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How to Fry a Crispy Fish Thai-style

Kasma Loha-unchit, Sunday, December 15th, 2013

One of the favorite ways to prepare fish in Thailand is to fry it until it is thoroughly crispy – head, tail, fins and all – but not greasy. To get it this way, the fish is fried unskinned in plenty of hot oil for longer than what is normally recommended in western cooking, so that it is not just cooked through and still moist with juices inside the flesh, but until it is completely dried through. When no moisture remains, oil molecules do not have any place to attach themselves to on the dried-out surface of the fish; as a result, the crisped fish is not heavy, soggy and oily. Fish fried this way does not lose its crispiness soon after it comes out of the oil from juices inside being sweated out, but remains crunchy crispy even after it cools.

(Click images to see larger version.)

Frying Fish

Frying fish, waving

Of course, the kind of oil used for frying the fish is important. It should be one that can be heated to and kept at high temperatures without burning and breaking down, such as peanut oil or palm oil. The oil should be heated very hot before adding the fish, so that it sears the outside of the fish and does not penetrate it. This also reduces the likelihood of the fish sticking to the pan and yields cooked meat that is more fluffy rather than dense and compacted.

To help the fish cook and crisp faster, make a series of slanted (45°) cuts about one-and-a-half inches apart through the thickness of the flesh to the level of the center bone on both sides of the fish; or score with a diagonal criss-cross pattern.

Scoring Fish

Scoring fish

Resting Fishes

Scored and warming fish

Make the cuts with the knife blade positioned at a 45° angle to the surface of the fish; the flesh overlaps the cuts so that when it shrinks with frying the bone is not exposed, giving a better presentation.

Coating Fish

Coating fish with tapioca starch

In brief, to deep-fry a fish, fill a wok about half full with oil, or enough to submerge at least two-thirds of the length of the fish, and heat over high heat until it is smoking hot. While waiting for the oil to heat, coat the fish thoroughly inside out with a thin layer of flour, preferably tapioca flour or starch, which sticks better to the fish, does not get washed out in the oil and contributes a light, crispy texture when fried. Tapioca starch also dries up the surfaces of the fish, eliminating splattering from the interaction of liquid and hot oil. [Note: in Thailand tapioca starch is seldom used. It is recommended for use here because it helps to keep the frying fish from making a mess with splatters.]

Holding the fish by the tail, gently slide it into the oil, letting go along the side of the wok as close to its surface as possible so that the oil doesn’t splash up on your hand – letting go too soon is more likely to hurt you.

Sliding Fish

Sliding fish 1

Sliding Fish

Sliding fish 2

If your stove is not a very hot one, the fish can be fried from start to finish over high or medium-high heat. For a very hot stove, reduce and fry at medium heat to keep the surface of the fish from burning before it is cooked and dried through.

Fish in Oil

Fish in oil

Ladling Oil

Ladling oil over the fish

While frying, occasionally tilt the wok from side to side, so that the head and tail get submerged and crisped along with the mid-section of the fish. This is easy to do if the wok is well-balanced on a wok ring; it is even possible to leave the wok tilted on its own in one position for a minute or two before shifting to another position (see Kasma’s blog Adapting the Wok to your Stove). Oil may also be ladled continuously over the fish, which will cut down on the time needed to fry the second side when the fish is turned over.

Turning Fish

Turning the fish over

When the first side is well-browned, well-crisped and dried through, nudge the wok spatula under the fish from its top edge and gently roll it over on its belly, taking care not to break any fins. Fry the second side the same way until it is as brown and crispy as the first side. It takes a few minutes less time than the first side. For a one-and-a-half pound whole fish, the first side usually takes twelve minutes to crisp while the second side about eight minutes. For smaller or flatter fish, like pompano and white perch, less time is required.

Fried Fish

Two (other) fried fish draining

When the fish is thoroughly crisped, again nudge the wok spatula under it from its top edge. Tilt it up against the side of the wok above the oil for a few seconds to allow the oil to drain from the body cavity. Then lift it out onto a wire rack. Let drain and cool a few minutes before transferring to a serving platter.

Not all fish should be so thoroughly fried and crisped as described. Use soft- to medium-firm-flesh fish, no larger than two pounds and preferably varieties with thin fins and tails that crisp up nicely for crunching on. Delicious fried this way are snapper, rock cod, grouper, catfish, pompano, white perch, tongue sole and other small and flat fish. Because of their size, smelts, fresh anchovies and whole sand dabs can be fried completely immersed in oil. Firm, meaty fish with thick, dense flesh are not good fried so long and should only be lightly crisped to retain some juices – cut down on the frying time by one-third to one-half.

The wok is a very safe utensil to use for deep-frying, so if you are afraid to fry fish in such a large quantity of oil, read the my article Using Your Work. The deliciously crunchy results produced are worth the try.


If you’d like to see a slideshow of Kasma making Crispy Fried Whole Fish Topped with Chilli-Tamarind Sauce (Pla Rad Prik) from start to finish, check out Michael’s Blog on Kasma’s Intermediate Class #1. Or, come take Kasma’s Thai cooking classes.


Slideshow – Some Crispy Fried Fish Dishes

I would hate to estimate how many different fried fishes there are in Thailand. This slide show is limited to a dozen dishes that we’ve come across on trips. It should begin to hint at the variety of delicious dishes that are available.

Click on “Play” below to begin a slideshow.

Clicking on a slide will take you to the next image.

Fried Lemongrass Fish
Fried Snakehead Fish
Fried Fish 1
Fried Fish 2
Fried Fish 3
Fried Fish 4
Fried Fish 5
Turmeric Fried Fish 1
Turmeric Fried Fish 2
Fried Sour Fish
Fried Fish 6
Frying Fish

Fried Lemongrass Fish from a restaurant in Chiang Mai

Fried Snakehead Fish from Bai Fern Restaurant in Mae Hong Son

Another fried fish dish from Chiang Mai

Three Flavored Fried Fish from Pranburi

A fried fish dish in sauce from Sukhothai

Fried fish dish with a spicy sauce made with dried chillies

Fried fish dish buried in sauce at Comedara Restaurant in Chiang Mai

Turmeric Fried Catfish from Krabi

Turmeric Fried fish made with smaller sized fish

Fried Pla Som - sour fish -soured and fried in pieces

Smaller fish pieces fried with fish sauce from Ayuthaya

This red snapper in hot oil seems to be waving good bye

Fried Lemongrass Fish thumbnail
Fried Snakehead Fish thumbnail
Fried Fish 1 thumbnail
Fried Fish 2 thumbnail
Fried Fish 3 thumbnail
Fried Fish 4 thumbnail
Fried Fish 5 thumbnail
Turmeric Fried Fish 1 thumbnail
Turmeric Fried Fish 2 thumbnail
Fried Sour Fish thumbnail
Fried Fish 6 thumbnail
Frying Fish thumbnail

Note: A version of this blog originally appeared on pages 97 & 98 of Dancing Shrimp: Favorite Thai Recipes for Seafood, published in 2000 by Simon & Schuster. All text is Copyright © 2000 & 2013 Kasma Loha-unchit.

All photographs are Copyright © 2013 Michael Babcock or Kasma Loha-unchit


Written by Kasma Loha-unchit, 2000 & 2013

Kasma’s Intermediate Thai Cooking Class #1

Michael Babcock, Wednesday, May 1st, 2013

Note: These classes are no longer offered.

Kasma’s Intermediate Thai Cooking Class, a weekend series of 4 classes, continues on from where her 4-session Beginning Thai Cooking Series leaves off. Once she’s introduced students to the basics (including how to harmonize flavors to create Thai tastes), it’s time to learn more Thai cooking techniques, ingredients and recipes.

Explaining Recipes

Kasma going over recipes

I repeated the Beginning Thai Cooking Series in October of 2011 when Kasma was still teaching in the evenings and was surprised at how much new information I gleaned from repeating the class. I also remembered just how much fun the classes are. This April, I repeated Kasma’s Intermediate Thai Cooking Class. This is my blog on class #1.

(Click images to see larger version.)

As with the Beginning series, class starts with Kasma going over the recipes. Much less time is needed for this in the Intermediate Series because so many of the main ingredients were covered in the Beginning Series. In the Intermediate Class there are still new ingredients, which need to be covered more extensively, and there are new cooking techniques to be introduced as well. For instance, when introducing an ingredient such as mussels, Kasma talks about the various kinds available and which are the best ones to use for a particular recipe, such as this evening’s Spicy Mussel Salad

Mussels

Mussels for the salad

The classes are filled with tips that make recipes come out better. For instance, Many recipes for Chicken Coconut Soup (Tom Ka Gai) have you dump all the coconut milk in a pan and bring it to a boil; Kasma explains that when boiled, coconut milk has a tendency to curdle, so she begins the recipe using water or mild chicken broth and adds the coconut milk towards the end, right before she balances all the flavors.

Kasma imparted more inside knowledge when talking about the preparing the noodles for frying for the Mee Krob (Glazed Crispy Noodles). Rather than soaking the noodles, which would leave them soggy, she has the students rinse the noodles in cold tap water, drain in a colander and set aside for 30 to 60 minutes. This allows the noodles to absorb some water and soften while then allowing the surface to dry out so that you won’t get splattering when you put the noodles in the hot oil to fry. She explains that if you fry the noodles dry, they puff up more, which is undesirable in this recipe. As always, she shows the students the best brand available locally to use.

Frying Noodles

Frying noodles

The first intermediate class introduces two ingredients that are new to the students. Pickled garlic is used in the Crispy Fried Noodles and crispy fried shallots are used in the Spicy Mussel Salad. Kasma talks about what to look for when buying these ingredients, what brand of the fried shallots (often labelled “Fried Onions”) are best (see Kasma’s Favorite Brands) and how to make your own crispy shallots, should you be so inclined.

This class introduces methods for deep frying, both for the Mee Krob – Glazed Crispy Noodles – and for the Pla Rad Prik – Crispy Fried Whole Fish Topped with Chilli-Tamarind Sauce. I have long been an admirer of the way that Thais fry things: the fried foods in Thailand seldom taste greasy at all and their fried fish is always fried to a delightfully crispy and crunchy state that is both fun to eat and allows you to eat most of the fish. This class also has deep-fried noodles, also well-fried and not very greasy.

Making Noodles

Making Mee Krob

So I was somewhat startled to read in a cookbook by a famous Thai chef that “. . .Thais are not particularly good at deep-frying, opting to cook any piece of meat as much as possible – even fish.” He claims this comes from fear of worms from fresh-water fish. All the Thai people I know love crispy-fried fish: they cook it that way because they like it that way – they like the texture, it is non-greasy, it  tastes good and eats well.  I guess he’s never been to the North or the Northeast where they like to eat raw meat salads – odd behavior if they’re afraid of parasites.

Kasma fries her fish in her trusty 16-inch round-bottomed spun-steel wok: it’s the perfect piece of cookware for deep-frying. This is a great class for students who are afraid to fry – Kasma shows how to do it easily and safely.

Chopping

Students prepping ingredients

As with all classes, Kasma tells the students which local markets typically carry any specialty ingredients, such as fresh, whole fish (not readily available in most western supermarkets) or garlic chives (used in the Crispy Fried Noodles. She goes into which recipes can be prepared ahead of time and which parts of recipes can be done in advance to make the final assembly easier without losing and freshness or flavor.

In this class Kasma also goes over how to pick out a fresh, whole fish; it is something that many students have never done or even considered doing before. She gives 5 pointers (such as looking at the over-all luster of the fish and how the eyes and gills should appear) that will help even the novice choose a fresh fish. You can read Kasma’s article Selecting a Fresh Fish, excerpted from her Dancing Shrimp cookbook.

Mixing Ingredients

Mixing Ingredients

Making Sauce

Student making Mee Krob sauce

After the recipes are explained, the students divide up into groups: Kasma assigns a certain number of people for each recipe. Once the ingredients are prepped, all the students watch the members of the team do the cooking. When appropriate, as in frying a whole fish, Kasma starts the cooking process so that she can show how a particular technique is done: after that, the team members do the cooking. Kasma also oversees the final balancing process for the recipes: one of the great strengths of her classes is learning how the various ingredients interact to create a harmony of Thai flavors.

Of course, the best part of the evening is sitting down to eat a Thai feast at the end of class.

Eating Dinner

Eating dinner, the best part of class!

After dinner, everyone helps clean up before going home.


Menu – Intermediate Thai Cooking Class Series #1

Mee Krob (Glazed Crispy Noodles)

Noodles

Mee Krob Noodles

This is a noodle dish that is almost always too sweet at the local Thai restaurants. Kasma’s version is crispy, not greasy at all (despite the deep-fried noodles) and flavorful, with just a hint of sweetness. It could almost be called a fried salad, served as it is with bean sprouts and garlic chives. It’s a dish that must be eaten within an hour of cooking, otherwise it will turn somewhat soggy and uninteresting.

Chicken Coconut Soup with Galanga (Tom Ka Gai)

Soup

Chicken Coconut Soup

This is one of two soups that is found at virtually every Thai restaurant outside of Thailand. (The other is Hot & Sour Prawn Soup – Tom Yum Goong.) This, also, is a dish that I’ve been disappointed in when ordering out in the U.S. – too sweet, too rich: Kasma’s version is somewhat lighter with a bit of sour flavor. I once read a Westerner who claimed that this soup was just “Tom Yum Soup with Coconut.” This is absolutely not true. The main herbal flavor in a Tom Ka soup is galanga, with lemon grass in the supporting capacity: with Tom Yum soups, it’s just the opposite – the galanga supports the lemongrass.

You can try out Kasma’s variation on this recipe: Coconut Seafood Soup with Galanga (Tom Ka Talay)

Crispy Fried Whole Fish Topped with Chilli-Tamarind Sauce (Pla Rad Prik)

Fried Fish

Crispy Fried Whole Fish

(See slideshow below.)

This is a recipe that is very common in Thailand: on Kasma’s trips we’ll usually eat it at least a couple of times. I was so excited the first time I made this dish by myself (after I first took the Intermediate Series in 1992) – it looked just like the dishes in Thailand! However, in Thailand I often find it too sweet for my taste: in Kasma’s version the sauce is equally sour and salty with the sweetness (from palm sugar) in the background.

The best parts to eat of the fish are the crispy-crunchy parts. My personal favorite is the head: it’s full of interesting crunchy bits interspersed with softer textures. Before I met Kasma I would never have eaten a fish head: now I usually join this class at meal time because often no one in class knows how to eat the head – I like to help out.

Fish and seafood are an integral and important part of the Thai diet. See Kasma’s article The Thai Fish-Eating Tradition.

Spicy Mussel Salad with Aromatic Herbs and Crisped Shallots and Garlic (Yum Hoi Malaeng Poo)

Mussel Salad

Spicy Mussel Salad

Yum salads are a group of salads that are found all over Thailand and found all too seldom here in the U.S. They are sour and spicy-hot with some saltiness and sweetness: the level of sweetness will vary from one salad to the next, depending on the main ingredient, so it’s not really possible to give a generic yum dressing/sauce (although many cookbook authors do). Kasma’s dressing for this salad is interesting in that it uses three different ingredients for sour flavors – white vinegar, lime juice and tamarind juice: each provides a different layer of flavor. Sugar is used here to balance the flavors and to intensify the sourness: Kasma shows you how to do this without adding too much sweetness. (Check out Kasma’s Exercise in Balancing Flavors.)

Salad Ingredients

Mixing Mussel Salad

This dish is also an opportunity for Kasma to discuss the use of chillies in recipes. At the time of the year of this class (April), many of the chillies we get here in the San Francisco Bay Area come from South or Central America; because of the climate, they tend to be very hot. As chillies grown in California become available, the number of chillies may need to be adjusted: initially, the local chillies will be much milder. This is the sort of information that you get in Kasma’s classes: you’ll not commonly find it in Thai cookbooks, which usually give a specific number of chillies in a dish without going into how you may need to modify that number to get the level of heat the dish (or your tastebuds) require.


Slideshow – Crispy Fried Whole Fish

Click on “Play” below to begin a slideshow.

Clicking on a slide will take you to the next image.

Scoring Fish
Resting Fishes
Coating Fish
Coated Fish
Holding Fish
Sliding Fish
Fish in Oil
Ladling Oil
Student Cooking
Turning Fish
Frying Paste
Fried Fish
Ladling Sauce
Fried Whole Fish
Fish Close-up

Scoring the whole fish

Bringing the whole fish to room temperature

Coating the fish with tapioca flour prior to frying

This fish, coated with tapioca flour, is ready to fry

Kasma is just about to slide the fish into the hot oil

Sliding the fish into the hot oil in the wok

The fish's fin is waving from the hot oil

Hot oil is ladled over the fish so it will fry evenly

One of the students takes over ladling the hot oil over the fish

Kasma demonstrates how to turn the fish over in the wok

Frying the chilli-tamarind sauce for the fish

This crispy-fried fish is ready for the chilli-tamarind sauce

Ladling the chilli-tamarind sauce over the fish

Crispy Fried Whole Fish Topped with Chilli-Tamarind Sauce (Pla Rad Prik) - ready to eat

Close-up of Crispy Fried Whole Fish Topped with Chilli-Tamarind Sauce (Pla Rad Prik)

Scoring Fish thumbnail
Resting Fishes thumbnail
Coating Fish thumbnail
Coated Fish thumbnail
Holding Fish thumbnail
Sliding Fish thumbnail
Fish in Oil thumbnail
Ladling Oil thumbnail
Student Cooking thumbnail
Turning Fish thumbnail
Frying Paste thumbnail
Fried Fish thumbnail
Ladling Sauce thumbnail
Fried Whole Fish thumbnail
Fish Close-up thumbnail

Here are the next Intermediate Class Blogs:

I’ve already blogged on Kasma’s Beginning Thai Cooking Series:


Written by Michael Babcock, May 2013