The freshest fish are worth the extra effort
Even though Bangkok isn't far from the coast, it may be a while between the time your fish is pulled from the sea and it reaches your table _ the solution is to go and meet the fishing boats yourself
Most people who like to cook set the goal of making each dish turn out as delicious as possible, and therefore place a lot of importance in using good ingredients _ fresh meat and produce, dried foods and condiments, and seasonings. All three of these elements are equally important, and finding the best of each is essential to good cooking.
CATCH OF THE DAY: Saltwater fish, including ‘pla kao daeng’, fresh from the sea.
A couple of weeks ago I discussed condiments such as kapi, nam pla, see iew (soya sauce), tao jio (a salty sauce with whole fermented soya beans), salted fish, dried fish and pla ra (fermented fish). This time I'd like to focus on fresh ingredients, including fish, pork and beef.
It can be difficult to find good quality fresh seafood in Bangkok, so when a skilful cook happens on a choice ingredient, he or she will often buy it first and decide what to do with it later. Finding fresh, high-quality ingredients is the primary concern.
First on the most-coveted list are saltwater fish, which can be made into a great number of fried, steamed and boiled dishes. Even though Bangkok is not far from the sea, 70-80% of the saltwater fish in the capital is not ideally fresh. The stages the fish pass through on their way from the sea to the market are many, and each takes time. The boats that catch the big, deep-water fish that live far from shore are large vessels that stay out at sea for several days at a time. The fish that are caught are put into an iced area below deck.
When they have caught enough fish, the boats return to shore and take the catch to markets where middlemen buy them for resale. These merchants make their purchases from many different boats, choosing fish of the same kind and similar size to send on to Bangkok for sale. The fish are kept on ice while being sent to retail markets in Bangkok. The ones that will be sold in chain stores go to a central clearing facility for distribution to the store's different branches. There, too, they are kept on ice.
COOL CUSTOMERS: Saltwater fish on ice. The blood shows that it is still quite fresh.
What's more, the fish in markets and retail outlets will not all be sold immediately. Three or four days can easily pass before the fish reach the hands of the buyers who will cook them, and they will be kept on ice as their freshness gradually diminishes. Fresh markets are the places where the storing of fresh fish is at its worst. The fish awaiting sale are often treated with formalin to keep them from spoiling.
There is a way out of all this for people who like to eat fish from the sea: Go to a local market in a seaside province and examine the fish that have just come in from the boats. You may find types different from the usual sea bass, snapper and sheatfish. Fishermen cannot choose the kinds of fish they catch, so there may be less familiar types, including those known in Thai as pla hua krapong, pla krapong pang joot, pla seekun and pla bai paw, all of which make excellent eating.
Fish that have not yet been iced may look unappealing, with wide-open mouths, but they are usually almost 100% fresh. Even if you have no ice-chilled cooler with you to keep the fish in as you take them home, there should be no problem finding a polystyrene box for sale nearby. Filled with ice, it will stay cold for more than 24 hours.
One local fresh market of this kind is Talat Nong Mon at Bang Saen in Chon Buri, where the fish are sold at about 5pm. Another is the Chatchai fresh market in Hua Hin, where the fish are especially good in the early morning.
For freshwater fish, the places to look are local markets near rivers, lakes and streams. The local fishermen display everything they have caught in wicker baskets. Some fish may not look so appealing, such as the pla krathing, which has snake-like markings on its skin, The presence of pla krathing might detract from the appeal of more attractive fish they share the basket with, such as pla daeng (a flat, blade-like species) or carp. But they are all fresh, and if you take one of those ugly pla krathing, grill it until it has become slightly dry, and then cook it into the sour-hot soup called tom kloang, or stir-fry it with spicy seasonings, or make it into a curry of the kaeng khua type, you'll have a dish to make you forget those prettier fish.
The catfish is one of the most popular freshwater fish. There are two kinds in markets, those that are farmed and those that come from natural water sources or rice paddies. Those found in flooded rice fields are known in Thai as pla duk na, or rice paddy catfish. They are black with yellow bellies, and people who like to eat them prefer the fish from rice paddies to the farmed ones, even though they are more expensive. Both kinds are usually available in local market fish stalls.
INTEGRATED OFFERING: Different kinds of freshwater fish mixed together at a market.
At markets in the countryside the basins containing pla duk na contain fish of all sizes, since the people who catch them in ponds or fields can't choose them according to size. At Bangkok markets, on the other hand, the catfish are uniform in size, showing that they were farmed in ponds. Actually, the "pla duk na" sold in Bangkok are often not real rice field catfish at all.
Market vendors like to display the sea crab called pu ma in Thai in basins with oxygen delivered by tubes to keep them fresh. Customers may be charged prices higher than usual for them on the basis of their freshness, but there may be a problem with the firmness of the meat. If the crab has been kept for longer than two days the meat begins to loosen and become slack. When buying crabs that are bound with rubber bands to immobilise them, look to see if there is any foam near their mouths to show that they are still breathing and fresh.
With pork there are usually no problems concerning freshness. A customer can choose the cut they want and have it minced, if desired. When buying beef the type of cut can also be selected by the customer, but having it minced can be a problem because many vendors lack the equipment needed. Once bought, it will have to be chopped at home, a noisy, laborious procedure that requires a good chopping block and a sharp knife.
The best way to mince meat, is to have a mincer at home. That way it can be minced to the desired consistency. The same machine can be used to mince pork, chicken, shrimp or other meats.
Finding fresh ingredients of the best quality is a prerequisite to preparing any dish worth its name, but there are rewards beyond those produced in your kitchen. The experience of hunting down fresh ingredients in rural markets where they share space with unfamiliar local ingredients can be a valuable part of any cook's education. Besides finding the ingredients you need, there is also the chance you will discover ingredients that open the door to new culinary territories.
About the author
- Writer: Suthon Sukphisit