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The Wonderful World of Fish in Thai Cuisine

Thai cuisine abounds in delicious dishes involving fish, both fresh and saltwater varieties, but Thai fish names may make the visitor wary of eating these savoury dishes. Fish are important enough in Thai food that the Thai 'Rosetta Stone', a carved stella from the Sukhothai era which is reputedly the first example of the written Thai language, mentions that there is "rice in the fields and fish in the waters" and goes on refer to the happiness of the people. Who wouldn't be happy with a plate of fragrant 'jasmine' rice for a meal and the wonderful variety of fish dishes in Thai cuisine to enjoy with it?

The following are Thai fish names with a description and suggestions for what dishes you can enjoy that are commonly made in Thai restaurants.

  • Pla Chorn: This freshwater relative of a cat fish is usually called the 'serpent's head fish' or 'snake's head fish' in English.. It is a fierce looking fish with a particularly big mouth which full of sharp teeth. At the height of the rainy season you can see farmers fishing for relatively large examples of this fish in rice paddies with only 35 or 40 cm. of water in them. The white meat of this fish is nearly tasteless and ably takes on the flavour of the seasonings of the dish it is prepared in. It is best enjoyed in the dish called, pla chorn pae za, where it is steamed and then served on a fish-shaped hot pot over a charcoal brazier, covered with soup stock flavoured with lime juice and salted Chinese plums. Enjoy the fish with rice and put the soup in a small bowl to eat. The waiter will bring additional soup once that in the hot pot is consumed. It may be offered in the Thai spicy and sour soup called tum yam, and occasionally its meat is sun-dried and then deep fried, pla chorn daed diaw, which makes a very tasty snack with the tangy dipping sauce that accompanies it.
  • Pla Nin: This humble but appetizing fresh water fish is an African import, Tilapia nilotica by scientific name, which is profitably farmed throughout the country. It grows to a good size, and has dark, scaly skin. Its most common form in restaurants is pla nin tawd rad prig, where the whole fish is deep-fried until crisp on the outside and served covered with a slightly sweet sauce flavoured with mild chillies. Its meat is sometimes used in the pungent but tasty Thai curry called kaeng som, and occasionally you will find haw mok pla nin, a spicy but flavourful dish where the meat of the fish is mixed with condiments and coconut milk and steamed in a banana leaf container .
  • Pla Grai: This is a bony gray fish, up to 60 cm. in length and marked with ten black spots, with rather bland meat. Most often the meat is removed from the bones and turned into a very tasty dish called tawd mun pla grai, small patties of fish meat mixed with chillies and other condiments which are deep-fried until crisp and then dipped into a slightly sweet and spicy dipping sauce. It is a very tasty appetizer or snack.
  • Pla doog: This is simply the lowly cat fish, the Thai version of which are relatively small-bodied. Enjoy pla doog tawd phat prig, where pieces of the fish are deep-fried until crisp and then stir fried with a flavoursome chilli paste and other condiments. This is another fish which is found in the Thai curry called kaeng som. Another unique way to enjoy pla doog is the Thai hot and sour salad called yum pla doog foo. Steamed cat fish meat is flash fried until crisp and divided into separate threads, and then flavoured with the Thai yum condiments of lime juice and chillies.
  • Pla Nua On: This is small, freshwater fish which is pinkish in color and has soft, delicate meat, thus the last word in its name which means 'soft' in the Thai language. It is usually served deep-fried or steamed or in a tasty curry called pla nua on shoo sheee.
  • Pla Boo: These freshwater fish occasionally reach 30 cm. in length. They are nicest to eat served steamed, such as pla boo neung zee eaw, or pla boo steamed with soy sauce. Another form would be pla boo neung manao, or pla boo steamed with lime juice, which has a pleasingly piquant, sour sauce.
  • Pla Krapong Daeng: This is no other than that delicious ocean fish, the red snapper. Because of its size its meat is usually sold cut into fillets with the distinctive skin mottled with red still attached. You can enjoy this steamed in the Chinese style with soy sauce or lime juice, or deep-fried and covered with mild chillies, raad prig. Be adventuresome and try it deep-fried, tawd, and covered with the sauce that is the basis of Thai curries such as, raad khrueng kaeng phanaeng, or the tasty coconut milk phanaeng curry. This is a delicious fish and offered by sea food restaurants and many others.
  • Pla Krapong Khaw: This is the versatile sea bass. Its firm white meat can be cooked in virtually any of the ways listed here for preparing Thai fish.
  • Pla Jaramed: This is a prized Southeast Asian saltwater fish, identified on menus as the pomfret. The is fish shaped somewhat like a crescent moon, and is about 30-50 cm. in length, with no pelvic fins and is easily scaled. The skin of the 'black pomfret' is silvery gray in color and that of the 'white pomfret' is as described. Its meat is very tasty with a good, firm texture which makes particularly good for steaming, either with soy sauce or lime juice, or steamed and covered with a spicy chilli sauce, rad prig. It is also good ordered deep-fried and covered with a curry condiment sauce such as suggested for red snapper.
  • Pla Tu: Thais may refer to this fish as a tuna, but it is actually the humble mackerel. Pla tu are small, most only about 15 cm. long, and you can see this fish for sale, offered in lots of two or three on a plaited rattan try, in markets everywhere in Chiang Mai. One intrinsic Thai dish is nam prig pla tu, where the steamed meat of the fish is pounded in a mortar with a curry paste and hot chillies to make a chilli sauce. It can be enjoyed with rice or dipped up with small pieces of raw vegetables such as cucumber slices, partially cooked long beans, or petals of the banana flower. The fish is also eaten steamed or fried when Thais eat the chilli paste flavoured with fermented shrimp paste called nam prig kapee.
  • Pla In-Zee: This is not properly a Thai fish, although it does appear in the warm waters of the Indo-Pacific area. It is a large, saltwater mackerel and because of its size is most often sold or served cut into fillets. Its meat is used in Japan to make sashimi, or raw fish. You might also order it deep-fried, tawd, with a flavourful dipping sauce. The Thais like to spice up the bland meat with horseradish and soy sauce.
  • Pla Kurao: This is a largish saltwater fish with prominent fins and scales. Because of its size, 35 of more cm. in length, it is usually served or sold cut into fillets. It is most served in the well-known Thai dish pla kurao tawd, or deep-fried Kurao fish.
The list of fish here is by no means exhaustive, but includes most that are commonly featured in Thai restaurants. The suggested dishes also do not include all of the ways fish are cooked in Thai cuisine. Sea food restaurants will offer grilled fish, plain bar-b-cued or perhaps spiced with kaffir lime leaves. Northeasterners also enjoy the strong-smelling pickled fish called pla ra. However you might like to enjoy fish, make sure you sample this delicious aspect of Thai cuisine.

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