Royal Thai Cuisine

แกงไตปลาปลาดุกย่างโบราณ - Fermented fish innards curry is a dense curry made of fermented fish innards is dark coffee-brown in color – a salty, fiery hot dish, it grips the palate in an intense umami embrace. As the flagship dish in the repertoire of spicy southern Thai cuisine, it comes in different versions: some are water based; some have a base of coconut cream. But whatever the style, it is a fiercely hot dish that features both dried and fresh chilies.

Studded with small green peppercorns that burst with a mild peppery pungency, this relish is not as spicy as one might expect from a Thai chili relish - nor does the sour taste serve as a noticeable flavor pillar. Instead, a warmer and softer peppery bite, coupled with the aroma of young pepper, delivers a complex kick. The peppercorns, together with the flavorful yellow chilies, wrap the pork’s natural umami and fatty characters and enhance its natural sweetness; this sweetness, despite being placed far in the back and only appearing at the end of each bite, is nicely layered by the use of shrimp meat and palm sugar.

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.

Known as Khanohm faawy (ขนมฝอย) or Khanohm handtraa, this sweet or savory packet can be a dessert or a snack. The dessert has a sweet filling of silky mung beans and a coconut marzipan-like paste, while the snack’s savory filling consists of shrimp and pork minced and seasoned with garlic, coriander root and white peppercorns. Each is theatrically wrapped in a striking nest of skillfully crafted duck’s egg thread.

Considered by some to be the most famous, and the most delicious, dish in Thai cooking, the story of Massaman curry is interwoven with trade, politics and religion in 17th-century Siam. The story is filled with mighty kings, legendary explorers and unsolved mysteries, adding an air of magic and power to this already-heavenly perfumed dish, and thickening the plot of this full bodied, coconut-based curry’s birth.

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.

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.

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