like to point out the gorgeous platter that the fish is served on which was given to me by my friend Susan.  This platter is made entirely from the scrap pieces of her partners woodworking business.

The link to her website is: http://greenmarketgirl.com/ and you can follow her on twitter at http://www.twitter.com/greenmarketgirl.  She is the designer and builder of the Eco-Cuff a bracelet design also made from the lovely scraps of the woodshop.

Although they do not advertise the platters as safe for food, they would make fantastic decorative pieces or service platters with a surface liner.  They hope to launch a certified Food Safe line very shortly.  Please support my good friend in her growing business.  Thanks Susan!



Appearance:  4 out of 5

Aroma: 4 out of 5

Flavor: 5 out of 5

Total: 13 out of 15


2lb whole fresh Red Snapper or similar fish  (I used an American Red Snapper and also Mahi Mahi portions)

For Curry paste

1 Tsp tamarind pulp, soaked 5 minutes.

2 Tbsp warm water

6-10 large chiles, chopped   (I used 5 and it had plenty of heat.  6-10 will be quite hot)

1 stem lemongrass (only the inner part of the bottom 10 cm), thinly sliced

5 candlenuts

1 small, ripe tomato

1/2 Tsp ground turmeric

1/2 Tsp dried shrimp paste

1 Tbsp finely chopped palm sugar

1/2 cup loosely packed basil leaves

For fish pre marinade:

1 lime sliced in half

1 Tsp salt


Score the fish several times and marinate it with salt and lime rubbed into the surface.

Grind all of the curry ingredients in a processor till they are smooth (about 2 minutes)

Rinse the banana leaves and place about 1/3 of the curry in the bottom of the sheet of banana leaf.

Rub about 1/3 of the curry into the belly of the fish.

Ladle the remaining 1/3 of the curry over the fish and seal up the “packets”.

Steam for 20 minutes in a bamboo steamer

Grill for an additional 6 minutes to impart a smoky finish to the dish (Sadly the weather didn’t allow this step)

Unwrap the packets and serve over rice with chopped basil.

Adapted from: http://chezannies.blogspot.com/2008/09/ikan-pepes-indonesian-spiced-fish.html?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed:+HouseOfAnnie+(House+of+Annie)

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