Pesan Ayam, or Balinese Chicken in Banana Leaves, was my favorite dish while living in Bali. Bundles of savory, sweet, spicy, pungent marinated chicken wrapped in banana leaves. Grilled or steamed, the bundles of marinated chicken are transformed into succulent aromatic morsels that reflect the authentic exotic flavors of Bali.
Revisiting this dish was precipitated by an abundance of young banana trees shooting up at a miraculous pace in my garden. Those young tender leaves are just too tempting not to be plucked for some tropical steaming or grilling applications.
This dish is a great opportunity to treat your guests to some amazing flavors. A dish most might shy away from trying, but once you are familiar with the ingredients the procedures are quite straight forward. Unlike Thai food, which can be searingly hot, this Balinese dish has a warm soothing spiciness that lingers on the tongue rather than in the belly. The wow factor is well worth the effort!
There are what would seem to be some perplexing ingredients involved in making this dish, but a trip to your local Asian market should provide you with all you need. I have listed substitutions for a few items that may not be available.
Following are explanations for ingredients that may be unfamiliar.
From top left: kaffir lime leaves, shallots, turmeric, limes, bird’s eye chillies, garlic, lesser galangal, galangal
Bird’s Eye Chillies: Native to South and South East Asia. Length; 2-3 cm/3/4 inch. Red or green. Hot!
Candlenut (kakui in Hawaii): These are difficult to find. Macadamia nuts are a good substitute.
Fresh Lesser Galangal: Ginger family, native to south China. Pungent, peppery ginger flavor.
Fresh Galangal: Ginger family, native to Indonesia. Gingery camphorous flavor.
Terasi: Fermented Indonesian dry shrimp paste. Any Asian shrimp paste is a good substitute.
Fresh Turmeric: Ginger family. Native to South and South East Asia. Used for culinary, medicinal, and fabric dye applications. Powdered is a good substitute.
Be forewarned when using fresh turmeric! It stains everything it comes in contact with. Be sure to wear disposable plastic gloves! A good soaking in a water and bleach solution will remove the stains. If you don’t want to be bothered use powdered turmeric, although the fresh does have a more appealing assertive flavor.
There are two flavoring pastes required for the recipe. They may be prepared ahead and refrigerated or frozen for later use, which I do recommend. It makes the final assembly and cooking quick and easy, especially if you’re cooking for a crowd.
Spice Paste: makes 2 cups
- 2-3 bird’s eye chillies, finely chopped
- 1 cup minced shallots
- 1/3 cup minced garlic
- 2 tablespoons peeled minced lesser galangal
- 3 tablespoons peeled minced galangal
- 1/3 cup peeled minced fresh turmeric
- ½ cup finely chopped candlenuts (or macadamia nuts)
- 1 tablespoon + 1 teaspoon palm sugar (or light brown sugar)
- 1 stalk lemongrass, peeled to tender inner core and minced
- 2 fresh kaffir lime leaves (or frozen) finely minced
- ¼ cup coconut oil
- ½ cup water
- 1 teaspoon sea salt
Place all the ingredients except the coconut oil, water, and salt in a stone mortar and grind ingredients into a course paste. Add a little water as you grind to lubricate the process. Alternately, you can use a food processor, but the mortar method truly brings all the flavors together and well worth the investment in some elbow grease!
Set a nonstick skillet over medium low flame and add the coconut oil. When the oil is hot add the ground ingredients and fry until the oil is incorporated. Begin adding the water while stirring continuously. Once all the water has been added and come to a boil, lower the flame and simmer for about an hour, stirring frequently, until the moisture has mostly evaporated and the mixture is the consistency of a thick paste. Stir in the salt until combined. Taste and add more salt as needed.
Remove from the heat and set aside on a cooling rack until the paste is room temperature. Transfer to a non-reactive bowl or jar, seal, and refrigerate or freeze, for later use.
Fried Chilli Paste: makes 3/4 cup
- ¼ cup coconut oil
- 1 cup diced shallots
- 1/3 cup minced garlic
- 2-4 birds eye chillies, finely chopped
- ½ teaspoon Terasi (Indonesian shrimp paste) or 1 teaspoon Asian shrimp paste
- ¼ teaspoon sea salt
Place a nonstick skillet over medium low flame and add the coconut oil. When the oil is hot add the shallots and garlic and saute until they are soft, about 6-8 minutes. Make a well in the center of the skillet and add the shrimp paste and chillies, pressing them against the surface of the pan to caramelize them. Then stir into the shallots and garlic and saute, while stirring, until the mixture is a golden color, about 5-8 minutes. Stir in the salt.
Remove from the heat and set aside on a cooling rack until the paste is room temperature. Transfer to a non reactive bowl, or jar, seal and refrigerate, or freeze, for later use.
Balinese Chicken in Banana Leaves makes 12 (3 per serving)
- 1 ¾ pounds boned and skinned chicken legs and thighs, minced (or breasts if you don’t feel like boning)
- 3 heaping tablespoons spice paste
- 3 heaping tablespoons fried chilli paste
- 1 1/4 cups fresh shredded coconut (or dried), lightly toasted
- ½ cup coconut milk
- 1 heaping tablespoon palm sugar (or light brown sugar)
- 1 tablespoon minced kaffir lime leaves
- 1 tablespoon fresh lime juice
- ¼ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
- 1 teaspoon sea salt
- 1/3 teaspoon freshly ground white pepper
Combine all the ingredients in a large non-reactive bowl and mix until well combined. Press the ingredients down with the back of a spoon, cover with cling film and marinate for up to 4 hours, refrigerated.
For filling and wrapping:
- marinated chicken
- 12 20cm/8 inch squares fresh banana leaves
- 12 fresh kaffir lime leaves
- skewers or toothpicks
Cut the banana leaf squares. If the rib of the leaves are quite thick shave off the top of the ribs using a serrated paring knife. This will make the leaves more flexible.
Have the bowl of marinated chicken on your work surface.
Place a banana leaf square on the work surface, ribbed side up running horizontally to you. Place a kaffir lime leaf in the center. Place 3 heaping tablespoons of the marinated chicken following the rib down the center of the square, leaving space at each end of the square. Begin rolling the edge of square nearest you over the filling, tucking the edge under the filling, and continue to roll the square to the far edge, much like you would do when rolling a taco or burrito. Flip the roll so that the seam is under the filling. Lightly flatten the roll and stick toothpicks or skewers across each end to seal tightly. Continue the same procedure until all the banana leaves are filled and sealed.
At this point you are ready to grill or steam. The filled leaves can also be covered and refrigerated for cooking later.
Preheat the grill or set up your steamer. A bamboo steamer is my preference. Steaming delivers a moist and tender filling.
Place the filled leaves on a moderately hot part of the grill or in the steamer over simmering water. Grill or steam for about 7 to 10 minutes or until the filling is just firm to the touch.
Serve promptly and let your guests savor the aroma as they open the leaves at the table.