Take it slow, baby: part II (or, how to turn fish into cloud)
(Continuing from part I.)
Thai food, when we really think about it, is really far more Ferran Adrià-esque than it is Alice Water-ish. We take an ingredient and work at it –pradit pradoy, as we say in Thai- until in the end it sometimes resembles so little of the original form. An example for this is Pla-dook Foo or crispy fried catfish, my favorite accompaniment to many types of pungent Nam-prik relish. We take a catfish, cook it on the fire until done, take the cooked flesh off the bones and fluff it up with the tines of a fork, then deep fry that fish meat until it is crispy. The end result of this is hardly recognizable as fish, more like clumps of cloud. Oddly crispy kind of cloud. You'd never guess that it was fish until someone clues you in.
We are fond of apparently odd pairings, like the Pla-dook Foo that we have just spoken about, which is paired with not only the pungent Nam-prik relish, but also with caramelized pork belly. There is also a snack dish of salty dried fish tossed with sugar and paired with watermelon (Pla-hang Tang-mo) which is sometimes served with sweet sticky rice.
And then there is Khao-tung Jompol, my favorite store-bought snack of all time. It's made from rice, cooked to a paste and then spread thin and air-dried. The resulting dried rice paper is broken into large chunks and fried, then broken again to smaller chunks and tossed with sugar, salt, and pork candy floss (Moo Yong). Yes, I said pork candy floss. It's just what you read, pork cooked with lots of sugar until it resembles candy floss or cotton candy. My friend Eric said that this could have walked out of an El Bulli cookbook. I can see that too, can you?
Take a whole catfish -a whole fish will work a lot better than filet- and cook it until done. (Filets will work in a pinch, but the resulting crispy fish will be a bit more broken up than it would be if the fish were cooked whole. Something to do with more gelatin in whole fish I guess.) I usually stick it into 400 degree oven until it's completely cooked. Err on the side of being over-done, not the other way round.
Separate the fish meat from the bones, by whichever means easiest to you. I do it with two forks. Then take a fork –yes the fork works best for this step- and break up the meat and fluff it up until nice and fluffy. Lay the fish in one thin layer on a large plate so the meat could dry up a bit. Wet fish will spell disaster when frying.
Heat 2-3 inch of oil in a large pan until hot (400 degree precisely, if you want to be retentive about it). Make sure you have at least 2 inch between the level of the oil and the top of the pan, the oil will bubble up quite a bit and might overflow a pan that is too shallow.
Sprinkle –yes, sprinkle- a big handful of the fluffy fish meat into the hot oil. Stick your spatula in to break up the clumps if the fish went into the oil in a blob rather than a sprinkle. The oil will bubble up quite seriously. Wait until the bubbles subside, then use your spatula to coax the fish meat into the middle of the pan. The goal here is to get a nice clump of crispy fish meat, not bronken up bits of meat. (If you did a good job you should be able to get the crispy fish out in one or two large clumps.)
Let the fish cook until golden brown, this might take a while, flipping the clumps once should get both sides equally browned.
Take the crispy fish out of the oil, let drain for a bit on paper towel before serving.
(To be continued)