This 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.
Fermented fish innards are just one of many fermented fish products used in Thai cooking as an umami flavoring agent.
[this topic and the various preparations in common use are covered in detail in previous articles.]
The path of Southern dishes to royal Thai cuisine
Nakorn Sri Thammarat is one of the most ancient cities in Thailand, and is regarded by many as the culinary capital of southern-style Thai cuisine – it was the port of entry for southern Thai cooking style to the royal court of Siam and, from there, these dishes began to circulate among the general population of the kingdom.
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Referred to as the “Kingdom of Ligor” by the British, Portuguese and Dutch merchants who set up extensive trade networks in the south during the 17th century, Nakorn Sri Thammarat was for centuries a vassal state of both the Sukhothai Kingdom and, later, the Ayutthaya Kingdom.
Following the fall of Ayutthaya in 1767, the Prince of Nakhon Si Thammarat attempted to take advantage of the military chaos in the area to gain independence. He was quickly arrested by King Taksin’s troops and was later pardoned by the King, who graciously decreed that the Prince’s revolutionary actions were part of his ‘natural duties of governance’. The Prince was then permitted to retire in Thonburi.
In 1896, the province of Nakhon Si Thammarat was established as part of Prince Damrong Rajanubhab’s (สมเด็จพระเจ้าบรมวงศ์เธอ พระองค์เจ้าดิศวรกุมาร กรมพระยาดำรงราชานุภา) organization of modern Thai provincial administration.
Recognizing the strategic importance of the peripheral settlements in the south, the central governances of Siam dispatched family members or trusted nobles to manage the region from southern bases in the Nakorn Sri Thammarat, Songkla and Pattani provinces. In Nakorn Sri Thammarat, the provincial governors held the title “Jao Phra Yaa Na-Korn” (เจ้าพระยานคร ฯ).
During his reign, HM King Rama V invited the daughter of the Nakorn Sri Thammarat provincial governor to the court of Siam, as his consort. She was given the duties of looking after dining and household tasks; the King also directed her father, the governor, to send cooks from the south to train the Dusit Palace staff in the intricacies of southern cuisine.
This opened a culinary channel for southern food to influence the palace menu and central Thai cuisine, introducing southern dishes such as fermented fish innards curry (gaaeng dtai bplaa, แกงไตปลา), fermented fish innards salad (dtai bpla sohng khreuuang, ไตปลาทรงเครื่อง) and yellow sour curry (gaaeng leuuang, แกงเหลือง).
Unlocking the Umami
One could argue that the entire evolution of the culinary arts – across nations and territories – is built on the human exploration of amplifying the dense mass of umami flavor. [read more: “Introduction to Culinary Codes – Understanding Deliciousness“]
Our ability to taste umami is strengthened by synergetic molecular interaction between free glutamate and the nucleotides inosinate and guanylate. Inosinate is found primarily in meat, while guanylate is more prevalent in vegetables. This synergy amplifies the taste of umami on the palate into a fully unleashed, deeply intense umami sensation.
Without any knowledge of the chemistry behind umami, Siamese chefs had long drawn on ancient culinary wisdom to employ ingredients containing both glutamate and nucleotides – resulting in combinations that allowed the umami sensation to fully manifest – and directly translating into a hedonistic experience of the richest flavor.
In this dish, fresh vegetables rich in guanylate are served alongside the curry as a flavor booster to the umami-dense curry; the vegetables also soothe and cool the heat of the dish.
Thaifoodmaster version of Fermented Fish Innards Curry
We follow the recipe of Maawm Luaang Neuuang Ninrat (หม่อมหลวงเนื่อง นิลรัตน์), a former chef at the Suan Sunandha Palace, which was the residence of Princess Phra Wimaadaa Thuuhr, the consort of King Chulalongkorn (Rama V) (พระวิมาดาเธอ พระองค์เจ้าสายสวลีภิรมย์ กรมพระสุทธาสินีนาฏ ปิยมหาราชปดิวรัดา). Neuuang Ninrat, who was well experienced in the intricacies of Thai Royal cuisine, presents a slightly more sedate version of this curry; one that was modified to be more acceptable, suitable and palatable for high society dinners.
As described by Maawm Luaang Neuuang Ninrat, the dish prepared by the cooks sent to the palace by the governor of Nakorn Sri Thammarat (Jao Phra Yaa Na-Korn) was a notch above fiery-spicy with an extremely sharp acidic sourness. In the court kitchens, royal cooks adapted the dish to the central region’s cooking style and taste, adding dried smoked fish and/or grilled catfish. Vegetables were not cooked together with the curry, so as not to harm its color and flavor; instead, fresh vegetables such as cucumbers, crunchy green doll eggplants and yardlong beans, together with stink beans (sa dtaaw, สะตอ) and djenkol beans (luuk niiang, ลูกเนียง), were served alongside the dish, which was consumed similar to a dip or relish.
Omitting vegetables from curries was a common practice in the past, especially in some sour curries where the natural sweetness of cooked vegetables was not desirable.
Preparing the fish innards
To mellow the fishy-umami aggressiveness of the fermented fish innards, as well as to ensure the hygiene, we started by expanding the umami core with an additional layer of savoriness and smokiness from char-roasted smoked dry fish and dry long chilies, before proceeding to boil it with loads of aromatics. We added lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, pandan leaves, coriander roots, fingerroot (krachai) and galangal, cooking until each element released its aroma and together helped to counter the fishy odor of the fermented fish innards. Water is added if needed, but as a rule of thumb one should reduce the fermented fish innards to about two-thirds in volume. The liquids were then strained, and used in the curry preparation.
In the recipe below, we refer to the treated fish innards as the “fish innards base”, which we use for the curry preparation.
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Fermented fish innards base
- 1 1/2 cups fermented fish innards (ไตปลา) about 400ml
- 7 dried red long chili (phrik chee fa) (พริกชี้ฟ้าแห้ง)
- 2 smoke-dried fish (all varieties) (ปลาย่างรมควัน) about 1 cup
- 1/2 cup water (น้ำเปล่า)
- 1/2 cup shallots (หอมแดง) bruised
- 5 lemongrass (ตะไคร้)
- 1 cup galangal (ข่า)
- 1 cup fingerroot (krachai) (กระชาย) Krachai
- 7-8 coriander roots (รากผักชี)
- 1/2 cup kaffir lime leaves (ใบมะกรูด)
- 2 pandan leaves (ใบเตย)
- 1/4 cup fresh bird’s eye chili (kee noo suan) (พริกขี้หนูสวนสด)
Fermented Fish Innards Curry Paste
- 1/2 cup dried Thai bird’s eye chili (phrik kee noo) (พริกขี้หนููแห้ง) roasted
- 2 1/2 tablespoons fresh bird’s eye chili (kee noo suan) (พริกขี้หนูสวนสด)
- 1/2 teaspoon sea salt (เกลือทะเล)
- 4 tablespoons lemongrass (ตะไคร้) thinly sliced
- 1 teaspoon kaffir lime zest (ผิวมะกรูด)
- 1 tablespoon galangal (ข่า) thinly sliced
- 1 1/2 tablespoons fresh turmeric (ขมิ้นชัน)
- 2 tablespoons Thai garlic (กระเทียมไทย) thinly sliced
- 1/3 cup shallots (หอมแดง) finely chopped
- 1 tablespoon fermented shrimp paste (kapi)(กะปิย่างไฟ) kapi
For the curry
- 2 grilled catfish (ปลาดุกย่าง) about 230 gr
- 1/2 cup smoke-dried fish (all varieties) (ปลาย่างรมควัน) char-roasted and crumbled
- 3 cup water (น้ำเปล่า)
- 1/2 cup fermented fish innards base (น้ำไตปลาปรูงรส (ต้มสุก))
- 1/2 cup kaffir lime leaves (ใบมะกรูด)
- 1 kaffir lime fruit (ลูกมะกรูด) halved
- 1 1/2 tablespoons tamarind paste (น้ำมะขามเปียก)
- fresh vegetables (ผักสด) cucumber yardlong beans, djenkol beans and stink beans
Prepare the fermented fish innards base
- The raw untreated fermented fish innards in the jar.
- The complete set of ingredients used to prepare the base: lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, pandan leaves, coriander roots, fingerroot (krachai), galangal, dry long chilies and smoked dry fish.
- In a cooking pot, char-roast the dry long chilies and smoked dry fish (which was crumbled beforehand).
- Add the rest of the aromatics.
- Add the raw fermented fish innards and dilute with water if necessary.
- Boil it hard until there is no foul odor.
Make sure that your kitchen is well ventilated or do it outdoors.
- Strain the liquids, and collect from the mixture any remaining solid chunks of fish innards.
Let the mixture cool, and keep it in the fridge for future use.
Prepare the curry paste
- Prepare the curry paste ingredients: char-roast the dry bird’s eye chilies, peel the shallots and garlic, and scrape the peel of the fresh turmeric. Use both fresh and dry chilies, preferably of different varieties to create a more complex chili flavor, heat and aroma. Use high quality fermented shrimp paste.
- Pound all the ingredients, starting with the chilies and salt, using a pestle and mortar. Pound into a consistent paste. Mix in the kapi.
Cook the Curry
- Char-roast the smoked dried fish.
- using your hand, crumble it discarding the fish bones and the abdomen. (Parasites often reside in the abdomens of freshwater fish).
- Slice the grilled catfish into large segments.
- In a pot over medium heat, bring water mixed with the fish innards base to a boil.
- Add the curry paste.
- Cook the curry paste until the fishy odor dissipates, and the curry is fragrant and thickened.
- Season with tamarind paste.
- Add smoked dried fish meat.
- Add the sliced grilled catfish.
- Add whole kaffir lime leaves.
- Add halved kaffir limes.
- Place in a serving dish, and garnish with hair-thin julienned kaffir lime leaves. Serve with fresh vegetables such as cucumbers, crunchy green doll eggplants and yardlong beans, together with stink beans (sa dtaaw, สะตอ) and djenkol beans (luuk niiang, ลูกเนียง).
Spicy Salad of Grilled Tiger Prawns, Mackerel, Lemongrass and Aromatics with Infused Fermented Fish Innards Dressing (ไตปลาทรงเครื่อง ; dtai bpla sohng khreuuang)
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.
Southern Thai Spicy Sour Yellow Curry with Lotus Stems and Sea Bass (แกงเหลืองสายบัวปลากะพง ; gaaeng leuuang saai buaa bplaa ga phohng)
Yellow sour curry (gaaeng leuuang, แกงเหลือง) is considered a comfort food for the people of Thailand’s southern region. Lavish amounts of fresh turmeric give this spicy, sour and salty curry its rich yellow tint, as well as its earthy aroma and a pleasantly bitter taste. The curry also contains generous portions of the southern dark fermented shrimp paste, resulting in a cloudy, ochre-colored dish.
Southern yellow sour curry is primarily made with saltwater fish, and with either water spinach (phak boong ผักบุ้ง), bamboo shoots (fresh or pickled), green papaya, the stems of the giant elephant ear plant (Colocasia gigantea) (aaw dip อ้อดิบ or thuun ทูน), winter melon (fak khiaao ฟักเขียว) or lotus stems. But versions of the curry that include freshwater fish, shrimp, salted threadfin fish (bplaa goo lao khem ปลากุเลาเค็ม), or even beef or pork belly, are not rare.
Rice Seasoned with Young Tamarind Relish, Sweetened Fish and Pickled Morning Glory (ข้าวคลุกน้ำพริกมะขามอ่อน ผักบุ้งดอง ปลาแห้งผัดหวาน และ ปลาดุกย่าง; Khaao Khlook Naam Phrik Makhaam Aawn Phakboong Daawng Bplaa Haaeng Phat Waan Lae Bplaa Dook Yaang)
Seasoned rice dishes have been a staple of rice-consuming societies almost since the first grains were cultivated. Adapted according to local resources, traditions and individual preferences, seasoned rice dishes are relished and savored across all walks of life. Within Siamese society, these dishes offer insight into the flavor instincts and eating habits across all demographics, revealing which food items were locally available and valued.
In this delicious seasoned rice recipe from the kitchens of the daughter of King Chulalongkorn, Princess Yaovabha Bongsanid (พระเจ้าบรมวงศ์เธอ พระองค์เจ้าเยาวภาพงศ์สนิท) (1884-1934), the Princess uses a variety of common preserved and inexpensive ingredients, clearly drawing inspiration from the cuisine of the Central Plains with nods to the rural and coastal living atmosphere.
Thai Relish of Fermented Fish, Grilled Catfish, Pork and Shrimp (ปลาร้าผัดทรงเครื่องสูตรสายเยาวภา ; bplaa raa phat sohng khreuuang, suut saai yao wa phaa)
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.
Khanohm Jeen Naam Ngiaao – Shan-Style Tomato Broth over Fermented Rice Noodles with Pork, Chicken Feet and Chicken Blood Cakes (ขนมจีนน้ำเงี้ยว)
A popular noodle dish originating from the Northern region of the Kingdom, khanohm jeen naam ngiaao (ขนมจีนน้ำเงี้ยว) is characterized by its light – yet profound – multi-layered broth. This hearty broth includes an assortment of proteins braised with the dried pollens of cotton tree flowers, and Northern Thai sour cherry tomatoes (มะเขือส้ม); the tomatoes infuse the broth with a subtle tartness that refreshes a full-bodied profile comprising a multitude of fermented ingredients.
The naam ngiaao broth is served over fermented rice noodles and features minced pork, and braised baby back pork ribs with their tender meat clinging to the bone. As well, there are succulent, slow-cooked whole chicken feet, and cubes of slightly bouncy, mauve-hued chicken blood cakes. Served alongside the soup are various toppings, which can include shredded cabbage, bean sprouts, chopped coriander leaves, and spring onions, while dark red chili oil and glossy, charred-fried dried bird’s eye chilies offer a fiery intensity dialed up to your preferred spiciness. In addition, I like to add wok-smoked sour cherry tomatoes and broom-like, crispy-fried dried cotton tree pollen for a surprising textural contrast.
Though the dish is often described as “Shan style”, the word ‘ngiao’ was a derogatory expression for the Shan people. As the disparaging – and outdated – label suggests, the recipe might reflect societal biases and prejudices; thus, at least from the culinary perspective, the ‘ngiao’ in the name of the dish may simply be a nod to the flavors or ingredients favored by The Shan, rather than a claim of authenticity – which could also explain why the dish is based on a Siamese curry paste.