birch and grasses alone on the snow, grey sky indistinguishable. the flat world falls into the edge of time, lifeless, dull wedge of horizon and soundless ...
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 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.