Ikan Woku (Fish dish from North Sulawesi)

I am thinking of changing the page title from “Recipes” to “Recipes for the Less Fortunate”. Meaning that the recipes included are specialized for people who are not fortunate enough to have the full access to (good) ingredients.

Most of the time I cook dishes with “discounted” ingredients, yet I think they’re okay. If I wait until I have my hands on every single spice mentioned on the recipe, then my husband and daughter will be super skinny people by now. Please note that I am talking about non-baking dishes. In baking I follow the recipe to the letter. Otherwise, why would I want to stay up late doing research on flours?

Being Asians living in a non-Asian community, my friends and I are often asked to show how to cook certain Asian recipes. Some of the common questions from the participants are;

“What is the best brand of soy sauce to use?”

“I did this dish before, but I put this ingredient first not that one. So I was wrong all along, mine is not the authentic recipe.”

“I read a recipe for this dish before, but it’s different. Which one is the authentic one?”

Or sometimes I hear comments like,

“Have you tried her Vietnamese spring rolls? I don’t think they’re good. They’re different from what I had when I went on vacation to Ho Chi Minh.”

“The lemon Madeleine recipe was not good. My husband did not like them, he said they’re different from the ones his Mom used to make.”

If you read my post on Luanda, you’ll see a part where my Scottish friend got psyched because she found Heinz Baked Beans. Did she think that they’re the best baked beans in the world? Probably not, but it’s the taste of baked beans she’s used to. It’s just like the case of soy bean sauce. I know which one is my favorite, because that’s what I was growing up with. To my taste buds, it’s what’s right. The same with the Madeleine. Being French, my friend’s husband grew up with “normal” Madeleine. It’s not that the recipe was not good, but to him it’s not the taste of childhood.

When it comes to food authenticity, I can totally understand if you walk out from a restaurant claiming Asian Authentic Cuisine yet using ginger powder. But if you’re a home cook like me, so what if you use ginger powder? Unless you’re trying to re-create (or craving for) a certain taste or you’re planning to open a certain authentic restaurant, don’t fuss too much about ingredients. Home cooking is about having fun in the kitchen, experimenting with ingredients and satisfying the taste buds of our non-paying customers.

The other day I was craving for a certain taste of Manadonese. Manado is a part of North Celebes (Sulawesi) that is famous for their fish dishes that are spicy yet light. In particular I was craving for Ikan Woku. When I looked up the recipe, it required pandan leaves (I used to have the plant, but it did not make it, this year’s winter), fresh lemon grass (mine are not ready to harvest) and Thai basil (that died already about 2 years ago).

I knew that I could skip pandan leaves, lemon grass is a MUST though and I had the dried ones I bought in Amsterdam last spring and as for Thai basil, as it’s needed for sprinkling on top of the cooked dish, I thought I could leave without. So I took out my wok, started cooking and before long the house was filled this great aroma of lemon grass. I cooked two good size fish (cut each into 3) and they fed our family of three.

Was it an authentic Ikan Woku? No.

Was it good? Absolutely.


  • 2 Dorado fish
  • 5 Kaffir lime leaves (thinly sliced)
  • 2 Lemon grass sticks (smashed at the root)
  • 2 Spring onion (or also known as green onion) stalks, sliced
  • 2 tbs of cooking oil (any kind will do)
  • 250 mL water
  • Salt to taste

Ingredients (blended, using blender or food processor, or mortar & pestle)

  • 5 Red chilies
  • 3 Chili padi
  • 2 tsp of chopped turmeric
  • 2 tsp of chopped ginger
  • 3 tomatoes
  • 10 candle nuts
  • 1 tbs chopped lemon grass
  • 1 tsp salt
  • Clean the fish, each cut into 3 pieces
  • Sauté with cooking oil all the blended ingredients, lemon grass and lime leaves, until it’s fragrant
  • Put water, wait till boiling
  • Turn down the heat and put the fish in
  • Put in the sliced spring onions
  • Cook until water is reduced to 1/3
  • Check for taste (add salt if preferred)
  • Turn off the stove

Notes & Alterations:

  • You can use any kinds of fish with solid meat (sea fish). If you cannot stand fish heads, don’t use them. If you want to use fish fillet, it’s also ok.
  • If you want to have less spicy dish just put only 3 red chilies, omit the padi chili and add 1 big red paprika (bell pepper)
  • You can use turmeric powder but highly recommend that you use fresh ginger as it brings out really good aroma (but it’s not a sin to use powder one).
  • Candlenuts will produce an oily sauce to the dish, but if you cannot find them, you can omit them.
  • Unfortunately you cannot change lime leaves with dried ones, as the dried ones have no smell. If you want to venture more to the land of Asian cuisine, having a stock of frozen Kaffir lime leaves is highly recommended.

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