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Shrimp Paste Relish and Fried Mackerel

This mouthwatering dish, ubiquitous in Bangkok, will bring the essence of Central Thailand to your kitchen.

The preeminence of shrimp paste relish in Central Thailand, especially Bangkok, cannot be overstated. It’s in our soul; if you cut us open,

we may even bleed it. When paired with Thai short-bodied mackerel (pla thu), one of the types of fish most loved by Central Thais and Bangkokians, the duo forms a canonized set, an enduring classic that the whole city never tires of. You can find it anywhere in the city from the poshest restaurant to the most-humble street cart. I have yet to meet a born and bred Bangkokian who didn’t grow up on nam phrik kapi and pla thu.

When Bangkokians visit Thailand after having lived overseas for a few years, their friends and family often ask them, in jest, if they have forgotten shrimp paste relish and fried mackerel. How, of all the edibles, this particular dish is singled out to be used as a synecdoche representing the entirety of the food of Bangkok and Central Thailand is telling of how important it is.

Traditionally, Thai short-bodied mackerel are steamed first before being fried. Cooked this way, the fish have crisp exteriors and tender and cottony interiors—just where we want them. In Thailand, short- bodied mackerel are nearly always sold already steamed and arranged in small bamboo baskets. Short-bodied mackerel from Thailand—what I strongly recommend you use—are sold in the United States already steamed, too. You can find them in the freezer section of most well- stocked Asian stores specializing in Southeast Asian ingredients. You need to thaw the steamed fish and pat them dry before frying them.

This is excerpted from Bangkok: Recipes and Stories from the Heart of Thailand, by  Leela Punyaratabandh, reprinted with permission from Ten Speed Press.

Ingredients

Makes 4 servings
  • 3/4 C vegetable oil
  • 4 (5–6 oz) Thai short-bodied mackerel steamed until cooked through and patted dry
  • + shrimp paste relish
  • + cha-om cakes
  • + cucumber, to serve
  • + raw and blanched long beans, to serve
  • + raw and blanched wing beans, to serve
  • + raw Thai round eggplants, to serve
  • + rice, to serve

Shrimp Paste Relish

  • 4 large cloves garlic
  • 5–6 bird's eye chiles
  • 1 T packed Thai shrimp paste
  • 1–3 t packed grated palm sugar or 1–2 t packed light brown sugar
  • 2 t fish sauce
  • 1/4 C fresh lime juice
  • 4–5 pea eggplants, smashed with a pestle just until they split up (optional)
  • 2 t grated lime zest (optional)

Cha-Om Cakes

  • 6 oz fresh or thawed frozen cha-om leaves (from 12 oz cha-om stalks if using fresh leaves)
  • 6 eggs
  • 1/2 t salt
  • 2 T vegetable oil

Preparation

Make the Shrimp Paste Relish

Shrimp Paste Relish
  • 4 large cloves garlic
  • 5–6 bird's eye chiles
  • 1 T packed Thai shrimp paste
  • 1–3 t packed grated palm sugar or 1–2 t packed light brown sugar
  • 2 t fish sauce
  • 1/4 C fresh lime juice
  • 4–5 pea eggplants, smashed with a pestle just until they split up (optional)
  • 2 t grated lime zest (optional)
  1. In a mortar, grind the garlic, chiles, and shrimp paste to a smooth paste.

  2. Add the sugar (you decide how much), fish sauce, lime juice, and pea eggplants and mix well. Stir in the lime zest.

  3. Use immediately, or refrigerate in an airtight container for up to 1 week, then bring to room temperature before serving.

Make the Cha-Om Cakes

Cha-Om Cakes
  • 6 oz fresh or thawed frozen cha-om leaves (from 12 oz cha-om stalks if using fresh leaves)
  • 6 eggs
  • 1/2 t salt
  • 2 T vegetable oil

The cha-om stalks are dotted with sharp thorns, so you need to remove the leaves from the stalks with care. With one hand, pinch the tender shoot at the tip firmly between your thumb and index finger. With your other hand, pinch the stalk in the same manner directly below your first hand and then firmly slide the thumb and finger of your second hand down the length of the stalk, removing the leaves as you go. The thorns on the stalk point downward, so it is important to pull the leaves downward to avoid injury. Once the leaves have been removed from a stalk, snap off the tender shoot at the tip and use that, too. The stalks have no use, so discard them. Alternatively, you can buy vacuum-sealed frozen cha-om leaves, which come already prepared.

Nothing can mimic the unique scent and taste of cha-om. But if you absolutely can’t find it, I recommend samphire (also known as sea beans or sea asparagus) or asparagus, cut into very thin matchsticks. A combination of collard greens and arugula, cut into narrow ribbons, performs well, too.

  1. If using fresh cha-om leaves, rinse them well; if using either fresh or thawed, frozen leaves, squeeze them dry.

  2. Crack the eggs into a bowl and beat them with a fork until blended. Add the leaves and salt and mix well with a fork.

  3. Put 1 1/2 teaspoon of the vegetable oil in an 8-inch frying pan and set over medium heat. When the vegetable oil is hot, tilt the pan so the lard evenly coats the bottom, then pour in half of the egg mixture.

  4. Use a wide spatula to flatten and spread the mixture into a 6-inch cake of even thickness.

  5. When the bottom of the cake is firm and light brown, about 2 minutes, use the spatula to lift up the cake just high enough to allow to slip another 1 1/2 teaspoons of vegetable oil underneath it. Then, instead of lowering the cake back down, flip it and continue to cook, pressing on it constantly with a spatula until second side is firm, light brown, and no liquid oozes out when the cake is pressed, 2–3 minutes.

  6. Transfer to a plate.

  7. Repeat to make a second cake with the remaining egg mixture and 1 tablespoon of vegetable oil and add to the plate.

Fry the Mackerel and Assemble the Dish

Ingredients
  • 3/4 C vegetable oil
  • 4 (5–6 oz) Thai short-bodied mackerel steamed until cooked through and patted dry
  • + shrimp paste relish
  • + cha-om cakes
  • + cucumber, to serve
  • + raw and blanched long beans, to serve
  • + raw and blanched wing beans, to serve
  • + raw Thai round eggplants, to serve
  • + rice, to serve
  1. Put the oil in a 12-inch nonstick frying pan and set over medium-high heat. Meanwhile, line a plate with paper towels.

  2. When the oil is hot, carefully lower the mackerel into the pan and fry just until the skin is golden brown, about 5 minutes.

  3. Flip them once to fry the other side, about 5 minutes longer. Transfer to the towel-lined plate to drain briefly.

  4. Arrange the fish on a large serving platter. Place the relish bowl to one side. Cut the cha-om cakes and vegetables into bite-size pieces and arrange them around the fish, then serve with rice.