Tasty Tuesday – ปลาเผา
After featuring Western food for the last few weeks, I figured it high time we get back to some Thai food. Agreed?
This week, I want to introduce you to something I probably never would have ordered on my own here in Thailand (or anywhere else in the world, for that matter). You see, coming from Midwest America, I wasn’t exposed to very much seafood growing up. Sure, I knew what shrimp were, and I can remember one time my mom even made mustard-crusted halibut and seared scallops as a special treat. Outside of that, canned tuna, and perhaps 3 lifetime total trips to Red Lobster, though, we just didn’t have it around.
So, what was it like, then, coming to a nation where seafood seems to be a staple in everyday cuisine? Interesting. But, seeing as I am not one to turn down something that my host has offered, I will always try (just about) everything at least once. And, this particular meal is one thing I am glad I tried!
Plaa Phao, or ปลาเผา, is about as simple as you can get for Thai food. Aside from plain steamed rice, of course. All you need is a large, flat fish (tilapia or Thai sea bass are the favorite choice around here), lemongrass, lime leaves, and coarse salt – lots and lots of coarse salt.
Check it out –
The photo above comes from a birthday dinner we attended at a neighbor’s house last week. They are actually the ones who first introduced me to this delicious form of food. It seems to be a favorite in their family, so every time we’ve gotten together for a barbecue, I get excited knowing that we’ll probably be eating this along with whatever else they decide to make.
So, what is it?
As I mentioned above, the fish of choice is tilapia or sea bass, but you can also find snakehead fish prepared in this same way out in street markets. All you need to do is gut the fish, then stuff it with several stalks of lemongrass and a handful of lime leaves. Seal the fish back up, roll it in a generous amount of coarse salt, give it a few slashes of the knife, and roast it over some charcoal.
Now, I can already hear some of you questioning the saltiness of this dish, considering the amount of white you see being charred in the photo above. However, it really doesn’t affect the flavor of the fish at all. The thick salty crust actually serves a different purpose – as it is used only on the outside of the fish’s skin, it actually works to seal in moisture, keeping the flesh inside tender and flaky (seriously, you don’t really even need to chew it, it’s that tender), and it makes the skin peel off effortlessly when it comes time to eat.
Surprisingly, it’s not “fishy” tasting at all. Just light, flaky, tender, and good. (And this is coming from someone who, since being pregnant, thinks that the fishy flavor of shrimp of any variety is way too intense and absolutely repulsive – if that helps give you any sort of comparison.) When served, the fish is usually just placed on a large plate or suitable platter, with the skin on one side peeled or rolled upward from the tail end. All you need to do is flake off a piece with your fork and go for it. When one side is cleaned of meat, just grab the tail and lift upward toward the head to remove the spine, and continue eating what lies beneath.
So easy, so simple, and so delicious. This particular type of fish can be eaten plain, as-is, or with a number of different sauces. The most interesting, however, is the manner in which our hosts decided to eat it last week. They seemed to make a sort of wrap out of one ruffled lettuce leaf, a few leaves of fresh Thai basil and cilantro (coriander), a pinch of super-skinny cold rice noodles, a forkful of fish, and one spoon of a sweet-spicy-tangy-citrusy vinegar sauce. The whole thing then gets wrapped up in a ball and popped right in your mouth! It’s such a great combination of typical Thai tastes in one neat little package.
So, once again, if any of you ever happen to find yourself on this side of the globe – this is yet another meal I will take you to eat.