Ikan bilis, the magical little dried fishes of my dreams. Ikan bilis is one of the best things about eating in Malaysia. The Malays add ikan bilis to nearly everything here, adding salt, crunch and some fine briney umami to the dish. At lunch on weekdays, the local row of hawker stalls has a buffet, which is known locally as nasi campur, meaning mixed rice. The name derives from the style of eating. You get a pile of rice and then add to it whatever you want from the buffet. You are charged by the item. Some days I’m feeling rendang, some days curry, and on other days just some mixed vegetables and an egg. Today, I had three different dishes featuring ikan bilis, which is almost too much. But not quite.
The ikan bilis is an anchovy, a small one that is typically found off the coast of Southeast Asia. The little fish are harvested, then dried and salted. If you visit a grocery store in Malaysia, you will see large bins full of different types of ikan bilis, priced by grade, size of fish and possibly even type of anchovy.
These fish are mixed with sambal, the spicy chili sauce that is the standard condiment in this part of Asia (roughly Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and Brunei). In my lunch above, this sambal-ikan bilis mixture is used with fresh peas, with fried tempeh and in a deep sambal sauce to pour over rice. Yum.
These same anchovies are used in Vietnam to make nuoc mam, that most outstanding of fish sauces. These fermenters are in Mui Ne, one of the absolute top spots in Vietnam for fish sauce. The fish sauce there was another planet of awesome from the large-scale industrial stuff you buy back home.
All told, ikan bilis is just something that makes everything it is added to better. It is commonplace to mix seafood with meat in Southeast Asia. This is especially true in Malaysia where the food is all mixed up anyway, blending multiple cultures in a single bowl and where every hawker stall has its own take on classic dishes. A vastly underused item back home, I’m sure I will crave ikan bilis when I leave here.