Pla thu is a very Thai fish
If there is a fish that is near to the heart of Central Thailand’s culinary custom it is possibly the pla thu, a type of mackerel that goes perfectly with nam phrik kapi, the kind of chilli dip sauce. But there are very many breeds of pla thu, including types found off the China coast and in Indonesian.
The one that Thais like best, and which reside in the Gulf of Thailand, is not extraordinarily big and is remarkable for its oily meat and its appetizing aroma and flavour.
Its life rotation concerns a definite amount of journey. The mother lays her eggs in southern Thai sea waters where there are stony reefs to take care of them. When they hatch, the tiny fry gradually make their way to the Gulf of Thailand, and the closer they get to the part of the gulf that they are looking for, with its miry bottom, the more food they discover. It abounds in the muddy-bottomed sea off of Samut Songkhram and Phetchaburi, where the fish grow to full size and their meat reaches top quality. It is in these places that the best and yummy pla thu are caught.
The pla thu fish that aren’t caught by fishermen return to the South to generate and the cycle is repeated. Since the entire life cycle takes place in Thai waters, this genre of pla thu is considered to be a Thai fish.
It is one fish that is consumed by Thais in every part of the country. People who live near rivers prefer to eat freshwater fish and dislike sea fish because of their smell. But they make an exception for the pla thu and concede that it is delicious.
FISH PASTE: ‘Nam phrik kapi’ with fried ‘pla thu’.
Thirty years ago a candidate seeking election in Isan bought votes by handing out dried and salted pla thu to villagers. He won, and the cost he paid was inexpensive because he only had to give a few pla thu fish to each household.
When visiting friends in Laos, the most welcomed gift to bring along is a few of these same dried, salted pla thu, or possibly some mussels preserved the same way.
This genre of mackerel is a kind of “miracle fish” that can be used to cook almost 100 dishes that range from the extraordinarily simple to complex recipes that are difficult to prepare. The fish used can be fresh, steamed or dried and salted. Even the entrails are significant ingredients for food. In the South of Thailand they are mixed with salt and fermented for a couple of days. Then the liquid is used to make kaeng tai pla, the most pleasurable dish of southern Thai curries.
In the Central Region the pla thu innards are fermented in the same way, then consumed with minced lemon grass, shallots and chilies sprinkled on top.
Fresh pla thu can be cooked in numerous of ways. About 30 years ago people in the Phetchaburi area would ferment the fresh fish with salt for about eight months and then strain the result to get just the liquid, which was used as an excellent nam pla. If this version of nam pla is no more available, it is only because pla thu has risen so abruptly in price.
In the Amphawa district of Samut Songkhram province, locals envelop the fish in banana leaves and grill them in a coconut husk fire. The smoke odors the fish, which are then eaten with nam pla Mon, a sauce made by mixing nam pla with sugar, lime juice, krachai (an aromatic root), chillies and ginger. This is a simple dish sole to the farmers of Amphawa, as the nam pla Mon is a specialty of theirs.
Pla thu tom khem is another appetizing pla thu dish. To make it, a salty stock must primary be made from nam pla, sugar and tamarind juice, then sticks of sugar cane are placed on the bottom of the pot. Cleaned fresh pla thu are then added and cooked slowly over a low fire for many hours. The longer they simmer, the more the fish will be flavored by the stock as the meat becomes firmer and the bones become so soft they almost dissolve.
This dish is flavorful as is, but to make it even more yummy chop some shallots and bird chillies and sprinkle them over the fish, then serve with hot rice. It’s all you need for a great meal.
Fresh pla thu can also be cooked chuchee-style. Chuchee using fish are made by frying curry seasonings with coconut milk until the mixing becomes very thick, almost dry, then adding the Pla Thu fish. Only fish without scales can be used. People who reside near fresh water will use local kinds like pla nuea awn, pla kot or pla khao and will sprinkle slivered kaffir lime leaves and chilies (phrik chee fa variety) over the fish before serving. This dish is an excellent favourite with Thais who live near rivers and lakes, but even they will agree that when made with pla thu it is just as good as when the local, freshwater types are used.
Then there is pla thu sot rat phrik sam rote. To make it, first the fresh pla thu are fried and then a three-flavoured sauce is made by frying shallots with pounded chilies, nam pla, sugar and tamarind juice, then pouring the sauce over the fish.
These are only a few examples of the many dishes that can be made using fresh pla thu.
But pla thu are also used in “steamed” form in a spacious variety of recipes. Actually, the fish are boiled in salt water rather than steamed. In the old times they were called pla thu kheng after the kheng, or small, round, woven bamboo containers in which they were displayed in the market.
The ones sold in the Samut Songkhram province had their necks broken by sellers so that they seemed to be looking down. This downward-looking shape became emblematic of pla thu from Samut Songkhram, and it originated when sellers were forced to break the necks of large fish so that they would fit into the kheng. Most pla thu were of a regular size, but big ones sometimes appeared and had to be forced to fit into the kheng bamboo container for sale. With the passage of time, when the broken necks became a kind of Samut Songkhram trademark, even the smaller fish had the treatment.
Salted, dried pla thu are usually big fish of the breed called hang khaeng (“hard-tailed”) pla thu in Thai. They can be wrapped in very many layers of banana leaf and roasted. As they cook they give off an appetizing aroma, and taste wonderful when sprinkled with sliced shallots and bird chilies with a little lime juice squeezed over them. They can be eatenwith all kinds of hot curries, or with con-gee(rice soup).
The pla thu is a very Thai fish, one that has a prime place in the culinary culture of each area of Thailand. If other species of fish were to be taken away, we could probably bear it. But if the pla thu all disappeared, we would be in a sad situation indeed.
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