Categories
Cooking

How to Fry a Crispy Fish Thai-style

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 with the skin on 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.


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 while traveling in Thailand. 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.

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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

Categories
Classes

Kasma’s Intermediate Thai Cooking Class #1

This is the first in a series of 4 blogs that talks about Kasma Loha-unchit’s Intermediate Thai Cooking class. A series of 4 classes, it continued on from where her 4-session Beginning Thai Cooking Series left off. Having introduced students to the basics (including how to harmonize flavors to create Thai tastes), it was an opportunity for students to learn more Thai cooking techniques, ingredients and recipes. I’ll leave these blogs up as a record of what Kasma’s classes were like: she retired from teaching in 2020. I’ll include links to the next 3 blogs at the bottom of the page.

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 classes. I also remembered just how much fun the classes are. (Links to my blogs on the class are found at the bottom of the page.) So in April 2012, I repeated Kasma’s Intermediate Thai Cooking Series. This is my blog on class #1.

(Click images to see larger version.)

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

Mussels
Mussels for the salad

The classes were filled with tips that make recipes come out better. Here’s one: 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 explained that 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 preparing the noodles for frying for the Mee Krob (Glazed Crispy Noodles). Rather than soaking the noodles, which would leave them soggy, she had the students rinse the noodles in cold tap water, drain in a colander and set aside for 30 to 60 minutes. This allowed the noodles to absorb some water and soften while then allowing the surface to dry out so that you wouldn’t get splattering when you put the noodles in the hot oil to fry. She explained that if you fry the noodles dry, they puff up more, which is undesirable in this recipe. As always, she showed the students the best brand available locally to use.

Frying Noodles
Frying noodles

This first Intermediate Class introduced two ingredients that were 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 talked about what to look for when buying these ingredients, what brand of the fried shallots (often labelled “Fried Onions”) are best and how to make your own crispy shallots, should you be so inclined.

This class introduced methods for deep frying, both for the Mee Krob and the Pla Rad Prik – Crispy Fried Whole Fish Topped with Chilli-Tamarind Sauce. I had 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 had 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 was a great class for students who were afraid to fry – Kasma showed how to do it easily and safely.

Chopping
Students prepping ingredients

As with all classes, Kasma told 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 went into which recipes could be prepared ahead of time and which parts of recipes could be done in advance to make the final assembly easier without losing and freshness or flavor.

In this class Kasma also went over how to pick out a fresh, whole fish; it is something that many students had never done or even considered doing before. She gave 5 pointers (such as looking at the over-all luster of the fish and how the eyes and gills should appear) that helped 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 were explained, the students divided up into groups: Kasma assigned a certain number of people for each recipe. Once the ingredients were prepped, all the students watched the members of the team do the cooking. When appropriate, as in frying a whole fish, Kasma would start the cooking process so that she could show how a particular technique is done: after that, the team members did the cooking. Kasma also oversaw the final balancing process for the recipes: one of the great strengths of her classes was learning how the various ingredients interacted to create a harmony of Thai flavors.

Of course, the best part of the evening was eating a Thai feast at the end of class.

Eating Dinner
Eating dinner, the best part of class!

After dinner, everyone helped 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 would usually eat it at least a couple or three 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: later on I would join this class at meal time because often no one in class knew how to eat the head – I liked 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 showed us how to do this without adding too much sweetness. (Check out Kasma’s Exercise in Balancing Flavors.)

Salad Ingredients
Mixing Mussel Salad

This dish was 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 could get here in the San Francisco Bay Area came from South or Central America; because of the climate, they tended to be very hot. As chillies grown in California become available, the number of chillies would need to be adjusted: initially, the local chillies will be much milder. This is the sort of information that you got in Kasma’s classes: you will 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.

[portfolio_slideshow size=full togglethumbs=true togglestate=closed include=”5863, 5864, 5865, 5866, 5867, 5868, 5869, 5870, 5871, 5872, 5873, 5874, 5875, 5876, 5877″]


Here are the blogs for the next 3 Intermediate classes:

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


Written by Michael Babcock, May 2013 & May 2020