Ever read Nabokov’s ‘Lolita’? The novelist starts the first paragraph saying how the name slides off the tongue in three easy syllables: Lo-lee-ta. Same with this month’s recipe. Those triple syllables (and they never seem to be combined into a single word) are just as easy to say, though they sound bulky rather than honeyed. But once heard, always remembered. And in the case of tod man pla, the dish itself, the sheer taste of it is even more memorable. The English translation, fish cakes, sounds utterly boring; something you’d eat if nothing else was to hand. Don’t trust a translation. Thai fish cakes are
definitely not the stuff of seaside boarding houses in the 19th century. Trust instead that you may well be coming back for more of the Thai version.
No need to take my word for it. Look around at markets of all kinds, at carts you see on the street, cheap stalls – and if you’re splurging out at a regal Thai restaurant, check out the menu. For tod man pla is one of the nation’s favourite
dishes. It’s a great culinary leveller – everyone seems to like it. Not a main dish, mind you, but a starter or a snack. It’s wildly popular, but your first glance at it is probably going to disappoint you. “Looks like someone’s melted some old brown carpet with and added a bit of green mulch,” said one food critic. “Never mind how it looks,” said another, “check out the weird
rubbery texture. It’s actually bouncy.”
Eh? Ugly, bouncy food? Sixty million Thais can’t be wrong, surely!? Indeed, even if tod man pla is no culinary oil painting, and a hard act to photograph, its sheer deliciousness wins you over. Eat it at a stall first – just to make sure you like its spiciness – and then make it at home. It’s a real treat.
Unlike western fish cakes, it’s not puffed up with potato or flour, these ones have an engaging purity and sweetness, and despite their brutal look, they’re abidingly delicate, and rely simply on mostly red curry and egg. The only downside
is that they’re deep-fried, so you need to watch out for the extra calories.
In Thailand fish cakes are often made with a kind of ocean fish known as featherback fish, although some people like the delicacy of ‘pla grai’, or the fresh water knifehead fish, but you can use just about any white fish such as cod or haddock. When it floods in Thailand, fish may appear just about anywhere, including the local high street, where they’ll be cheerfully swimming along until locals catch them; one of the dishes that can be made is, of course, tod man pla.
Probably though you’ll get your fish from the market. You can use your food processor to make the dish and this is fine, but the texture won’t be as good as if you do what Thais do and pound the fish by hand. If you’re back at home and really short of time or have no fish to hand, then you can get away with prepared fish paste, sold in virtually all Asian grocery stores the
world over. Not the most popular of staples, you’ll find probably find them buried at the bottom of a freezer. Note that all manner of seasonings may have been added, too.
If you’re feeling particularly decadent, then this spicy dish seems to go well with white wine. If you’re hosting a party, serve on a bed of lettuce and once your guests have got over their apprehension, they’ll eagerly devour however much tod man pla you’ve made. Incidentally, it can be frozen then thawed and reheated for later as well.
• 3/4 cup white fish fillets
• 1/4 cup chopped green beans
• 1 egg yolk
• 3 cups vegetable oil
• 3 Thai chillies, first soaked in the water
• 2 tbsp of sliced shallots
• 3 tbsp of sliced and crushed garlic
• 2 tbsp lemon grass, finely sliced
• 1 or 2 tsp of finely sliced galangal
• 2 tsp finely sliced root of coriander
• 1/2 tsp slices of kaffir lime rind
• 1 tbsp of sliced kaffir lime leaves
• 3 tbsp of red curry paste (adjust if you’d like the dish to be less fiery!)
• 1 tsp fish sauce
• 2 tsp sugar
• Sweet chilli sauce to serve
1. First take the chillies, lemon grass, kaffir lime rind, galangal, coriander and shrimp paste and pound together using a mortar – this is the best way. Once complete, add the shallot and garlic and continue until you’re left with a fine paste.
2. Next, begin the fish cake preparation by dissolving a half teaspoon of salt into about a half cup of water in a mixing bowl. Beat the fish against the bowl using moist hands until it becomes sticky and then, again using your hands, mix the curry paste into the fillet. Keep on beating for another five minutes.
3. Now add the fish sauce and the sugar and keep pounding for a few minutes longer, then add egg yolk, beat a little more before adding the kaffir lime leaves and the beans. The desired result should be that everything is well mixed together, but you can use a food processor to speed up the process.
4. Shape fish into flattish small cakes and then using a wok, or deep frying pan, heat the vegetable oil and deep-fry over a low heat. Watch them closely; when they turn a golden colour they’re ready to be taken out. Since they’ll be very oily, let them drain on paper.
5. Serve with sweet chili sauce, and for a fuller dish, accompany with rice, preferably jasmine. Tod man pla can be eaten hot or cold, whatever takes your fancy.