December 7, 2023
Special Features

ALIF KITCHEN SERIES: How to Choose the Perfect Ikan Bilis

You see Ikan Bilis sold everywhere but which one should you buy? Here are a few simple tips and guidelines for the Ikan Bilis novice out there. We are here to help you out!

” Great source of iron, protein and calcium “

Dried anchovies, or more known as ikan bilis, is a staple ingredient in Malaysian and Asian kitchens. Sold in wet markets and supermarkets all over the country, they come in various species and sizes. The first thing that greets you when purchasing ikan bilis is the pungent aroma of sea and fish – overwhelming for some, appetizing for most.

The best ikan bilis is usually found in Langkawi Island, Pangkor Island, Sabah and coastal areas of Kelantan and Terengganu. During hot season, it is a norm to see rows and rows of salted fish, dried squid and ikan bilis drying under the scorching sun.

Picture courtesy of taurusguls.89

Once known as poor man’s food, it has now become an expensive ingredient. High in iron and protein, it is great for all sorts of cooking – fried until crispy, cooked in a sauce or grinded into powder as a seasoning agent. Ikan bilis is of course a must for our beloved Nasi Lemak, also in fried rice, noodles, sambal and soups.

Ikan bilis is a must have condiment for Nasi Lemak

There are so many types of ikan bilis available in the market. But the general guidelines you need to look out for are:
1. It should be light in colour and the strip that runs along the fish should be light or white, not dark brown or black.
2. The odour should be of a nice aroma of fresh dried fish, not stale.
3. The whole anchovy should be intact, without missing bits of fins, tails or heads.
4. General appearance should look clean without foreign bits in the pile.

Which type of ikan bilis to buy? Well it depends on that you want to cook. The larger ones are great to withstand long cooking processes, the small tiny ones are great to incorporate in fried rice and fritters. But the most common ones are like these:

These are whole uncleaned ikan bilis. Restaurants usually buy these and clean it themselves because they are cheaper in price. And the size is suitable for all sorts of cooking.
This version is slightly higher in price because it is partially cleaned. The heads and guts are removed, but there are still bits of black on it.
This grade is more expensive because it has been thoroughly cleaned. Gutted, head removed and fish is split in half. It the most expensive out of the 3 because you are paying for workmanship. These are the best fried crispy, incorporated into dishes or served as a condiment.
These are one of the tiniest Ikan Bilis in the market. They are great to incorporate in vegetables dishes, fried crispy for fried rice and also for congee.

How to cook ikan bilis? If it is in a soup, it is added in the beginning so it has time to soften and let the flavours infuse. To deep fry, heat up oil and fry until slightly golden brown. Quickly remove it from hot oil because the residual heat will carry on cooking and brown the ikan bilis more. Let it cool down before storing in air tight jars, it should stay crunchy up to 2 – 3 weeks.

For sauces like sambal, there are 2 ways to do it. First is to soak the ikan bilis and add it into the sauce and cook until it softens slightly. Second, for crunchier texture, fried ikan bilis is added into the sauce at the very end. To make it into seasoning powder, sun dry the cleaned ikan bilis more under the hot sun to make it brittle. Grind it down into powder form to add into soups, sauces and even for porridge.

Whichever dish you decide to cook, there is an ikan bilis suitable for your dish. Happy cooking!

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