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Basil Salmon

Michael Babcock, Saturday, September 3rd, 2011

Here’s a variation on one of the most popular dishes in Thailand – Pad Ka-prao – meaning “stir-fried with (holy) basil.” Almost anything you can think of – pork, beef, chicken, fish, shrimp – can be stir-fried with basil and served over rice. One of my favorite variations of the dish, and a staple when Kasma is out of town because it’s so easy to cook, is Salmon Stir-fried with Basil.

(Click images to see larger version.)

Basil Salmon

Basil Salmon

Pad Ka-prao is one dish that I’ve learned to cook very well. I remember the first time I ever cooked it. It was back in 1992 when I took the beginning cooking series from Kasma; she teaches Spicy Basil Chicken in the second class. As she demonstrated it all looked so very easy and natural. So I decided to cook it for myself at home. That very first time I found out that Kasma’s ease was a bit deceptive; when I cooked it, everything seemed to happen way to fast! Each time I made the dish it became easier and the process seemed to slow down. Practice can, indeed, make perfect.

Basil Salmon Close-up

Basil Salmon - close-up

Learning to cook the dish well has been one of my lessons about the process of learning something new. When I first cooked the dish, my nose was in the recipe because I was so afraid of doing something wrong. As I became more comfortable with the steps, I’ve been able to internalize the recipe and learn how to adapt it to different things.

The basic recipe is Kasma’s Spicy Basil Chicken – Gkai Pad Gkaprow This recipe is a good starting point.

For the dish pictured here, I made a few changes. Because I use Thai sweet basil, rather than holy basil, it is actually pad horapa, stir-fried with Thai sweet basil.

Basil Salmon – Salmon Pad Horapa

Recipe by Michael Babcock
Adapted from a recipe by Kasma Loha-unchit


  • 3 TBs. duck fat or lard
  • 10-12 cloves garlic, finely chopped
  • 3 red Fresno chillies, in strips
  • 3/4 lb. (335 grams) salmon, in fairly large bite-sized pieces
  • 2+ tsp. black soy sauce, to taste
  • 1-2 Tbs. (or so) fish sauce, to taste
  • Leaves of 1 large bunch Thai sweet basil – bai horapa

Heat the wok until smoking; add the fat, let melt; toss in the garlic; stir-fry for a bit; add in the chillies; stir-fry a bit longer; add the salmon; stir-fry for a bit; sprinkle in and mix the black soy sauce and fish sauce; add the basil and stir-fry until wilted. Serve over rice.


The key to the recipe is not to overcook the salmon; make the pieces a bit larger than bite size and make sure it’s still slightly pink on the inside; you’ll want to work pretty fast, not stir too much (you don’t want the pieces to fall apart), and add the basil early enough so that it will wilt before the salmon overcooks.

This is one dish where I prefer bai horapa – Thai sweet basil – to bai ka-prao – holy basil; I think it goes better with the salmon.

As always, this is a dish you should make your own. None of the quantities are set in stone. Try it with more garlic; or more chillies; or more basil; or less fish sauce. After you’ve cooked it once, try it again within a couple of days to see how the new variation tastes.

[1.] You may notice that I have transliterated the Thai word for holy basil at ka-prao and Kasma has transliterated it as gkaprow. The most common transliteration that you’ll find on the web is actually kra-pao, which makes no sense at all because in the Thai spelling there is no “r” after the initial consonant.

The Thai alphabet differs from the English alphabet. The initial consonant for gkaprow or ka-prao is gaw – gai (or gkaw – gkai), the sound “g” (or “gk”) as used in the word gai (or gkai), meaning chicken. The official Thai transliteration for this consonant, which is actually a cross between a “g” and a “k” is “k”; Kasma prefers to transliterate it as “gk” because this it conveys the sound more accurately. The second syllable can be transliterated either as “prao” (as is official) or “prow” as Kasma has done.

The point is that any spelling of a Thai word that uses English characters rather than Thai characters is very likely not a very good representation of the actual word, particularly because the spelling with Thai characters also gives you the correct tone.

(You can also read A Note on Thai Pronunciation and Spelling.)

Written by Michael Babcock, September 2011

False Clown Anemonefish (Wednesday Photo)

Michael Babcock, Wednesday, August 18th, 2010

Snorkeling in Krabi

False Clown Anemonefish

False clown anemonefish in Krabi

Snorkeling gives both of us so much pleasure in Thailand that I thought I’d add another underwater photo of Kasma’s. She took this one off of Koh Poda (Poda Island) in Krabi earlier this year.

Want to see more underwater pictures from Thailand?

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

Whole Fish Dishes

Kasma Loha-unchit, Sunday, December 27th, 2009

Whole Fish Dishes Usher in Abundance in the New Year

Most cultures in the Orient believe food to provide much more than physical sustenance. It also nourishes the soul and spirit and gives meaning to people’s lives.

Moon fish for sale

Moon fish for sale

One highly regarded food is fish, a major source of protein and nutrition affordable by people in all stations of life. Because they are plentiful in the surrounding seas and in inland lakes, rivers, ponds and canals, fish are auspicious symbols of abundance, wealth and prosperity Because they reproduce freely, swim about gracefully without apparent boundaries and seem content with their environments, they are basic symbols of regeneration, freedom, pleasure and harmony.

Two snapper on a plate

Two snapper on a plate

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

In many Asian countries, fish is served at almost every meal, but although it is eaten so frequently, people are never tired of it. This is because there are so many different varieties, each with its unique qualities and tastes, and countless ways to prepare them, employing a wide range of herbs, condiments and flavor ingredients. Fish is also light, delicate in taste and easy to digest, seldom leaving one feeling heavy and uncomfortable as when too much animal meat is consumed.

Frying a whole fish in a wok

Frying a whole fish in a wok

Asians prefer serving fish whole for a number of reasons. Not only does buying a fish whole allow us the best means of judging its freshness, cooking a fish on the bone and with skin still attached yields a more moist and much sweeter and tastier result. The smaller, younger fish we prefer means the flesh is tender and succulent and has less of a tendency of drying out it cooking. A whole fish also gives us delicious tidbits around the head, tail and fins.

Just as important is the meaning that a whole fish conveys – wholeness, unity and prosperity. For this reason and other symbolic meaning mentioned above, whole fish are customarily served on special occasions, such as birthdays, weddings and on the New Year. In my family, a whole fish is served on New Year’s eve – only part of it is eaten with the rest saved for the following day, thereby carrying prosperity from one year to the next.

Preparing the steamed fish dish

Preparing the steamed fish dish

If you’d like to try your hand at a whole fish recipe, check out my recipe for:

Although the recipe suggests some kinds of fish, they can be substituted with other kinds of fish that are fresh and in season. If you have trouble looking a fish in the eye, try the recipe with fish steaks, but of course they will be lacking in the abundance of flavors and meanings, especially for the new year.

Fish, ready to be steamed

Fish, ready to be steamed

Written by Kasma Loha-unchit, December 2009.

Salt-encrusted Fish (Wednesday Photo)

Michael Babcock, Wednesday, May 13th, 2009

Nah Gkin! (Looks Good to Eat!)

Salt-Encrusted Fish

Salt-Encrusted Fish

This is a picture of three fish being grilled in Nong Kai in Northeastern Thailand (Isahn). Prior to grilling, they have been stuffed with an herb mixture and then the (unscaled) fish is covered with salt. The result is a succulent, moist fish with herb flavor that is simply delicious.

One of the great joys of traveling in Thailand is going to the open-air and local markets. One of the joys of going to the markets is seeing all kinds of appetizing and wonderful food that you never knew existed.

Kasma taught her version of this recipe as Charcoal-Grilled Salt-Encrusted Fish Stuffed with Crushed Herbs, Served with Hot Thai Chilli-Lime Sauce (Bplah Yad Sai Samunplai Pao) in her weekend Advanced Series Set E (class 1).

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