The ideal summer dish should be refreshing and cooling. It should also be unintimidated by the relentless summer heat, and able to withstand being left outside on the kitchen table without spoiling.
As such, it would make sense to use fewer ingredients, and choose only those which store well.
Here is a summer dish that showcases the wisdom of creating complex flavors through simplicity. Using just lightly salted semi-dried snakehead fish, golden deep-fried shallots and a sweetening agent (either sugar or coconut), we create a condiment that partners perfectly with pieces of sweet juicy watermelon.
The dry fish is rinsed, let to dry again, and then its meat is separated from the bones and skin. It is crumbled until it is fluffy, and then roasted or fried until completely dry. The final product is seasoned to a sweet-salty mixture which is sprinkled on top of cold, juicy and refreshing watermelon, pineapple or even sticky rice enriched with sweet coconut cream and a pinch of salt (khaao niaao naa bplaa; ข้าวเหนียวหน้าปลา).
The Modern Version
is called bplaa haaeng dtaaeng mo:h (ปลาแห้งแตงโม), in which the fish is roasted to a dry powdery form before it is seasoned with granulated white sugar and mixed with deep-fried crispy shallots.
Khoon Muaang Raatniguun’s version – Early 19th century
Coconut cream is slowly cooked until it cracks and separates to oil (khee lo:h ขี้โล้); to this, crumbled dried fish meat is added, with the fish bestowing its saltiness and umami essence to create an unusually complex flavor. It is slowly fried in the coconut oil until it caramelizes, absorbing the sweetness of the coconut. Once crispy and brown, it is mixed with sweet and crispy shallots deep-fried in khee lo:h oil for extra crunch and sweetness, and served either on watermelon or on pineapple.
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In hot weather, coconut cream goes sour in couple of hours, but khee lo:h oil can still be made from spoiled coconut cream.
This version is called Phat Bplaa Haaeng (ผัดปลาแห้ง) or Fried Dried Fish, and is mentioned in the savory dishes section of Lady Plean Passakornrawong’s (c. 1908) cookbook “Maae Khruaa Huaa Bpaa”. (แม่ครัวหัวป่าก์, ท่านผู้หญิงเปลี่ยน ภาสกรวงษ์).
It is said that Lady Plean received this recipe from Um Daaeng Lim (อำแดงลิ้ม), the Chinese servant of Khoon Muaang Raatniguun (คุณม่วง ราชนิกูล).
Khoon Muaang Raatniguun passed away in the early 19th century, at the beginning of the reign of King Rama III.
Later on, her servant, Um Daaeng Lim, cooked the dish for the regent to King Rama V, Sohmdet Jao Phrayaa Ohng Yai [สมเด็จเจ้าพระยาองค์ใหญ่] also known as Sohmdet Jao Phrayaa Baawn Mohm Haa Sooriyawohng (Chunag Bunnag) [สมเด็จเจ้าพระยาบรมมหาสุริยวงศ์ (ช่วง บุนนาค)].
As the regent’s favorite dish, Sohmdet Jao Phrayaa Ohng Yai rewarded Um Daaeng Lim with money worth 5 dtam-leung (๕ ตำลึง).
Granma Bpiiam version – Early 19th century
There’s another recipe from Khoon Yaai Bpiiam, the grandmother of Lady Plean Passakornrawong, who lived in the same period as Khoon Muaang in the early 19th century.
In this version Khoon Yaai Bpiiam uses pork fat, shallots and dried fish. She cuts the fat into long strips and fries it until the fat is rendered out, and the crackling becomes crunchy. She then fries sliced shallots, one by one, along with fluffy dried fish meat. When the fish is crispy and golden, she adds back the pork crackling and sprinkles with the deep-fried shallots
- Thoroughly wash the dried serpent-head fish. Than roast dry it again.
- For the modern version of the recipe, use almost the same quantities of dried fish, crispy shallots and granulated sugar; add maybe a just bit more dried fish meat to get a balanced taste.
- When making khee lo:h (ขี้โล้) oil, crack the coconut milk in a wok until the oil separates – don’t allow it to change color.
- Fry the dried fish slowly over low heat; make sure it is done slowly or it will change its color and become bitter. If the heat is too low, the fish will not become crispy.
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- 200 g snakehead fish, semi-salted and sun-dried (ปลาช่อนแดดเดียว)
- 1 1/2 cups crispy fried shallots (หอมแดงเจียว)
- 1 cup granulated sugar (น้ำตาลทราย)
- 1 1/2 teaspoons sea salt (เกลือทะเล) optional
Khoon Muaang Raatniguun’s version
- 400 g snakehead fish, semi-salted and sun-dried (ปลาช่อนแดดเดียว)
- 1 liter coconut cream (หัวกะทิ)
- 2 cups crispy fried shallots (หอมแดงเจียว)
- Deep fry sliced shallots until golden crisp.
- Rinse the fish, and let dry again.
- Separate the meat from the bones and skin.
- Roast the fish meat on low heat until powdery.
- Add white sugar.
- Mix everything together.
- Add crispy fried shallots.
- Mix everything together.
- Place in a serving dish.
- Sprinkle over slices of watermelon. Serve.
Khoon Muaang Raatniguun’s Version
- Cook coconut cream over low heat with constant stirring.
- The coconut cream cracks and oil starts to render out.
- The khee lo:h oil is ready for use.
- Add the shredded fish meat.
- Fry the fish until golden and crispy.
- Strain excess oil.
- Add crispy fried shallots.
- Sprinkle over slices of watermelon and/or pineapple. Serve.
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