Swamp Eel Triple-Layered Red Curry with Fingerroot, Bitter Ginger, Sand Ginger and Thai Basil Flowers (แกงเผ็ดปลาไหลทรงเครื่อง ; Gaaeng Phet Bplaa Lai Sohng Khreuuang)

Click to listen to the Thai name pronunciation Listen to the Thai name pronunciation
By: Hanuman, Thaan Khun and Chef Thapakorn Lertviriyavit (Gorn)
Swamp eel triple layered red curry with fingerroot, bitter ginger, sand ginger and Thai basil flowers แกงเผ็ดปลาไหลทรงเครื่อง

This 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.

Second, the eel is cooked in a rich coconut-based red curry strengthened with fingerroot, bitter ginger (gra theuu, กระทือ), sand ginger (bpraw haawm, เปราะหอม), coriander seeds and cumin seeds. The curry paste is thoroughly fried with coconut cream until it is cooked, and its flavors rounded down to a more homogenous flavor identity.

And in the third stage, a spicy scented layer – with a pungent, peppery-camphor touch – is produced by using the same fresh rhizomes, along with Thai basil flowers and leaves, fresh peppercorns and fresh young light-green long chilies.

Sand ginger, rhizomes and leaves. (bpraw haawm เปราะหอม)

Sand ginger, rhizomes and leaves.
(bpraw haawm เปราะหอม)

This 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.

Bitter ginger (gra theuu กระทือ).

Bitter ginger
(gra theuu กระทือ).

The Asian Swamp Eel Bplaa Lai (ปลาไหล) or Iian (เอี่ยน)
A Chinese tale describes a legendary minister who thought he was an eel. When the land flooded with water, the people believed that this minister had caused the deluge so he could swim away.

There are a number of methods for catching these slippery, slimy, snakelike swimmers: the eel’s smooth skin also lets it slither over land, so the easiest methods involve using baskets, a trap or a net – or simply just digging in the drying mud and scaring them out.

These days, some might consider eel an unusual meat, or even a savage hardcore upcountry food, but the fact is that eel in culinary tradition is truly ancient. The eel is very much enjoyed by those from all walks of life – farmers in the fields, gentlemen in the cities and royalty in the palace – all love eels cooked in many different ways. Eel, widely available and nutrient-rich, was an important protein source for people living in Southeast Asia’s rice growing communities, where their diet was composed mainly of fish and small water creatures – animals that could be caught in the rice fields, in stagnant waters or shallow wetlands, in marshes, ditches, canals, streams, rivers, reservoirs, ponds and lakes – places where this night feeder gorged itself on the same prey.

Dark-olive or brown in color, and occasionally speckled with bright yellow, black and gold spots, the eel is considered a phallic symbol with erotic connotations; despite being hermaphroditic itself, all young eels are born females, with some evolving into males as they mature.

Slippery as an eel
Today you can buy a cleaned eel at the markets, or use scrub pads to scrape the slippery mucus from its skin. In the old days, however, preparing the eel required rubbing it with various plant leaves or rice husks (glaaep, แกลบ), with the most common being the bai khaawy ruut leaves (Streblus asper, ใบข่อยรูด).

“Slippery as an eel” is an English-language idiom referring to an individual who continuously escapes responsibility or culpability. The Thai idiom,“Hate [lizard] [but] eat its eggs; hate eel [but] [enjoy] eating the curry” implies an individual who benefits from someone they dislike (gliiat dtuaa gin khai gliiat bplaa lai gin naam gaaeng, เกลียดตัวกินไข่ เกลียดปลาไหลกินน้ำแกง).

Early evidence of Thai recipes containing eel
Maawm Sohm Jeen cooks an eel simple clear curry (bplaa lai dtohm bpraeht, ปลาไหลต้มเปรต) in her 1890 (2433 BE, 109RE) cookbook “Tam Raa Gap Khao” (ตำรากับเข้า).

Lady Plean Passakornrawong cooks eel curry (gaaeng phet bplaa lai, แกงปลาไหล) in her 1908 cookbook, “Maae Khruaa Huaa Bpaa (แม่ครัวหัวป่าก์)”.

Maawm Luaang Neuuang Ninrat (หม่อมหลวงเนื่อง นิลรัตน์), a former chef at the residence of Phra Wimaadaa Thuuhr, replaces eel with catfish and cooks a catfish curry in the style of an eel curry (gaaeng bplaa dook yaang bplaa lai, แกงปลาดุกอย่างปลาไหล

Swamp Eel Triple-Layered Red Curry with Fingerroot, Bitter Ginger, Sand Ginger and Thai Basil Flowers Recipe
Hanuman and Chef Thapakorn Lertviriyavit (Gorn)
This eel curry includes a greater-than-usual quantity of aromatics used over three stages. This 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.
Prep Time 1 hr 30 mins
Cook Time 25 mins
Total Time 1 hr 55 mins
Course Main
Cuisine Thai
Servings 5

Ingredients
  

  • 3 cups Asian swamp eel cut into 2 cm thick slices
  • 2-3 cups fresh coconut cream
  • 1/2 - 1 cups coconut milk
  • 1/2 - 1 cups water
  • 1/4 cup kaffir lime leaves
  • 2 teaspoons palm sugar
  • 3 tablespoons fish sauce
  • 1/2 cup bitter ginger gra theuu กระทือ, thinly sliced
  • 1 tablespoon sand ginger bpraw haawm เปราะหอม, thinly sliced
  • 1/2 cup fingerroot thinly sliced
  • 1/2 cup fresh peppercorns (พริกไทยอ่อน)
  • 1/2 tablespoon ground dried chili (พริกป่น), freshly roasted and grounded
  • 1 teaspoon ground roasted coriander seeds
  • 1 teaspoon ground roasted cumin seeds
  • 1 cup light green young chili peppers
  • 2 cups sand ginger leaves thinly sliced
  • 2-3 cups Thai basil

To prepare the eel

  • 1/4 cup kaffir lime leaves
  • 4 lemongrass
  • 2 galangal
  • 1/2 cup shallots peeled

Red Curry Paste

  • 1/2 cup dried red long chili (phrik chee fa) (พริกชี้ฟ้าแห้ง) deseeded and finely sliced
  • 1/2 cup lemongrass thinly sliced
  • 2 tablespoons kaffir lime zest
  • 1 tablespoon galangal thinly sliced
  • 1/3 cup fingerroot thinly sliced
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons bitter ginger gra theuu กระทือ
  • 1 tablespoon sand ginger bpraw haawm เปราะหอม
  • 1/3 cup Thai garlic thinly sliced
  • 4 tablespoons shallots finely chopped
  • 1 teaspoon ground roasted coriander seeds
  • 1 teaspoon ground roasted cumin seeds
  • 1 tablespoon fermented shrimp paste (kapi)(กะปิย่างไฟ) kapi

Fresh Aromatic Paste

  • 2 tablespoons fresh bird's eye chili (kee noo suan) (พริกขี้หนูสวน)
  • 1/2 cup red and green chilies
  • 1 tablespoon fingerroot finely sliced
  • 1 tablespoon sand ginger bpraw haawm เปราะหอม
  • 1 tablespoon bitter ginger gra theuu กระทือ
  • 2 tablespoons Thai basil flowers

Topping

  • Coconut cream
  • Hair-thin julienned kaffir lime leaves
  • Sand ginger bpraw haawm เปราะหอม
  • Bitter ginger gra theuu กระทือ

Instructions
 

  • A visual overview of the red curry paste ingredients.
  • Pound all the ingredients into a smooth paste.
  • Add kapi (fermented shrimp paste); mix and set aside.
  • A visual overview of the fresh curry paste ingredients - clockwise: small bird’s eye chilies, fingerroot, bitter ginger, red and green chili peppers, Thai basil flowers, sand ginger cubes.
  • In a pestle and mortar, pound the fresh curry paste ingredients into a rough paste. Set aside.
  • A visual overview of the fresh ingredients used in the curry.
  • Thinly sliced sand ginger leaves. Set aside.
  • Clean the eel, and cut it into 2cm-thick segments.
  • Place the shallots and aromatics in a wok, over medium heat.
  • Add the eel, and fry until the eel begins to release fluids and its meat is cooked.
  • Discard the cooking fluids and the aromatics, and set the cooked eel meat aside.
  • In a cooking pot, heat the coconut cream until it breaks (cracked), and oil appears.
  • Add the red curry paste.
  • Fry the curry paste in the cracked coconut, gradually adding more coconut cream.
  • Add ground roasted cumin seeds and ground roasted coriander seeds.
  • Add kaffir lime leaves.
  • Season with palm sugar.
  • Add fish sauce.
  • The curry paste is ready when all the coconut cream has been incorporated, and red oil floats on top.
  • Add coconut milk.
  • Mix gently, and let the eel meat absorb the curry flavors.
  • Add fingerroot, bitter ginger and sand ginger.
  • Add a second batch of kaffir lime leaves.
  • Add fresh peppercorns.
  • Mix everything.
  • Season again with the dry spices (ground dry chilies, ground cumin and ground coriander).
  • Add the fresh curry paste.
  • Add the light green young chilies and Thai basil flowers.
  • Add Thai basil.
  • Mix.
  • Serve.
Tried this recipe?We'd love to see it - tag it #THAIFOODMASTER on Instagram! Please leave a comment to let us know how it was!
3 comments… add one
  • Avatar Margaret Bourdette Dec 22, 2017, 9:37 am

    Sounds fascinating!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • Avatar mala Jan 19, 2020, 3:15 pm

    can you buy sand ginger leaves in England. Is it grown here? Otherwise can you tell us which store sells it.

    • Avatar Beth Mar 2, 2021, 7:05 pm

      I would suggest doing a Google search of all of the small asian/thai/Indian grocers in the area. You may find it fresh or dried. Otherwise you will likely have to order it dried online.

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