Monday, January 28, 2008

Sweet-Salty-Spicy Fish

It was fish night around these parts again and I decided to make something I haven't had in a long (very long) time. You've probably seen it called something like Deep fried Fish with Thai Basil and Chilies. That name tells you very little about the dish. Traditionally, a whole fish (like pompano) is deep fried then quickly turned in a sauce made from red curry paste, sugar, fish sauce and Thai sweet basil. The result is deliciously balanced...sweet, spicy and salty in every bite.

Thai sweet basil has a very distinctive taste. Some say it has an anise flavor. I encourage you to try it side by side with regular basil to see for yourself. BTW, you can use the flowers too!

I've adapted the recipe to cut down on the prep mess and to use what I could find at my local grocer. Here in Portland, despite being known for having access to some of the best seafood in the country, I can usually only find whole trout. I’m not crazy about that fish. Instead, I thought of using a fish fillet with skin, which basically leaves only salmon. Mom, who is a traditionalist, was a bit horrified when I told her I used salmon, but it turned out great.

Fish with Thai Basil and Chilies
  • 1 whole fish (cleaned) OR 1 pound fish fillet with skin, de-scaled (pompano, tilapia, red snapper, perch or even salmon will work)
  • ¼ cup Thai basil leaves, well dried
  • 2 to 3 Thai chilies split lengthwise, seeds and membranes removed (optional)
  • ½ to 1 tbs red (green okay too) curry paste (store-bought is fine, or see recipe below)
  • 2 tbs fish sauce (start with 1/2 tbs if using store-bought curry paste)
  • 2 tbs brown sugar
  • 3 tbs water
  • 3 kaffir lime leaves, julienned (optional)
When using fish fillets, pan searing works well. For this task, some people swear by non-stick. I always use cast iron. Whatever you use, it should be able to stand high heat.

Brush the fish with oil on both sides (vegetable or peanut is best). You could even spray the fish with cooking spray if you prefer. When your pan is nice and hot (I mean very hot), put the fish in it, skin side up. Don’t be tempted to rotate the fish. Just let it sear for about 2 or 3 minutes (longer may be necessary for thicker fillets). It needs to form a nice crust; otherwise it will stick to the pan. Flip the fillets and finish frying, skin side down, until done to your liking. We like our salmon a little pink in the center with crispy skin. Remove from the pan onto a plate, with the skin side up to keep it crispy. Keep warm.

Make the sauce (and heat the wok) while cooking the fish. In a small bowl, add the fish sauce, sugar and the water. Stir to dissolve the sugar. Set aside until ready to use.

Heat a wok over high heat until very hot. Add about 1 to 2 tbs oil (peanut or vegetable; no olive oil!) and push it up the sides of the wok. Add the dry basil leaves (be careful because they will spatter, no matter how dry they are). Let them fry, without stirring for about 30 seconds. When crispy, remove with a slotted spoon and drain on paper towels. Do the same with the chilies.

To the hot oil left in the wok, add the curry paste. Fry, stirring constantly, for about 30 seconds. Add the sauce mix. It should begin to caramelize immediately. Stir to dissolve the curry paste. Add 1 or 2 tbs more water if the mixture gets too thick too fast. Taste and adjust with more fish sauce if necessary. Lastly, add the fish and coat it with the sauce, carefully flipping once. Remove from heat and serve immediately garnished with the julienned kaffir lime leaves, fried basil leaves and chilies and a side of steamed jasmine rice.

Store-bought paste is fine, but I feel homemade paste gives the sauce a little more texture. You can also make it as spicy as you like, and it won’t contain all the salt found in the store-bought stuff. It may seem like a bit of work, but you’ll have enough to freeze for future use.

Red Curry Paste
  • 10 fresh or dried Thai red chilies, seeded and roughly chopped
  • 3 (or more) whole red chilies, chopped
  • 2 stalks lemon grass, whites only, finely chopped
  • 1 tbs finely chopped galangal
  • 6 or 7 finely chopped kaffir lime leaves
  • 6 cloves garlic, crushed
  • 4 Asian shallots (or 2 tbs regular shallots), finely chopped
  • 4 or 5 coriander roots, chopped (if you can’t find roots, use a bunch of stems)
  • 2 tsp fermented shrimp paste (also called kapi shrimp paste)
  • 1 tsp ground coriander
  • vegetable or peanut oil as needed
The easiest way to do this is to throw everything into a food processor. With the processor on, add a little oil to help the processing. Stop to scrap down the sides. Try to get the herbs as fine as possible, but don’t expect it to look like the store-bought stuff. And don’t expect it to be red. It will probably be greenish-brown with flecks of red. Freeze in batches of 1 or 2 tbs.


Manggy said...

Ooh, that sounds spicy (and therefore good)! Pompano and tilapia are two of my most favorite fishes.. (I'm a bit iffy about the salmon too-- your mom and I have the same vibes, haha!)

tigerfish said...

Yum yum, I will be attacking the fried crisp skin of the fish. Woops!

dp said...

tigerfish, I love fish skin as well! I know it may sound a little unappetizing to some, but one of my favorite salads is a fish skin salad I always order at my local Japanese restaurant. I think I'll need to try to replicate that soon!