Do you like to eat fish? I love to eat all types of fish, but my husband isn’t a big fan, even though it’s good for him. But I understand. I’ve been told since I was six years old that liver is good for me, and I still don’t like eating it, except foie-gras!
So when he eats out and has a steak, which is his favorite but it’s not good for his health, I have to come up with some fish menu to counter the artery-clogging effect of the beef.
I have many favorite ways of eating fish: sushi, fish tartare, anchovy-style, smoked, and many other raw fish or pickle fish preparations. I have to admit that I actually don’t like cooked fish as much as raw, except the cooked fish in Thai cuisine.
Thailand is so abundant with fish: salt water, fresh water even brackish water fish. Fish are in the rice fields, in the sewage, in the canals, rivers, ponds, almost everywhere that has water. Thai people have a saying about the abundance in the region, which is “There’s always fish in the water and rice in the field.” (ในน้ำมีปลาในนามีข้าว)
Thai people have many different ways of cooking fish: fried, steamed, grilled, stewed, in curry sauce, fish cake, fish mousse, fried then stir-fried, steamed then deep fried, etc. It’s so easy to think of a way to cook fish in Thai cooking that it might be more difficult to find a cooking method that the Thais haven’t already used to cook fish.
Well, to try to cook fish Thai-style for my husband is also a problem, because the Thais like to cook the WHOLE fish and my hubby doesn’t like any fish looking at him from a serving plate. It does take some getting used to. I’ve practiced since I was a kid. My dad used to tell me,“Eat the fish’s eyeballs before anyone else gets to them. It will make you very, very smart.” Thanks Dad! I’m now smart enough NOT to pick the eyeballs out and chew on those unbreakable little beads.
So the fish has to be cleaned and decapitated, but I still want the skin on so he can get the OMEGA 3 from the fish oil, which is mostly in the fat layer underneath the skin. I ended up picking a frozen, wild caught, sockeye salmon from Trader Joe’s for this mission. The mission had a dual purpose, as I also have a friend who wants me to suggest ingredients from a “regular” market (not my exotic Asian favorites). I’m trying my best here.
This recipe is also one that is very simple, for those of you clamoring for something less complicated. It can also be prepared for a vegan, by substituting the fish with tofu and substituting the fish sauce with soy sauce.
Ingredients (for 2)
Fish of your choice, 2 pieces, or one whole fish of approximately 1 lb. (A block of tofu for a vegan or vegetarian)
A head of garlic or chopped fresh garlic, about 2 tablespoons or, if you are crazy for garlic like me, 1/4 cup
Fish sauce 1/4 cup + 2 tablespoons (soy sauce for vegan)
3 Limes (DO NOT USE THAT LIME JUICE IN THE GREEN PLASTIC BOTTLE…YUCK! FYI, that’s not pure lime juice.) You should squeeze the juice fresh, about 1/4 cup + 2 tablespoons
Brown sugar 2 teaspoons
Cilantro, chopped, about 1/2 cup (or as little or as much as you want)
Ginger, minced 2 tablespoons (If you are using whole fish, just slice it)
(Optional) Fresh bird’s-eye chilies, as much as you can handle
(Optional) Lemongrass, minced 2 tablespoons (also use whole stalk if you cook a whole fish)
(Optional) Kaffir lime leaves 2 leaves, minced
(Optional) Oil for frying
1) Squeeze juice from all three limes. This is something I never mention before: the “Thai way” of cutting a lime. You might be surprised. We don’t normally use a juicer to juice the lime. We don’t cut a lime into 2 pieces in the middle and juice it, because it’s harder to squeeze lime that way. Limes in general are hard to squeeze because of the small size, thick skin and dense flesh, and also they have that middle part that makes juicing the lime halves quite unpleasant.
Serious Thai cooks will gauge another cook by watching him cut the lime and juice it. If you cut them in half, oh oh…I hope you are not applying for a cook position, because you won’t get it ;)
How to do it, then?
First, cut it ALONG SIDE the core but slightly off-center. (Basically, slice around the stem end of the lime.)
Then the second cut is lengthwise, but still avoiding the center and slicing to the side.
The third cut is to get rid off the center.
Last, completely cut just the core or the center off the little sliver of the last piece.
Here we go. Now, you are ready to squeeze the juice. Try it and let me know if it is easier to juice the lime this way. Most, or I can even say ALL, Thai cooks would cut limes this way automatically. I’m so used to it sometimes I don’t even think about it, until I cook with a non-Thai and I’m surprised when they don’t cut limes the way I do.
2) Rub the fish with the mixture of minced ginger, lemongrass and kaffir lime leaves. I used a mortar to mush all of them together.
These herbs will help eliminate the “fishy smell”.
Rub them on the skin side too. (It won’t penetrate through the skin to the flesh but it flavors the skin, as you will discover later.)
But, if you are using a WHOLE FISH, just slice the ginger root, bruise the lemongrass, and tear the kaffir lime leaves and stuff all of them inside the fish, slicing the fish open first along the bottom if it wasn’t already done when the fish was cleaned.
3) Mix the dressing, using the garlic, lime juice, fish sauce, and brown sugar. Then, right before pouring it over the fish, add the chopped cilantro.
4) This is the recipe I adapted from the original Thai recipe where you steam the whole fish first and then pour the dressing over.
I doubted my husband would be okay with steamed salmon. It has too strong of a fish smell when cooked. So I decided to pan fry it. Remember why I want to make him eat fish, right? And my husband doesn’t eat fish skin, either. So the way I can get the fish oil past his nose is to fry the pieces with the skin-side down and let the heat do the work. While the piece of fish fries, the layer of oil underneath the skin will melt and penetrate through the flesh, making the fish moist and full of Omega 3.
And how do I get rid of the skin? I just use a regular pan to fry the fish, not non-stick. The skin will stick to the bottom of the pan and the piece of fish will easily lift off the pan, leaving the skin. How’s that?
Okay, first things first, put oil in the pan, about one to two tablespoons for this size piece, wait until the oil gets hot and put the fish in the pan, skin side up with herb marinade and all.
Cook at medium heat about one minute, then flip the skin side down.
Once the skin is down on the pan, you can add a little more oil or tilt the pan so the oil touches the skin. This side you cook a little while longer than the other side. I approximate about 3-4 minutes, until the skin is crispy. You can easily separate the skin from the flesh by using a spatula (preferably a very thin one) and lifting the piece of the fish off. The skin will already be adhering to the pan so just lift whatever you can, and this is the result. The skin was left behind firmly attached to the pan, and the flesh that is now full of fish oil is going to go inside my hubby.
For the vegan or vegetarian, you just steam the block of tofu or pan fry it and pour the dressing over. It’s delicious too.
5) Put it on the plate. You can cook vegetables and put them as a bed like I do, or just serve with white rice without vegetables. Pour the dressing over the fish.
6) I LOVE the skin, so I cook mine differently. I use a non-stick pan to cook my piece of fish.
I repeat the same process from #4 on a different pan.
While I was waiting for my piece to be cooked, I just lifted the crispy skin off the other pan and snacked on it. It’s delicious!
7) I put my piece of salmon on a plate and my dressing is different than his too, because I’m crazy for garlic but I don’t eat chili. This is mine.
My husband, the fish-hater, reassured me that this way the darn cooked fish is “edible”!