Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Aromatic Steamed Fish Curry (Mawk Pa)

The recipe for this fish curry comes from the fantastic travel/cookbook Hot Sour Salty Sweet; A Culinary Journey through Southeast Asia, by Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid. It's one of my favorite cookbooks, because it is real. It talks of travels...of places and the peoples that cook the food that is described in the recipes. In fact, in a footnote to the recipe I used here (which is prepared in Laos and Thailand) Alford mentions a Cambodian variation:
The Khmer version of this dish is known as ah mahk. It includes coconut milk and is often topped with a dollop of coconut cream and some finely shredded lime leaves rather than with scallion leaves.
I love it. Since I received this book as a gift from my lovely girlfriend, I have also purchased another of Alford and Duguid's books, Beyond the Great Wall; Recipes and Travels in the Other China. Another keeper, but I will have to save that one for a later post.

I have cooked this fish dish a handful of times before, as it has become one of Lissa's favorites. I decided to try something new to accompany it this time so as to spice things up. I had just bought some exciting canned goods from our last trip to San Jose, and wanted to have the contents of one them end up in a salad. I picked up some sweet corn, tomatoes and purple cabbage, and was thinking of something fruity (either in a sauce or in the salad) from can land. I went with the jackfruit! What I didn't realize was that 'young green jackfruit' means unripe, and thus, not sweet. Doh! No problemo, just a slight modification...I will now quickly sautée the fruit in coconut oil with ginger, add some lime juice, mirin and brown sugar, then finish it with a splash of my exciting new coconut vinegar. Tadah! Sweet(ish) jackfruit sauce. Let the sauce/dressing cool, and then add it to the shredded cabbage and wedged tomato. If you add it hot (like I did tonight) it will blanch the cabbage and maters, which I like in terms of texture but not aesthetics, as the cabbage will bleed and turn the jackfruit purple. There is something about each ingredient retaining it's color here that seems important...

While I was making the salad, I had some rice cooking. Jasmine rice a la Lissa. She had made some sun-brewed green tea, and suggested that we use it to cook the rice. Hellooooooooo? Yah. Great idea, amor. The slightly sweet, yet astringent sencha tea will impart a pretty flavor in to our Jasmine rice. Nice counterpoint to our other dishes.

Now, on to le poisson. I don't always include specific and measured instructions on my food posts, mostly because that's not how I typically cook. So if that bugs you, you'll be pleased with me here.

1.5 pounds fish fillets (catfish, snapper, or whatever firm-fleshed white fish you prefer)
1 Thai dried red chile, soaked in .5 cup warm water until softened
2 stalks lemongrass, trimmed and minced very fine
.5 cup chopped shallots
2 tablespoons chopped corriander roots (yes, roots iya!)
1 tablespoon fresh lime juice
2 tablespoons Thai fish sauce
.5 teaspoon salt, or more to taste
1 cup chopped scallion greens
.25 cup packed Asian basil or sweet basil leaves, coarsely torn

Cut the fish into bite-sized pieces, discarding any bones or other tough bits, and set aside in a bowl.
Keep the chile-soaking water and mince the soaked chile, discarding the tough stem. Place in a large mortar or in a cuisinart, add the lemongrass, shallots, and ROOTS!, and pound or blend to as smooth as a paste as possible. Add the chile-soaking water and lime juice and stir or blend together.
Pour the flavor paste over the fish and stir in fish sauce salt. Taste, and add if needed, salt to taste. Stir in most of the scallion, reserving some for garnish, and stir in the basil leaves.
You can steam the fish a couple of different ways. Alford suggests dividing the mixture between a couple shallow heatproof bowls, and placing them in a bamboo steamer. Mawk refers to the traditional method of steaming fish or chicken with aromatics in banana leaf packets, so if you have a banana tree in your yard or have access to banana leaves (they are available in some Latin and Asian markets). The way I usually do it is by simply pouring the fish and flavor paste into a braising pan (any pan with a tight-fitting lid will do) and 'steaming' it thusly, on low heat. Although I like it just fine out of the pan, I think next time I'll try the leaves.

A note on the garnish. How food looks on a plate so greatly enhances the way it tastes. For me, the visual aspect of food is one of notable importance. The joy of beautifully plating food is how simple it often is. Here is a link to a The Book of Garnishes, available on Google books. For this plate, I just fanned out some lemon cucumbers from our garden, used a basil tip to adorn the lil' rice tower, and these limes. To make them, cut half-way through the lime in a zig-zag pattern until you return to the first cut, and separate. They are pretty simple once you get the hang of it.

I am sure it's not much compared to real deal Thai grandma home-cooking, but I do what I can :)

With that, I am reminded of a customer I served while working at Cafe Mare, an Italian restaurant in Santa Cruz, CA....after I served her food, I came back to ask how she was enjoying the meal. She replied "It's not like it was in Italy." :) I laughed to myself, "As if it could ever be..."

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