I don’t use my Thai cookbooks often enough. I have three small ones, dating from the long-ago time when it was still possible for cookbooks not to have large formats, glossy paper, fancy layouts, and glamorous color photographs. For a cuisine such as Thai then was, with many unfamiliar dishes, a black-and-white, plain-text listing of ingredients and steps meant that a cook had to have imagination – or faith – to plunge into a recipe for the first time.
The rewards could be gratifying, however, as I recalled one day when I opened The Original Thai Cookbook, by Jennifer Brennan, in search of a recipe for dinner. The book has extensive front matter about Thailand’s history, culture, and cuisine. Its back matter includes a glossary of ingredients; a pronunciation and spelling guide to the Thai language; and a vocabulary list that, in addition to the names of foodstuffs, includes words such as “hello,” “amusing,” “plump,” “ordinary,” “three-wheeled motorized pedicab,” and ‘tasteless or insipid liquid.” Quite an entertaining read, in its modest way.
I had bought some nice flounder fillets and wanted something different, something moderately Asian tasting, to do with them. In Brennan I found Pla Chien, Englished as Fried Fillets in Tamarind Sauce. It seemed to be just the thing – especially since I saw that, some time long ago, I’d written “Excellent!” next to the title.
The ingredient list wasn’t too formidable. I’ve had a chunk of tamarind paste in the pantry for (I swear) at least 20 years. It’s rock hard, but it was that way even from the beginning, and it hasn’t changed a bit. To reconstitute it, I just had to chip off a piece and soak it in hot water until dissolved.
I also had a not-quite-as-ancient bottle of Thai fish sauce, which also seems content to live in the refrigerator forever, so I was in good shape for the recipe.
I browned the flounder pieces – no breading, no flour, just bare fish – in corn oil and set them aside on paper towels. I briefly sautéed chopped garlic in the same pan and then added soy sauce, fish sauce, the strained tamarind liquid, and a little brown sugar. It ought to have been Thai palm sugar, which I didn’t have, or as a substitute, brown sugar mixed equally with molasses. I allowed myself to skip that much authenticity.
That sauce cooked for one minute, and then I returned the fish fillets, sprinkled on chopped ginger and one-inch lengths of scallions, basted everything with the sauce mixture, and cooked for just two more minutes.
I was a bit worried that the chunky scallions and chopped ginger would be raw and harsh after so short a cooking time, but they’d softened enough to provide just the right texture. The dish was excellent – Asiatically subtle, to my western palate, and beautifully flavorful. That sauce mixture brought it up to the level of the most interesting dishes I’ve had in Thai restaurants.
I’ll confess, however, that I’d departed a little further from the recipe than just skipping the palm sugar. The fish should have had a final garnish of fried onion flakes and fresh coriander leaves. I skipped them too. I’m sure they would have made the dish even better, as well as more authentic, but it was just a weeknight dinner and I thought it would be okay without them. It was. The only real problem I saw was that flounder filets are a little thin and fragile for the amount of handling this recipe calls for: I had to work very carefully to keep them from breaking up. A slightly thicker fish – scrod, say, or something similar – would have made for easier manipulation.
I was actually quite proud of myself to have finally managed to make just one easy Asian dish in the context of a simple western meal, instead of insisting on spending all day making a whole Asian menu, as I usually wind up doing. We had plain white rice and green beans alongside the flounder, and we were content.
This mild success encourages me to spend more time with my Thai cookbooks, so stay tuned for further discoveries and rediscoveries.