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.
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: “Umami power“]
In his book “Umami: Unlocking the Secrets of the Fifth Taste”, Ole G. Mouritsen explains that 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 diners.
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.
Fermented fish innards base
- 1 1/2 cups Fermented fish innards about 400ml
- 7 Dry long red chilies
- 2 Large Smoked-dry fish about 1 cup
- 1/2 cup Water
- 1/2 cup Shallots bruised
- 5 Stalks Lemongrass
- 1 cup Galangal
- 1 cup Fingerroot Krachai
- 7-8 Coriander roots
- 1/2 cup Kaffir lime leaves
- 2 Pandan leaves
- 1/4 cup Fresh bird’s eye chilies
Fermented Fish Innards Curry Paste
- 1/2 cup dried bird’s eye chilies roasted
- 2 1/2 tablespoons fresh bird’s eye chilies
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 4 tablespoons lemongrass thinly sliced
- 1 teaspoon kaffir lime zest
- 1 tablespoon galangal thinly sliced
- 1 1/2 tablespoons fresh turmeric
- 2 tablespoons Thai garlic thinly sliced
- 1/3 cup shallots finely chopped
- 1 tablespoon fermented shrimp paste kapi
For the curry
- 2 grilled catfish about 230 gr
- 1/2 cup smoked dried fish meat char-roasted and crumbled
- 3 cup water
- 1/2 cup fermented fish innards base
- 1/2 cup kaffir lime leaves
- 1 kafir lime halved
- 1 1/2 tablespoons tamarind paste
- assortment of fresh vegetables such as fresh small eggplants 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).