19 July 2010

Fried walking catfish with fried holy basil



This dish is as evocative of southern Thailand as any food I know. The village where I lived and worked was in the midst of southern Thailand's vast acreage devoted to rubber trees; what once was lowland rain forest had been cleared to make room for the long neat rows of rubber trees. Poor by any standard used in the United States, these rubber farmers felt the swings in worldwide rubber prices, and while their rubber trees gave them an opportunity to make more money than rice farmers, they continued to subsist on the foods they grew, foraged, or caught. Most yards had papaya trees, chili peppers, lemon grass, kaffir limes, galangal, ginger, tumeric, and an wide array of herbs, leaves, and other plants used for cooking. I often didn't know which planted were cultivated and which were wild.
The correct fish for this recipe is walking catfish, (although pla duk, ปลาดุก is also translated simply as "catfish,") easily caught in the streams of southern Thailand, but an unwanted, illegal, invasive species here in the US. I found them frozen in an Asian market in Minneapolis; the frozen fish cost $3.50. They remind me of bullheads, which could be used; so could any small catfish. Clean the fish, cut off their heads, and slice them into 1" chunks.
Holy basil (Ocimum sanctum, kha phrao, กะเพรา) can be grown as easily as other varieties of basil, and it's specifically used in a number of Thai dishes, so you might want to plant a little of it in your garden. This recipe calls for a lot; I like to pick a colander full, maybe 4 cups of leaves.
Fresh curry paste makes this dish sing.  The curry paste is fried in a little oil, intensifying its flavor (and its fragrance, which is why I try to cook this outside, especially because of the frying involved.)
Palm sugar is the last thing needed, and a few tablespoons will be enough.

So here's how I make this delicious curry:
I lit my Weber Smokey Joe and when the charcoal was hot I put my dutch oven on top, and filled it with about 2" of oil.  When it got to 400 degrees F. I slipped in the pieces of catfish and fried them until they were crisp. I removed them with a slotted spatula and put them on a brown bag.
Next, I fried the basil leaves.  After I picked them I brought them into the kitchen and pinched all the leaves off their stems, so only leaves remained.  They went into the hot oil and cooked almost immediately.  In less than a minute, after swirling them once through the oil, I used the spatula and put the crisp leaves in a brown bag to drain.
I poured the oil into a glass jar, leaving only a few tablespoons on the bottom of the pot.  Returning the pot to the heat, I put in the 1/2 cup or so of curry paste, and stirred it, watching it brown and cook.  To this I added a few tablespoons of palm sugar, and tasted it to make sure I noticed the sweetness. Before the curry paste had a chance to burn, I added a little water, which sputtered furiously in the intense heat of frying curry paste.  I kept stirring, and eventually it smoothed out like a nice roux.  I added enough water to make it like a thick sauce, less than a cup, but every time I make this I think I should add a little more water because then maybe we'd have a little more leftover sauce, which is great with rice for lunch the day after.
To this bubbling brew I now returned the crispy fried slices of catfish, and stirred to mix the fish into to sauce.
On the heels of the catfish came the basil, and to the pot I now added 1/2 the basil, stirring it in gently, letting the crisp basil find its way into the mix.
When all was well and good I ladled it into a serving bowl and topped the entire thing with the second half of the crisp fried basil.  What a sight!
We brought this to the table with fresh green beans and a lot of rice.  Oh, and a few grilled hot dogs, too!  This dish is way too spicy for our kids, and they were happy to eat Twins Ballpark hot dogs, the big fat ones.
I hope you'll take the time to make this curry; it's one of my favorite dishes.  The curry sauce is fiery hot with a little sweetness, and the basil is infused throughout. Some of the basil loses its crispness, but by keeping some of it on top of the curry, every spoonful can bring a crisp bit with it.  The catfish is a rich, oily fish, and it retains its flavor while surrounded by other strong tastes.  'Roi jahng hoo! as they'd say in Trang.

2 comments:

  1. I love catfish and I love basil. And by the way, I love to fry stuff. That must be my recipe. Its not so easy to find catfish in Berlin. But it should be possible to use another fish. Whatever, I will fry this weekend.

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