Last November, Mr Kitchen and I were lucky enough to spend two weeks in Southeast Asia. Our trip was amazing–that part of the world is so incredibly vibrant and exciting. I fell in love with Bangkok in particular; what a fantastic food culture! Everywhere you walk, there are food stands selling everything under the sun–fresh cooked right in front of you. I wanted to eat everything!
One of the highlights of our trip was the Thai cooking course that everyone seems to take. We were lucky enough to book a great private lesson with Angsana Andersson, of ThaiHomeCooking.com. Angsana is native to Thailand, but married to an expat and has spent several years living in the States. This made her the perfect blend of real working knowledge of Thai food and culture, as well as a sensitivity to weird Western ways and questions. (Ex. Question: Where do all the turtles at this marketplace come from and do Thai people eat them? Answer: No! They are bought for luck and released into the wild.)
Angsana taught me so many priceless lessons:
1) How to pick fresh fish! Look for convex, clear eyes and smooth (not slimy) skin. The fish should smell fresh, like the ocean, rather than fishy.
You can also check under the gills to see the color of the flesh. If it’s dark red, it’s an old fish. If it’s bright red, it’s a fresh fish!
2) How the fish monger prepares your live fish for take home, if you so desire (by taking it by the tail and whacking its head against a pole or a counter)
3) What all those fun food stall snacks are (we’d been grazing with dedication, but only with Angsana’s language skills did we actually figure out what we’d been eating!). We also learned that most “street food” is not eaten on the street; it’s taken home! Like many other Asian cultures, it’s considered rude to eat in public. Oops.
And most importantly … I learned what good Thai food is supposed to taste like. Angsana tested everything we made and showed us the complexity of flavors we were missing and should be looking for. I finally understood what makes good Thai food: that beautiful, slow opening fan of sour, sweet, salty and heat. It’s food that really makes you think as you try to sense that perfect balance of flavors.
I wanted to share one of Angsana’s most accessible recipes–the one that we have recreated in our own home, dreaming of Bangkok. This is one of the most simple ways to prepare fish, but it has huge wow factor, and the taste is incredible.
If you are ever in Thailand, it’s definitely work booking a morning market run and cooking class with Angsana. The private lessons ensure all your questions get answered, and you get to eat all your delicious food afterwards!
Notes to self:
- If buying fish back home at Whole Foods, you are not allowed to handle any of the fish to see if it’s fresh! (Extremely disappointing!) Instead you have to rely on your eyes and then ask the lady behind the counter to check the gills for you. I found myself really missing Thailand when I discovered this.
- If you can’t find snapper, any firm white fish will do.
- Use a mortar and pestle (or a bowl and the end of a rolling pin) to do the crushing.
- Yes, you need fish sauce. Yes, you will use it again.
Pla Ga-Pong Neung Manao: Steamed Snapper with Lemon, Chili, and Garlic Sauce
Adapted, barely, from Angsana Andersson
1 whole snapper (or other firm white fish), gutted and scaled
3 big shallots, crushed
2 lemongrass stalks, crushed
7-9 red and green Thai chilies, chopped
3 tbsp garlic, chopped
2 1/2 tbsp sugar
3/4 tbsp lime juice
2 tbsp fish sauce
Sliced lime and cilantro for garnish
In a small bowl, mix chilies, garlic, lime juice, sugar and fish sauce together. Set aside.
Rinse fish. Rub both sides with a generous handful of salt. With a sharp knife, cut 3-4 vertical slits down each side of the fish, cutting firmly enough to reach the bone. Rinse fish again.
Arrange the fish in the steamer (note: ours was too big to fit, so we cut off the tail fins to get it in). Stuff the fish with lemongrass and shallots.
Steam fish for 20 minutes, or until flesh is cooked through (firm and opaque). Pour off any water around the fish, and transfer to a serving plate.
Pour the sauce over the fish and garnish with sliced lime and cilantro.