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Popular River Fish in Thai Cooking

Popular River Fish

'There is rice in the fields and fish in the waters' runs a stone-carved inscription dating back to the Sukhothai period of Thailand. Those waters include rivers, lakes, ponds, canals, klongs and the flooded rice paddies. So freshwater fish have long been an integral part of the Thai diet. Of course, Thailand also has an abundance of saltwater fish thanks to the long coastline of the southern provinces but we will restrict ourselves to the freshwater fish of northern Thailand in this description.

Visitors from Europe and the U.S. are probably more familiar with trout as a freshwater fish and, in recent years, these fish have been farmed and produced at one of the Royal Projects on Doi Inthanon. Trout are 'specialty' fish so the market tends to cater to the more prestigious hotels and restaurants in Chiangmai and Bangkok. However, although not so familiar to visitors, the freshwater fish commonly enjoyed by local Thai when they are cooking at home, or dining out, can be every bit as delicious. Also, because the flesh of river fish tends to taste more bland than their sea born cousins, it lends itself to the subtle combinations of herbs and spices so appreciated in Thai cuisine. The following lists some of the fish served in traditional Thai restaurants. By the way, 'Pla' is the Thai word for 'fish'; 'Nam Pla' (fish sauce) is the substitute for salt used in most Thai cooking.

Fish in Thai Cooking

Pla Chorn : Of the catfish family, it is prepared as a soup or in savory 'cups'. The soup Tohm Yaam Pla Chorn is lemony spicy and thick with chunks of fish meat, chopped tomato and baby white onions. The savory 'cups' Hor Mok Pla Chorn are actually small casings crafted from banana leaves. Fish meat and shredded cabbage is layered in the 'cup' and gently steamed.

Pla Nin : Originally from the River Nile, and was raised in several countries including Japan. The Crown Prince Aki Hito gave this fish as his gift to H.M. King Bhumibol on 25 March 1965. He raised the fish in the palace and gave the name as Nin or Nil which means valuable dark sapphire. The King later assigned the Fishery Department to reproduce well in Thai waters and became popular nowadays. The fish can be raised easily and gives good meat with high nutritional value. A one year old fish is about 30 cms in length and 500 grams in weight. After cleaning and gutting, the whole fish is deep fried Pla Nin Tawd to a light crispiness on the outside and succulent flesh within. After deep frying other dishes can be prepared : Pla Nin Shoo Shee crispy fish topped with curry sauce. It the sauce is rather thick sweet and sour, the whole dish is Pla Nin Saam Rot.

Pla Doog : Usually about 30 CMS in length, this catfish can be prepared in two different styles. In the first Yaam Pla Doog Foo the fish is steamed and the flesh is separated from the carcass. The meat is 'teased' into thread-thin strips which are flash-fried to a crunchy crispness. This 'nest' of golden crispiness is served on a bed of lettuce with a spicy sauce of lime juice, chilli and peanuts. The second method of cooking Pla Doog Tawd Paad Prig deep fried chunks of the meaty flesh which, when crisp, are combined with a platter of fried vegetables, chillies and herbs.

Pla Grai : Up to 60 CMS in length, this fish is uniquely marked with a line of 5 to 10 'eyes' along the underside. As the meat is of a very soft texture, it is usually ground/minced and mixed with flavor some herbs before being shaped into small patties. These fish cakes are deep-fried until cooked through and served with a sweet dipping sauce as a starter. The dish is called Tawd Mun Pla Grai.

Pla Boo : A smaller and excellent alternative to Pla Chorn, this fish is usually served whole. In the dish Pla Boo Neung Manow the fish is placed on a flat fish-kettle and gently poached, over charcoal or low heat, in a piquant broth of its own juices, limes and slivers of fresh ginger. Served on the fish-kettle and garnished perhaps with finely chopped spring onions and minced garlic, this dish makes a flavorful and aromatic centerpiece for any dining table.

Pla Yeesok : Average 30-60 CMS in length, beautiful gold scale rows between the long black rows. This fish has delicious meat with some bone and can be cooked in lemony spicy soup Tohm Yaam Pla Yeesok. It can be prepared for a Thai-styled salad, Laab Pla marinated minced fish meat with herbs, peppermint, chilli, and vegetable.

Pla Tapian : Usually about 20 CMS in length, tasty meat but plenty of skinny bones. This fish can be prepared in three different categories. First, the fish can be prepared as soup, 'Tohm' depending on the directions of taste. Tohm Kem Pla Tapian is a salty-sweet soup. Tohm Yaam Pla Tapian is a hot spicy sour soup. And Tohm Sohm Pla Tapian is a soup with mild tamarind and ginger. Second, Pla Tapian Tawd is a deep fried dish with garlic. Third, the fish is grill smoked Pla Tapian Yaang and cooked in different ways.

Pla Taypo and Pla Sawai : Both fish are in the same family with similar size and do not have scales. The former has black marks on left and right sides over each fin. The 2-3 kilogram fish can eat everything including manure of both animals and human beings. The meat is tasty but rather strong odor which can be eliminated by using garlic, spice, and herbs along with deep frying Pla Taypo (or Pla Swai) Tawd. A second choice could be Pla Taypo (or Pla Sawai) Raad Prig fried and topped with chilli sauce. A third choice is red curry fish Gaeng Ped Pla Taypo (or Pla Sawai). A last choice would be grill smoked Pla Taypo (or Pla Sawai) Yaang.

Pla Goad : Average 30 CMS in length without scales but nice skin and a big single dorsal fin. This fish can be cooked similarly to Pla Taypo or Pla Sawai, but it is better in term of less odor. Mild spicy and sour soup of vegetables with this fish Gaeng Sohm Pla Goad is quite popular up-country.

Pla Raed : This beautiful fish is up to 45 CMS in length. Long vertical fins get higher and higher to the single tail. Long maxillary barbel reaching the ventral fins. There are 9 oblique bands pointing downwards from back to abdomen. This fish can be steamed and an alternative to Pla Boo Pla Raed Neung Manow.

Pla Salid : This fish is only half size of Pla Raed but with long shape. Not much meat on this fish. Sun dried fish Pla Salid Daed Diew is deep fried and is popular served along with other dishes eaten with white rice soup.

Pla Tabtim : His Majesty the King granted the development project of the palace's Pla Nin to Charoen Pokkabhan Co., Ltd. since 1989. The goal was to gain more quantity of flesh, better nutritional value, easy to raise in only 4 months time that gives good profit. Throughout 10 years of crossed breeding, it became very successful and the fish looks beautiful with pink color and clean. The new name was granted by the king as Tabtim 'Pink Ruby'. Our 3 article series in January, February, March 2002 issues 111 Popular Thai Dishes, recommends at least 16 excellent dishes : .. Tawd Grathium Prig Thai, .. Raad Prig, .. Saam Rot, .. Paad Priew Waan, .. Shoob Paeng Tawd, .. Tawd Khamin, .. Daed Diew, .. Phao, .. Yaang Gluea, .. Neung Manow, .. Neung Buay/Neung Zee Ew, .. Pae Za, .. Tohm Sohm, .. Tohm Kloang, .. Gaeng Sohm, Gaeng Pa.

If you are a fish lover, you shouldn't hesitate to try some of these very Thai fish dishes. Don't be dismayed by fish which are not familiar to you or their strange sounding Thai names, but do enjoy some of the bounty and goodness from the rivers and lakes of northern Thailand.


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Last modified on:  October 27 2013