Food, food culture, food as culture and the cultures that grow our food

Pepesan sans pep, don’t let this ever end

May 11, 2005

The first time that I tasted Pepesan I couldn’t believe that something so delicious had come to me in the July of my years. Such a strange group of ingredients combined into something so perfectly perfumed that one often hears the first-time-eater utter the words, ‘Don’t let this ever end.’ It’s that good. Pepesan is a shredded coconut tamale filled with fatty smoked mackerel (that’s the good kind of fat), sour tamarind, aromatic ‘lime leaf’, sambal djeroek (lime leaf sambal) steamed in coconut cream. Before people like me got their hands on it this recipe was Indonesian.

Pepesan is spicy but folks used to a bit of pep in their food will have no trouble with it. Up here in the Polar Circle where quite a number of people (and I count some of them amongst my friends) cannot tolerate even an ounce of ‘pep’ I dilute the sambal djeroek with pomodori pelati (I am becoming my Gramma, substituting one culture’s ingredients with an another’s) and it works rather well, even for someone who loves their food really spicy like me. The list of ingredients may look impressive, but you could also just imagine that it’s handy to have these things in the pantry. At least that way you’ll increase your chances for dazzling your friends with Pepesan more often. Twice a year, whether you need it or not is what I always say.

For the recipe click ‘please read more’.


- tamarind paste 1 packet (a little goes a long way)
- dried *bamboo (or banana) leaves. 4-5 leaves per person = 40 leaves
- ‘lime leaves’ (4 per person plus 4)
- string
- 1 ltr coconut cream
- 500 g. shredded coconut (so what if you have leftovers, its handy to have)
- zest and juice of one lime and one orange
- sambal djeroek

- 1 smoked mackerel (per 2 people)
- 1 sweet potato (per 2 people)
- 1 red onion (per 2 people)

Soak the tamarind paste in warm water, breaking it apart with a fork and later straining out the seed pods and husks. You want to end up with a smooth marinade the consistency of tomato juice.

Soak the bamboo leaves in warm water allowing 4-5 leaves per serving.

Preheat oven to 200°c.

Filet and skin the smoked mackerel and remove as many of the little bones as you can between the filet halves. Place the filets into a shallow casserol with the tamarind marinade and some fresh lime leaves.

Boil the sweet potatoes, until cooked but firm (20 mins). Plunge into cold water and peel the skin off with your fingernails. Slice the potatoes into thin rounds. If you blow it and overcook the sweet potato, you can also make mash.

Fry the red onions, preserving the shape of the rings.

In a deep frying pan simmer the coconut cream with a teaspoon (or more!) of sambal djeroek, the zest of both orange and lime. When reduced by 1/3, add the grated coconut and continue to heat.

Assemble all of the ingredients together to make a work station for folding-up the pepesan in the bamboo leaves. Place one bamboo leaf ‘vertically’ on the worksurface and then place the other 3, overlapping eachother slightly, ‘horizontally’ on top of it.

Layer in this order: coconut mixture, mackerel filets (shake off the marinade), onion rings, sweet potato rounds, some lime leaves, a bit of sambal djeroek (optional), and more coconut mixture.

To close the tamale package: fold the 3 ‘horizontal’ leaves stem side first over the mackerel pile to form a package. Keep rolling until you think the ‘bottom’ is on the bottom. Fold in the other sides and hold (this part is a bit fiddly). Now fold the ‘vertical’ leaf over these sides to close the package tightly and tie it with a string. It will take one or two Pepesan to get handy at doing this, which is why its best to make a lot of it.

Place the packages in the oven on one of the higher shelves for 30-45 minutes. You can tell when they’re ready when the smell lures you into the kitchen. Store both cooked and uncooked packs up to 1 day in the fridge. You can heat them up in a steamer to reheat. Pepesan is handy dinner-party food, because you can make the lot a day before, and guests love the idea of opening a package - and encountering all of the surprising flavours.

This is a picture of a tamale that I took from Google Images because I was unsatisfied with my own photo of the pepesan (not sexy enough). It turns out there is a lack of sexy tamale/pepesan imagery. A market waiting to happen!

debra at 11:12 | | post to

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