Fish with Thai flair

The delicious, strikingly beautiful dish is fortunately easy to make at home.

Fish with Thai flair 521 (photo credit: Yakir Levy)
Fish with Thai flair 521
(photo credit: Yakir Levy)
The Thai talent for preparing fish was on display at the tasting party that we attended in celebration of Thai Restaurant Week.
At Saladang Song restaurant in Pasadena, California, where the luncheon took place, the chefs prepared grilled salmon with spicy-sweet sauce and steamed broccoli. The delicious, strikingly beautiful dish is fortunately easy to make at home. Its sauce is basically a sweet-and-sour sauce flavored with wine, sugar, garlic, sweet peppers and hot chilies. (See recipe below.)
In addition to the popular methods of grilling, steaming and deep-frying, cooks in Thailand prepare fish in several other ways. “Thais know what to do with fish,” wrote our friend Nancie McDermott in Quick and Easy Thai: “They... sauté it with red curry paste, holy basil and clusters of fresh green peppercorns. They simmer it with lemongrass, lime juice and chilies... and they fry it and then curry it... They dry it, pickle it, salt-cure it and distill it down to fish sauce, which seasons every single Thai dish save the sweetest sweets.”
Another sensational fish dish was presented by Lum-Ka-Naad restaurant of Northridge, California, which specializes in northern and southern Thai regional cuisines. The fish was cooked by a technique that turned out to be a combination of grilling and steaming. Alex Sonbalee, the owner of the restaurant, told us that the fish fillet is marinated with curry paste flavored with fresh turmeric root. Next it is wrapped in a banana leaf and grilled, so that it steams inside the leaf. The aromatic, tasty fish was served in the leaf and garnished with cilantro leaves and fresh red chilies cut in flower shapes.
Since the years we lived in Paris we have associated fish mousse with French cuisine, but Thai chefs prepare them too. Instead of using crème fraiche to enrich their fish mousse as French cooks do, the Thais use coconut cream. The mousse we sampled was made of salmon, flavored with red curry paste, basil and sweet red peppers. To cook the mousse, the chefs shaped the fish mixture in balls and steamed them in a pan with little cups that resemble an egg poacher. They topped each serving with a small dollop of thick coconut cream and garnished it with shredded kaffir lime leaves and a piece of sweet red pepper.
When Thai cooks serve fish, whether it is grilled, steamed or fried, they often accompany it by a dipping sauce. To go with deep-fried fish patties, Su Mei-Yu, author of Cracking the Coconut: Classic Thai Home Cooking, makes a sweet-and-sour chili sauce flavored with garlic, sugar and tamarind juice and finished with roasted peanuts.
Eggplant sauce is Su Mei-Yu’s choice for serving with grilled tuna. It’s made of grilled whole eggplants and hot peppers that are peeled and pounded with roasted garlic, roasted shallots and sea salt and seasoned with fish sauce, tamarind juice and lime juice. To complete the meal, she recommends serving a boiled green leafy vegetable, raw green cabbage and cooked jasmine rice.
Fish might itself be a component of a dipping sauce. Several such fish relishes are featured on the menu of Lum-Ka-Naad. To make these relishes, cooks combine dried, fermented or smoked fish with fresh or dried chilies and season them with lime juice or with garlic and shallots. The fish dipping sauces are served with steamed vegetables and steamed fish.
It is well known that the Thai love hot peppers. Yet until fairly recently, historically speaking, when the Portuguese brought chilies from the New World, cooks in Thailand did not have them, said Su Mei-Yu in a lecture we attended on the history of Thai cuisine. They used white pepper, along with garlic, cilantro roots and fish sauce, to flavor their food.
To offset the heat of the chilies, Thai cooks add a variety of other flavorings.
“You should taste a balance of salty-spicy-sour,” wrote Su Mei-Yu when describing how to season the eggplant sauce for the tuna.
“The Thai abhor repetition,” wrote David Thompson, author of Thai Food. “To them a well-composed meal... ideally consists of a relish, a soup, a curry and a salad – and perhaps a simple stir-fried, grilled or deep-fried item. And, of course, rice. A meal without rice is inconceivable... The balance of flavors and textures... is essential when designing a meal. Never is one flavor, taste or seasoning dominant – to the Thai this would be nonsensical.”
Faye Levy is the author of Feast from the Mideast and of the award-winning cookbook, Classic Cooking Techniques.
This recipe is from Quick and Easy Thai. Author Nancie McDermott wrote: “Thai’s often mash garlic, cilantro roots and whole peppercorns in a heavy mortar to make an aromatic seasoning paste. You can use a blender or small-capacity food processor, or simply mince the herbs finely with your big knife, mash them on your cutting board with the salt using the back of a large spoon, and then stir them in with the other seasonings. Use bone-in fish steaks if you like, allowing a bit more cooking time.”
You can substitute soy sauce for the fish sauce, and lemon juice for the lime juice.
Makes 4 to 6 servings.
Fish: ❖ 3 Tbsp. coarsely chopped garlic ❖ 3 Tbsp. coarsely chopped fresh cilantro (fresh coriander) roots, or stems and leaves ❖ 2 Tbsp. fish sauce ❖ 1 Tbsp. dark or regular soy sauce ❖ ½ tsp. sugar ❖ ½ tsp. salt ❖ ½ tsp. freshly ground pepper ❖ 2 Tbsp. vegetable oil ❖ 700 gr. (1½ pounds) meaty fish fillets, such as salmon, tuna, snapper, cod, halibut or tilapia
Sauce: ❖ ¼ cup fish sauce ❖ 3 Tbsp. freshly squeezed lime juice ❖ 2 Tbsp. sugar ❖ 1 tsp. finely chopped garlic ❖ 1 tsp. finely chopped fresh hot green chilies ❖ 1 tsp. finely chopped fresh cilantro (fresh coriander)
To prepare the fish: In the workbowl of a small food processor or a blender, combine the garlic, cilantro, fish sauce, soy sauce, sugar, salt, pepper and oil. Grind to a fairly smooth paste, stopping now and then to scrape down the sides and adding a little water as needed to bring the ingredients together. Scrape the cilantro-garlic paste into a medium bowl, add the fish fillets, and toss to coat everything well. Set aside for 20 to 30 minutes; longer is fine, covered and refrigerated, up to 1 day.
To make the sauce: Combine the fish sauce, lime juice, sugar and garlic in a small bowl. Stir well until the sugar dissolves, and then sprinkle with the chilies and cilantro. Set aside until serving time.
Prepare a very hot fire in a charcoal grill, or heat a gas grill or oven to 220ºC (425ºF). To cook the fish, place it on a lightly oiled grill rack or in a shallow baking pan in the oven.
Cook until handsomely browned and done to your liking, carefully turning once, about 5 minutes on each side, or longer for thicker fillets. Serve hot or warm, with the bowl of sauce on the side.
This recipe is from Cracking the Coconut. Author Su Mei-Yu serves it with deep-fried fish patties but it is good with fried, sautéed or grilled fish fillets as well. The sauce can be made ahead and will keep, refrigerated in a jar with a tight-fitting lid, for several days. Su Mei-Yu uses fresh Thai bird chilies, which are very small and slim, but you can use any hot peppers.
You can serve this spicy-sweet sauce with grilled salmon fillets and accompany them by lightly cooked broccoli florets, lettuce leaves and a garnish of slivers of red peppers. If you like, substitute dry white wine for the vinegar and at serving time add ¼ cup diced roasted sweet peppers and 1 tablespoon chopped green onion to the sauce instead of the cucumber slices and peanuts.
Makes about ¾ cup, enough for 6 to 8 servings
❖ 8 to 9 fresh bird chilies or 3 to 4 other small fresh hot peppers ❖ 2 tsp. sea salt ❖ 3¼ cups water ❖ 6 cloves garlic, minced ❖ 2 Tbsp. sugar ❖ 2 Tbsp. rice vinegar or cider vinegar ❖ 2 Tbsp. thick tamarind juice (see Note below) or 7 dried apricots, soaked in warm water until softened and pureed ❖ ½ tsp. cornstarch ❖ ¼ cup seeded and thinly sliced cucumber ❖ 6 sprigs cilantro (fresh coriander), coarsely chopped ❖ 1 tsp. coarsely ground unsalted peanuts, dry-roasted
Holding each chili by the stem, slice it lengthwise. In a small bowl, combine 1 teaspoon of the sea salt and 3 cups of the water. Add the sliced chilies and soak for 15 minutes. Float the chilies in the water to remove the seeds, then rinse and pat dry with paper towels. Holding each chili together, slice crosswise very thin.
Put the remaining 1 teaspoon sea salt and the garlic in a mortar. Pound until the garlic turns to a paste. Add the chilies and pound just enough to bruise them. Transfer to a small bowl and set aside.
In a small saucepan, combine the sugar, vinegar, tamarind juice, the remaining ¼ cup water and the cornstarch; mix well. Bring to a boil over high heat and continue to boil, stirring, until the sugar dissolves and the sauce thickens, 1 to 2 minutes.
Remove from the heat and let cool.
Just before serving, transfer the dipping sauce to a small bowl. Garnish with the cucumber, cilantro and crushed peanuts.
Note: To make tamarind juice, break off a chunk of tamarind, pour hot water over it, and let it sit for 15 to 20 minutes, until softened. When the water has cooled, massage the tamarind to release the pulp. Let it sit for another 15 minutes, for the juice to thicken. Place the softened tamarind pulp and the juice in a glass jar and refrigerate until needed; it will keep for a couple weeks.