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This dish is a Tai Lue-style grilled catfish laap. The Tai Lue are the largest Tai ethnic group living in Northern Thailand and among those who migrated from Yunnan over the centuries.
This dish is somewhat more complicated than the Issan version of grilled catfish laap, but it responds to the same fundamental problem of using catfish – improving its inherently muddy-tasting meat – with similar yet more elaborate techniques.
The umami-fat-smoke elements are re-layered and introduced from grilling the oily fish, along with deploying grilled eggplants, savory broth, and a paste that introduces fermented fish sauce and fermented shrimp paste to the dish, which helps to strengthen the dish’s umami base.
Grilled eggplants can reflect a conscious culinary decision to improve the core elements with umami intensifying elements. They can also be used to increase the volume of the dish, which is composed with a thin and meat-spare fish.
To further fortify the dish’s core elements, a savory paste, made by pounding lemongrass, shallots, garlic, and fermented shrimp paste into a fine consistency, is fried before being added to the fish meat.
The dish should have a moist consistency; it is wetted with a savory broth made by cooking the grilled catfish head and bones with fermented fish sauce, to add another layer of smoke-rich umami and fat.
Seasoning should be tuned for saltiness, spiciness, numbness, and spice aroma intensity. There is no one set of ratios; you should consider each of these elements and season them individually to your taste using ground dried chilies, ground makwen, fish sauce or makwen-infused fish sauce, and laap spices mix.
The crispy ingredients are simple and consist of the fish skin and scales, deep-fried garlic, and crispy dried chilies.
Essential Cooking Skills:
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- 400 g grilled catfish (ปลาดุกย่าง) medium size fish
- 2 piece bitter yellow eggplants (มะเขือขื่น) grilled
- 1 piece apple eggplants (มะเขือเปราะ) grilled
For the savory paste:
- 1 tablespoon lemongrass (ตะไคร้)
- 2 tablespoons shallots (หอมแดง)
- 1 tablespoon Thai garlic (กระเทียมไทย)
- 1/4 tablespoon Northern style fermented shrimp paste (white kapi)(กะปิกุ้ง)
For the savory broth: (cooked with the grilled fish head and bones)
- 2 cups water (น้ำเปล่า)
- 1 tablespoon seasoned fermented fish sauce (naam pla ra) (น้ำปลาร้าปรุงรส)
- 1 tablespoon Northern laap seasoning mix (naam phrik laap) (น้ำพริกลาบ)
- 1 teaspoon Northern laap spices mix (ชุดเครื่องเทศสำหรับลาบเหนือ)
- 1/2 teaspoon makwen (มะแขว่น) (Zanthozylum limonella Alston)
- 1/2 teaspoon ground dried chili (พริกป่น)
- fish sauce (น้ำปลา) or
- makwen-infused fish sauce (มะแขว่นดองน้ำปลา) as needed
- 1 tablespoon coriander leaves (ใบผักชี) roughly chopped
- 1 tablespoon spring onion (ต้นหอม) thinly sliced
- 1 tablespoon sawtooth coriander (ผักชีฝรั่ง) roughly chopped
For the crispy ingredients (เครื่องหมี่; khreuuang mee):
- 1/3 cup Thai garlic (กระเทียมไทย)
- 3 tablespoons dried fish scales (เกล็ดปลาแห้ง)
- 1 tablespoon dried Thai bird’s eye chili (phrik kee noo) (พริกขี้หนููแห้ง)
- neutral tasting cooking oil (น้ำมันพืช) for deep-frying
- Clean, marinate and grill the catfish.
- Separate and collect the meat and skin, keeping the head and bones for preparing the savory broth. Set aside.
Prepare the grill-charred ingredients:
- On a charcoal grill or in a pan, char roast the yellow and apple eggplants.
- Allow to cool, peel and set aside.
- On a cutting board and using a knife, mince the eggplants together with the grilled catfish meat to a fine consistency. Set aside.
Prepare the crispy ingredients (เครื่องหมี่; khreuuang mee):
- In a mortar and pestle, pound unpeeled Thai garlic. Use just enough force to mash the garlic cloves, leaving the peels intact. Do not try to make a smooth paste. The peels will crisp fry and add a desired textural element.
- To a cold wok, add all the garlic, cover with cold oil, and turn the heat to medium-low. Stir constantly in one direction only until the garlic is very light golden in color.
- Add the dried fish scales.
- Strain the oil and set it aside.
- Fry the dried bird’s eye chilies, starting with cold oil, until crisp and shiny. Set aside.
Prepare the savory paste:
- An overview of the savory paste ingredients.
- In a mortar and pestle, pound the lemongrass, shallots, and garlic into a fine paste. Add Northern-style fermented shrimp paste and combine well.
- Fry the paste with some of the residual garlic oil until fragrant. Set aside.
Prepare the savory broth (น้ำนัว; naam nuaa):
- In a pot, bring water, seasoned fermented fish sauce, and lemongrass to a strong boil. Add the head and bones of the grilled catfish. Simmer on low heat and reduce to a concentrated stock. Strain and set aside.
Prepare the herbs:
- Thinly slice the spring onion. Set aside.
- Roughly chop the coriander leaves. Set aside.
- Slice the sawtooth coriander into wide juliennes. Set aside.
Combine the laap:
- In a mixing bowl, combine the grilled catfish meat with the grilled eggplants and only half the amount of the fried savory paste. It is important not to add all the savory paste at once, to ensure that the dish is not over-salty when wetting the fish mixture with the broth.
- Using your hand, mix and squeeze the fish meat to allow the meat to blend with the paste and eggplants – and also to ensure that there are no remaining fish bones.
- Gradually add savory broth and the remaining savory paste until the catfish meat is moist and soft.
- At this stage, use just enough paste and broth to produce an under-seasoned but well-moistened fish.
- Season with phrik laap.
- Taste and adjust the seasoning to your liking. Adjust spiciness with ground dried chilies; adjust numbness with makwen; adjust saltiness with either fish sauce or makwen-infused fish sauce; and adjust the spice aroma with the laap spices mix.
- Adjust saltiness.
- Adjust spice aroma.
- Adjust numbness.
- When you are satisfied with the seasoning, add the herbs and mix. Keep some herbs to garnish the dish.
- Garnish with fried chilies, crispy ingredients, and the remaining herbs. Serve alongside the crispy fish skin and phak gap laap (ผักกับลาบ) – fresh herbs and vegetables.
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