Fish fermentation consists of a simple salt-curing process: mixing or coating a whole fish, sliced fish or minced fish meat with salt and rice husks (or ground roasted rice). The mixture is then allowed to rest and ferment for few months. This fermentation process creates deep, intense umami flavor agents accompanied by a strong stench. It is only with culinary sagacity and skill that cooks are able to harness and direct these powerful flavors within the context of an appetizing dish, and to constrain the odor to an agreeable intensity.
Essential Thai cuisine ingredients
This eel curry includes a greater-than-usual quantity of aromatics used over three stages. First, the eel is cleaned and sliced into segments; then it is fried with a generous amount of lemongrass, galangal, kaffir lime leaves and shallots. These help to counter its muddy and somewhat iron-like odor, which disappears along with the liquids and the aromatics.
This eel curry recipe is adapted from the vintage book: “Gap Khaao O:H Chaa Roht” by Ging Ga Nohk) (กับข้าวโอชารส โดย กิ่งกนก – กาญจนาภา พ.ศ. 2485). This rare book was written in 1942 during WWII, a period of global turmoil in which Thailand was invaded by the Japanese. That same year marked a decade from the ending of absolute monarchy rule in 1932, and one generation away from the peak of the Siamese culinary renaissance that flourished in the court of King Rama V (1868-1910): a nostalgic era for its children who are still with us to remember and reflect on those times.
This profoundly spicy, chestnut-colored pork curry radiates a pungent slow-burning heat from generous amounts of roasted black pepper, along with long peppers and naughty charred dry chili peppers. The curry’s aroma is concentrated even further by roasting the ingredients prior to pounding them – a process that shaves the high notes of the curry and provides a low-pitched intensity that lasts far beyond each bite.
If we could strip away the spices, the seasonings, the vegetables and the herbs from savory dishes we could uncover their naked flavor profile core. There, we would encounter a strong savory-umami, sometimes coupled with other basic elements of smoke and fat. This flavor core is, for us humans, the sought-after taste of protein; our first sip of mother’s milk, and the primal experience of burned game meat on the fire.
Today we would like to highlight a powerhouse for umami creation: the fermentation process. We will focus on fermented fish innards from southern Thailand (dtai bpla ไตปลา), one of about a dozen fermented products used in the country. We will show you how chefs for the capital’s elite, as early as or, before the reign of King Phra Phutthaloetla Naphalai (Rama II, 1767-1824), harnessed its wild nature and created a dish similar to what we present today – a salad with infused fermented fish innards dressing.
This salad recipe is adapted from the book “Maae Khruaa Huaa Bpaa” (แม่ครัวหัวป่าก์), published in 1971 as a memorial for Jao Jaawm Phit (เจ้าจอมพิศว์). Jao Jaawm Phit was the daughter of Thanpuying (Lady) Plean Passakornrawong, who was a pioneer of noble Thai cuisine.
Unripe rice snack – “Khao Mao Mee” (ข้าวเม่าหมี่ ) also known as “Khao Mao Song Kreuang” (ข้าวเม่าทรงเครื่อง) or by it’s royal name “Khanom Khao Mao Rang” (ขนมข้าวเม่าราง) is a delicious snack. It makes an unusual use of the unripe rice grains, which are normally used for desserts making. The following recipe describes an ancient and hard to find version of it. These days, there is a tendency to add other ingredients like peanuts or to deep fry the unripe rice grains until fluffy and crispy.
Khanohm jeen (ขนมจีน) are noodles made from rice starch. Their strands are long, round, thin and elastic, with a beautiful white sheen and a pleasant chewy texture.
It is unclear exactly when khanohm jeen production arrived in Thailand; however, it is likely that production was already active during the Ayutthaya period (1351-1767), in communities along the Khanohm Jeen canal, a main water artery in Ayutthaya’s Senna district (คลองขนมจีน อ.เสนา จ.พระนครศรีอยุธยา).