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In Search of the Best Sour Fish (Pla Som)

Kasma Loha-unchit, Saturday, July 23rd, 2011

Pla som, or sour fish, is one of my very favorite foods from the northeastern Isan region, which is also known for its sour sausages. It’s made in a similar way as the Isan sour sausages, using fermented rice as the souring agent. I’m partial to fish and a perfectly fermented and crispy-fried sour fish is so delicious it’s hard to stop eating it! The problem is: perfection is hard to find, even in its home territory. (Note: Isan refers to the northeastern part of Thailand.)

Ready-to-eat Sour Fish

Ready-to-eat sour fish

My first encounter with pla som was some fifteen years ago in the then small riverside town of Nakhon Phanom in the northeastern corner of Isan. It was at a small rice shop near the hotel I spent the night. Hungry and looking for a good place for breakfast, I walked down one of the streets and noticed a busy rice shop crowded with customers – a good sign! Among the assortment of ready-made dishes in front of the shop was a yummy-looking fried fish topped with crispy fried garlic, fried dried chillies, sliced shallots and cut Thai chillies. I soon discovered it wasn’t any ordinary fried fish. It had a very unusual and delicious sour flavor definitely not from lime juice, tamarind, vinegar or any other sour condiment. That introduction to pla som was truly memorable and I fell deeply in love with this Isan food.

(Click images to see larger version.)

In those days, Isan food hadn’t yet become popular in the main heartland of the country’s central region. It was impossible to find it in any eatery or restaurant in the capital, even in the few so-called Isan restaurants just opening in the city. But memories of that first encounter remained vivid in my mind and on my tongue. I could only dream of another trip to Isan to savor the delicacy.

So-so Fried Sour Fish

Sour fish at Si Saket

Fast forward half a dozen years. Michael and I took a trip to Isan with our friend and adopted brother Sun, who drives for my Thailand tours. I was showing Michael around to the places I’d been and we were exploring new places as possibilities for organizing a future tour. I hadn’t offered an Isan trip for years as traveling in the vast Isan region, Thailand’s largest, during the last two decades of the last century could be tedious and standard tourist accommodations lacking in many of the fascinating areas worth visiting. With Isan now a popular destination among domestic Thai tourists and Isan food becoming an “in” cuisine nationwide, it was a perfect opportunity to check out the new infrastructure, as well as the lively markets and local eateries I’d been reading about in Thai travel magazines.

Sour Fish in Surin

Sour fish dish in Surin

We had just arrived in Nong Khai on the Mekong River. It was late in the day and after checking into a family-run guest house near the river, we went for a walk along the alley by the waterfront, hoping to find a good restaurant with views of the river for dinner. My eye caught a signboard with the words pla som and immediately I insisted that we have dinner there.

I ordered the pla som while Michael and Sun chose a couple of other dishes. Soon, both of them understood why I was so excited about eating there. The fish was very quickly gone before the other dishes received our attention. The next evening, after a full day of exploration, Sun was the one to adamantly insist that we return to the same place for dinner and, this time, forget about other dishes and just order three plates of pla som, one for the each of us!

Sour Fish in Ubon

Sour fish in Ubon market

For the rest of that trip, as we journeyed along the Mekong east- and southward to the border province of Ubon and then cut westward to Surin and Buriram before heading back to Bangkok, we kept an eye out for pla som but, unfortunately, did not find any place with as good a pla som as we had in Nong Khai. Some were actually rather disappointing. Most of the pla som we saw were uncooked, sold in open tubs in the fresh marketplaces and made with whole fish, as it’s traditionally done, particularly small silver barbs (pla tapian) that do have a lot of small bones. The pla som we had in Nong Khai was made with chunks of a large fish with plenty of moist meat and very little bones.

Kamnan Jun Sour Fish

Sour fish in bulk at Don Wai

Michael and I love to visit open-air fresh markets in Thailand and Sun often drives us to marketplaces far and near. We soon begin to notice raw pla som being sold in some of the larger gourmet fresh markets in or near Bangkok, like Or Tor Kor market and Don Wai, either already packaged in plastic bags or sold bulk in big piles. The pla som made by Kamnan Jun sold in Don Wai market is particularly good. It’s made with a fish called pla nuanchan in large mostly filleted chunks with skin still on. The skin is important as it adds a good texture to the fish when it is crispy-fried.

The first time I saw pla som at Don Wai, I bought two large bags and fried all the pieces up the next morning for breakfast. Sun, whose home is in Nakhon Si Thammarat in the south, planned to breakfast with us before making his long drive home. He was so delighted to have so many pieces of pla som to feast on. The fish was crispier and even more delicious than he remembered having in Nong Khai. He was convinced that I must have a secret way of frying the fish that enhanced the crispiness and flavor. He devoured with great pleasure as much as he could but there were so many pieces we couldn’t possibly finish the two big plates. So he decided he would wait till afternoon to begin his long drive, so that he could have lunch and finish off the rest!

Sour Fish at Don Wai

Don Wai sour fish vendor

Sour Fish, Ready to Cook

Sour fish at Don Wai

Sour Fish Dish

Vientiane Kitchen's fried sour fish

Pla som has become much better known among Thais all over the country as Isan food continues to soar in popularity the past decade. As migrant workers from Isan find their way around the country, I’m seeing raw, ready-for-cooking pla som in markets far and wide, even in the southern region. A number of Isan restaurants in Bangkok now have it on their menus but so far nothing near as good as the best pla som I’ve had in Isan or that I’ve fried myself from fish bought at Don Wai and Aw Taw Kaw. Vientiane Kitchen on Sukhumvit 36 serves an acceptable one after the restaurant remodeled recently and put in a new menu (and perhaps new cooks, too), but it lacks the crispiness that has become a trademark of delicious fried pla som.

I can even find ready-to-cook pla som in my local Cambodian market in Oakland (see my blog on Mithapheap Market), in packages in the freezer imported from Thailand and labeled in Thai as pla som Mae Jinda. The ingredients are shown in English though, listing fish, garlic, rice and salt. To preserve the fish better for its long journey here, it is made saltier than what’s available in Bangkok’s markets and needs to be eaten with plenty of rice. Delicious though it is!

Frozen Sour Fish
Mae Jinda Sour fish

Sour fish out of package

Tilapia for Sour Fish

Very fresh tilapia for making sour fish

I’ve also taken to making my own pla som and used to teach it in one of my advanced classes. (See Menus for Advanced Set F.) Definitely a fish with skin still on makes the best pla som. I’ve tried making it with red snapper, catfish, basa (swai) and tilapia. The best result so far is with very fresh tilapia that I buy live from the tanks in Asian fish markets, that I then fillet to remove only the center skeleton, head and tail, but leaving the skin on. In the Bay Area it takes about a week to sour the fish. Rubbed with a coating of tapioca flour before frying, it delivers a most satisfying combination of crispiness and natural sour flavor to rival the best I’ve had in Isan’s restaurants.

Making Sour Fish

Preparing the tilapia

Sour Fish, Ready to Fry

Week-old soured tilapia

Sour Fish Dish

Sour fish at Bao Pradit, Mukdahan

My most recent trip to Isan was in December 2009 with a group of twelve on a special northeastern Thailand tour. (On Google+, opens in new window, see Kasma’s Northeastern Trip Photos, Part 2.) Whenever and wherever I saw pla som on a menu, I would order it. Several in my group loved it, but like me, they soon discovered that quality and taste could vary substantially. By far the best we had was at a truly native Isan restaurant in Mukdahan, called Bao Pradit. It’s south of town along the river, serving really hardcore Isan food made with local ingredients not found in other regions. With all the wonderful choices and fiery hot range of flavor combinations, Sun asked that I order for him his own plate of pla som and that’s the only thing he ate that night with a heavenly grin on his face. I would have to say it really was the best of the best pla som I’d ever had.

More Ready-to-eat Sour Fish

More ready-to-eat sour fish

Sour Fish, To Go

Sour fish, to go

Written by Kasma Loha-unchit, July 2011.

Khon Kaen Buddha (Wednesday Photo)

Michael Babcock, Wednesday, June 30th, 2010

Buddha Image in NE Thailand

Green Buddha Statue

Buddha statue from Khon Kaen

Kasma took this picture of a Buddha statue at Wat That, the first temple by the lake by Beung Kaen Nakhon in Khon Kaen Province in Northeastern Thailand.

I like that there are so many different types of Buddha statues in Thailand: it’s almost as if there’s one for everyone. The diversity is a reminder to me to not get too tied up in appearances: each different image is a pointer to the same teaching, the same dhamma.

The Wednesday Photo is a new picture each week highlighting something of interest in Thailand. Click on the picture to see a larger version.

Isahn (Isaan) Impressions

Michael Babcock, Saturday, December 5th, 2009

I’ve only travelled extensively to Isahn (or Isaan) – Northeastern Thailand – one time. Here are some thoughts and impressions.

Grilled sticky rice in Loei

Grilled sticky rice in Loei

Kasma was in Khon Kaen in Northern Thailand on the day this is written. She was leading one of her small-group trips to Thailand to Isahn (Northeastern Thailand).

In December 2004, Kasma and I took an exploration trip up there along with our driver, Sun; at the time she was thinking of doing another NE trip and wanted to see how things had changed since her previous trip in 1998. I had travelled quite extensively in other parts of Thailand with Kasma so was curious to see what Isahn was like, particularly since you meet people from the northeast all over Thailand.

(Click on an image to see a larger version.)

Kanom Jeen noodles in Korat

Kanom Jeen noodles in Korat

Isahn is one of the poorer regions in Thailand. That’s one reason you meet so many people from there throughout Thailand – they have to leave their homes to make a living. Just one example is the woman who sells kanom krok (grilled coconut rice-cakes) at Sukhumvit Soi 55 (Thong Lo) on weekends. (I’ve written about her in Siripon, Maker of Kanom Krok.) She has come to Bangkok with her husband to sell street food and send money home while their children are raised by the grandparents.

Serving green papaya salad

Serving green papaya salad

When we travelled there in December 2004, it seemed much less tropical than the rest of Thailand. Much of the land has been deforested so it is certainly not as lush as the south and central regions.

As always, anywhere in Thailand, some of my most vivid memories are of the markets and the food. Every town seemed to have a bustling, lively market, often with some things I don’t notice elsewhere (such as grilled sticky rice on a stick, rats). One of my favorite memories was eating kanom Jeen at a market in Korat. Kanom Jeen are a type of fermented rice noodle, eaten all over Thailand but especially popular in the northeast. You’ll find a vendor in nearly every market – you can choose from any number of different toppings to put on the noodles.

BBQ chicken in Loei

BBQ chicken in Loei

Another lasting impression is just how very spicy-hot Isahn people can eat. Although I couldn’t eat very hot at all when I first met Kasma, over the years I’ve learned to enjoy food that I think is very spicy. At an early stop on our trip, we were ordering Green Papaya Salad (Som Dtam), one of the best know dishes from Isahn, and the vendor asked if I could eat spicy. Kasma said I could and told him to make it “regular.” Well, their regular is off my spice scale! Their regular is incendiary! Som Dtam and Barbecued Chicken (Gai Yang) were two of our staples throughout Isahn.

This trip was also the first time I ate Bplah Som – sour fish. It’s fish that is mixed with salt, garlic and cooked rice and then left out to ferment (sour). After a few days, it’s fried up crispy and has a delightful, sour flavor that’s hard to describe.

Detail at Khmer ruin

Detail at Khmer ruin

During our trip we visited a number of Khmer-style ruins. Throughout history, much of the area has gone back and forth between the Khmer of Cambodia and Thailand. The ruins are reminiscent of Angkor Wat, although much smaller; on the other hand, we had many of the ruins nearly to ourselves. On this trip, we did not visit Phimai, perhaps the best known of the Khmer ruins in Thailand, or Phanom Wan, both in Korat. We did visit are Prasit Puay Noi in Khon Kaen and several ruins is Surin province: Prasat Hin Wat Sa Kamphaeng Yai and Prasat Sikhoraphum.

Mukdahan Rock Formation

Mukdahan Rock Formation

One more interesting feature in the north east would be the unusual rock formations. Many of them feature rocks perched on the tops of other rocks in quite improbable positions. Phu Phra Baht Historical Park in Nong Khai. In Mukdahan there’s Phu Pha Theup National Park, a hilly, rocky plateau with fabulous mushroom-shaped rock formations. There’s also Sao Chaliang in Khong Jiam. We spent many hours wandering around these natural areas.

Ceramic boat in Ubon Ratchathani

Ceramic boat in Ubon Ratchathani

Of course there are numerous temples. Isahn, more than the rest of Thailand, remains more traditional Buddhist. Young men here are more likely to ordain at some point in their lives, a traditional practice once followed throughout Thailand. The temples range from more traditional ones, to forest monasteries (Wat Pah Pong, established by Ajahn Chah, is found in Ubon Ratchathani province) to less traditional, such as the temple built entirely from ceramics – Wat Bahn Na Meuang in Ubon Ratchathani.

Weaving Village near Galasin

Weaving Village near Galasin

Then there’s the weaving. Traditionally, nearly every village had an area where the women would get together to weave, cotton or silk. Although much of the weaving activity has disappeared there are still many outstanding weaving stops in the north east, from Mukdhadan to Khong Kaen to the Thasawang co-op silk village in Surin. For more on weaving in the NE, see Kasma’s blog entry:

Making spring roll wrappers

Making spring roll wrappers

There was so much more: fabulous dragons at temples; hieroglyphics that are thousands of years old; a factory where they make gongs (we got to watch the tuning process, which involved a lot of banging!); watching them make spring roll wrappers at Sri Chieng Mai in Nong Kai.

Such a rich region! Suggestions for travel: if you go on your own, do your research before you go so you know where to go. Plan to drive: either renting a car on your own or renting a car with a driver – it’s a big region and you’ll log a lot of kilometers getting from place to place.

Checking the tone of a gong

Checking the tone of a gong

I’ve barely scratched the surface. For more, check out:

Written by Michael Babcock, December 2009.