Steamed Fish Parcels with Lemon Basil

Getting a bit of cabin fear in your splendid home isolation? Dreaming of exotic places while slumped on the couch? Why not toddle off to the scullery and give this wonderful spicy fish dish from Eleanor Ford’s book Fire Islands – Recipes from Indonesia (Murdoch Books) a go? This recipe is certain to carry you and yours away to the fabled achipelago!

Opening your own banana leaf parcel at the table to reveal a delicately fragranced fish fillet brings pleasing drama to a meal. If you can’t find banana leaves, use foil instead, but they are worth seeking out in Asian supermarkets for the subtle herbal taste they impart.

Serves 4


4 x 150 g (5½ oz) skinless white fish fillets
juice of ½ a lemon
2 tablespoons oil
200 ml (generous ¾ cup) coconut milk
30 g (1 oz) lemon basil or Thai basil
1 bird’s eye chilli, seeded and sliced

1 large tomato, sliced into 8 rounds

Bumbu spice paste

1 lemongrass stick
1 large red chilli, seeded
1 bird’s eye chilli (optional, for heat)
3 small red Asian shallots
3 garlic cloves
2 cm (¾ inch) galangal, skin scrubbed
1 cm (½ inch) ginger, peeled
1 cm (½ inch) turmeric, peeled, or ½ teaspoon dried turmeric banana leaves or foil, for wrapping 


In a bowl, toss the fish fillets with lemon juice, salt and pepper and leave to marinate out of the fridge whilst you prepare the bumbu.

Trim the lemongrass to the pale white and lilac part, bruise with the handle of a knife then finely slice. Roughly chop the remaining bumbu ingredients and blend everything to a paste in a food processor or high-speed blender. Adding a little water will help the blades bring everything together. Heat the oil in a small frying pan and cook the bumbu over a medium heat, stirring often, for about 10 minutes until the raw garlic taste has gone and the oil separates from the spices.

Add the coconut milk and bumbu to the fish, turning to coat the fillets well. 

Cut eight pieces of softened banana leaves, each large enough to wrap a fillet. Lay them out in double thickness. Lay a generous layer of lemon basil leaves on each and sit a fillet on top, making sure you include all the coconutty marinade. Scatter a little chilli over the top followed by two slices of tomato, then bury under another mound of lemon basil. Wrap the parcels well, securing with bamboo skewers or a ribbon of banana leaf. If you have time, leave to marinate in the fridge for up to 4 hours.

Preheat the oven to 180°C (350°F).

Space out the parcels on a baking sheet. Bake for 20 minutes and leave to rest for 5 minutes before opening the parcels at the table. 


We tried spiced fish parcels in Java that my husband loved so much he would have them as the lead recipe. The 4 fish fillets are coated in a bumbu spice paste made from the following: 4 large red chillies (seeded), 2 lime leaves, 3 candlenuts or 6 blanched almonds, 3 garlic cloves, 1 lemongrass stick, 2 cm (¾ inch) kencur, 1 cm (½ inch) turmeric, 1 teaspoon coriander seeds, 1 tablespoon tamarind paste, 1 teaspoon salt, ½ teaspoon sugar, 1 egg and 1 tablespoon oil. Wrap in parcels and cook as above.

Images and Text from Fire Islands by Eleanor Ford,Photography by Kristin Perers. Murdoch Books RRP $49.99