I first had this mildly spicy curry-smeared fish in the northern capital of Chiang Mai steamed in ingeniously folded banana leaf packets that also served as a takeaway container. The banana leaf is 100% natural and compostable and infuses the fish with a subtle herby flavor. Look for banana leaf at Asian and Latino markets in the freezer section, or wrap the fish in Swiss chard leaves instead.
4 10-inch-long frozen banana leaves, defrosted, or large Swiss chard leaves (bottom stalk discarded)
4 6-oz boneless halibut fillets
4 lime leaves
1 red Fresno chile pepper, julienned, or ¼ cup julienned red bell pepper
In a blender, blend coconut milk, cilantro, basil, curry paste, fish sauce, sugar and turmeric until smooth.
Cut away tough ribs from banana leaves and soak the leaves in a large skillet full of hot tap water to soften for 10 minutes to make them easier to fold. Drain the leaves and cut them into roughly 10-inch squares, removing the tough center rib. Place a square in the center of a cutting board and place 1 piece of fish in the center of the leaf. Spread with a quarter of the curry paste mixture. Place a lime leaf and a few pieces of pepper on top. Fold the sides of the banana leaf up and over the fish and wrap as you would a present with the seam on top. Secure the overlapping banana leaf with a few toothpicks. Repeat process with remaining fish.
Arrange fish seam side up in a steamer rack and set the rack over simmering water in a large pot. Cover the pot or steamer basket and steam until fish is opaque when pierced with a paring knife, 8 to 10 minutes.
Fish cakes in Thailand are often augmented with tapioca flour to make them sturdier; I opt for healthy, protein-rich quinoa instead. These make a great appetizer or can be served as a main course with noodles or rice. When preparing your quinoa for this recipe, use a ratio of 1 cup quinoa to 12/3 cups water – this ensures your fish cakes don’t get soggy. Do try the dipping sauce – just a little gives the fish cakes a sweet-tangy bite.
All over Thailand, you’ll see cooks in makeshift sidewalk food carts working huge mortars and pestles, pounding together the ingredients for this spicy, refreshing salad. If you don’t have a mortar and pestle, chop and smash the chiles and garlic with the side of a chef’s knife before mixing them with the remaining dressing ingredients. Traditionally, the papaya is cut into julienne threads with a large, sharp knife, but I prefer the safety of a nifty julienne peeler.
Take a tip from Thai street vendors and have all your ingredients lined up next to the stove so you can work quickly and continue to move the ingredients around in the wok nonstop. Unsalted peanuts would make a crunchy topper to this dish for added texture.
Fried rice in Thailand is made with cold leftover white jasmine rice, but I prefer the flavor and fiber of short-grain brown rice. The combination of sweet, fresh pineapple, salty fish sauce and spicy chile sauce is typical of Thai dishes.