Every time I have taught a class in Thai cooking (which has been many times over the past five years or so), I have had one or two people hang towards the back of the room, and when I launch into my spiel about how necessary fish sauce is to getting that correct “Thai flavor” in their cooking, one of them puts up a tentative hand, and in a quavery voice asks, “Do you -have- to use fish sauce? I mean, is it -really- necessary?”
I try very hard not to sigh or bark back at them, “What did I just get through telling you? Weren’t you listening?”
Instead, I very patiently go over why fish sauce is necessary in the making of Thai food, and how even some Thai vegetarians even use it, but that if it really bothers you or if you are allergic to fish you can use Thai soy sauce, but be aware that your dishes will not taste like the ones you eat out in Thai restaurants, because you will be lacking a crucial ingredient.
This usually causes the fearful ones to settle down until I start doing cooking demonstrations and pour a liberal amount of fish sauce into a hot wok. When the scent of boiling fish hits them in a cloud of steam, the fearful ones usually step back and snivel, their faces screwed up into expressions of disgust and mistrust.
I usually resort to humor at that point, and tell folks that when I cook Thai food for the first time for guests, I always make up a pretext to send them out of the kitchen when it comes time to whip out the fish sauce and throw it in the wok. For instance, I always send my Mom out to the porch for a last cigarrette before dinner is ready. Any number of friends have been sent out on various pretexts: go set the table, feed the dog, look at the garden, oh, wow, there is a deer in the yard, go look–you name it, I have used it.
But that is only for the squeamish and uninitiated, and that was only done years and years ago when I was less confident. These days, my friends and family are old pros and they know, that no matter what smells may issue forth at intervals from my stove, the end result is always divinely edible, so they wait it out in anticipation.
Some of them, like me, have learned to salivate when they smell the fish sauce spashed against a hot wok.
Because here is the deal: fish sauce grows on you. It may not smell to conventional Western tastes, what one would call good, but after a while, it doesn’t smell bad, either. And then, as you cook with it more and more, and your palate and nose begin to associate the smell of fish sauce with the delicious results of pad thai, green curry or tom kha gai, you begin to actually like the smell of it. It becomes comforting, homey and appetizing.
Once you start making dipping sauces out of it by combining it with sugar, lime juice and chiles, it starts to smell and taste downright good in its own right.
At that point, my friend, you will know that you have learned to love that which you once feared. And that is a good place to be.
Because fish sauce can then become a secret ingredient in your kitchen arsenal. Of course you will use it in Thai food and Vietnamese food, because you can’t make the stuff without it. But after you learn what beautiful, mysterious things it can do to food, you will find yourself bringing it out to use in dishes that never saw southeast Asia, except maybe in a travel brochure.
I have used it to pick up a few Italian sauces that tasted somehow flat. This sounds disgusting and surprising, until you take into account that fish sauce is made from salted, fermented anchovies–a wee fish that is used often to round out the flavors in Italian foods. I have added it to vegetable soups that lacked a savory depth, probably because I didn’t use a good soup bone in making them.
I have not gone so far as to add it to any desserts or breads, but you never know. I once added duck sauce to a batch of cookies, and invented a new recipe that people adore, so watch out.
Fish sauce may well appear in a tart someday.
This Saturday, I made a little Thai/Chinese supper for the friends; I was supposed to make steamed buns, but after the ordeal of nearly breaking my nose by closing the hatchback of our car in it (I knocked myself out for a few seconds–it was quite exciting–I scared Zak to death and irritated myself because after that, I was not only hobbling with a very bruised foot, I had a cut and a bruise on the bridge of my nose), I could not face playing with bun dough.
But, I found when I awoke on the dirty floor of our garage, with blood coming out of my nose and Zak frantically shaking me, was that I had a sudden craving for nam sod.
Nam sod is a wonderful Thai salad that is supposed to be made out of minced or ground pork. It is also supposed to have only some slivers of red onion, some herbs and minced ginger and chiles in it, and is garnished with crushed peanuts. The dressing is fish sauce and lime juice, though I have had it with sugar added to it, though I prefer the flavor without the sweetness.
My version, however, is made with hand minced chicken breast, julienned snow peas and carrots in addition to the red onion, lots of finely minced ginger, garlic and chiles, and has lots of herbs and sprouts to garnish it. I also discovered on Saturday night that really sweet, ripe cherry tomatoes are absolutely to die for as a garnish.
It tastes good the way I make it, even if it is so different from the original recipe that I shouldn’t even call it nam sod. But I wouldn’t know what else to call it, so there we are.
Besides, I patterned mine off of the nam sod they had on the menu at Siam Square in Providence, Rhode Island, which to this day, is still my favorite Thai restaurant anywhere, so there is precident for some of my unorthodox presentation. They, too, used minced chicken, which I know they minced by hand, because every time I ordered it, I could hear the chef pounding away at the chicken with two cleavers to mince it up finely and quickly. It wasn’t until I was well and truly addicted to it that I found out that it is supposed to be made of pork. When I tried it with pork, I didn’t like it, so, here’s the deal–you come to my house, I make nam sod–it is made with minced up chicken, and that is the way it is.
The slivers of red onion–that is orthodox nam sod. The slivers of snow peas and baby carrots–that is classic Barbara. The cilantro (and sometimes mint, when I have it) is traditional; the Thai basil and lime peel are my own innovations. The lightly crushed peanuts belong there; the tomatoes came about because they are in season, and shimmer like little gems when cut in half and sprinkled along the dish.
They also taste fantastic.
Edible flowers such as nasturtium blossoms are not a necessity to the dish, but they sure do look pretty. Lettuce in some form, however, is required. I like to use a salad mix with as many different colors, textures and flavors of greens as possible. As shown to the left, I have a mixture of leaf lettuces with romaine, radiccio and sunflower sprouts in the serving platter. I edged the platter with lime wedges so diners can snag a wedge and add more lime to the flavor mixture as they like.
I realized as we were eating the nam sod tonight, that this is yet another recipe that I learned at the behest of a friend, who upon visiting Providence while I was in culinary school, tried it at Siam Square and fell in love with it. In order to ensure that she would get to eat it again, she entreated me to learn how to make it, so I ordered it a few times, looked up some recipes and then started experimenting in the kitchen. Eventually, I came up with the version that I make to this day, and she said she liked it better than the one she had at the restaurant.
At any rate, this is a very simple dish, and it can be dressed up or down with as many garnishes as you like. I loved the serrano chiles and cherry tomatoes in this version, and the radish sprouts really added a nice cooling zing to the moderately spicy dish.
You can also make it as hot and spicy as you like, simply by adding more Thai chiles or red curry paste to the dish. Or, you can add less.
One thing you absolutely must not skimp on is the fish sauce. You must use a lot of it. And use good fish sauce. I prefer Golden Boy brand–you can recognize it by the little laughing Buddha-bellied baby boy on the label. He is a fat, happy little guy, holding a bottle of fish sauce in one hand and giving a thumb-up sign with the other while grinning like a big ole ‘possum. You can’t miss him. At any rate, that is one of the best fish sauces on the market–it has a very light flavor, and is tangy and salty without being overpoweringly so.
1 1/2 pounds boneless skinless chicken breast
2 tablespoons fish sauce
1 1/2 tablespoons cornstarch
3 tablespoons peanut oil
5 cloves garlic, minced finely
1 1/2″ cube fresh ginger, peeled and minced finely
1-8 Thai chiles, minced finely
1 tablespoon Thai red curry paste
1 tablespoon cilantro stems and roots, washed well and minced finely
1 teaspoon freshly ground white peppercorns
fish sauce, to taste (about 2 tablespoons or so)
1 cup julienned slices carrot
1 cup julienned slices red onion
1 cup julienned slices snow peas (I cut them on the diagonal)
1 cup packed Thai basil leaves
1/4 cup mint leaves (optional)
zest of two limes, in thin strips
juice of two limes
1/2 cup lightly crushed peanuts
5 cups mixed greens, torn into bite sized pieces and laid on a serving platter
1 cup cilantro sprigs, rinsed and dried
3 red ripe serrano chiles, sliced on the diagonal (optional)
1 cup cherry tomato halves (optional)
1 cup radish sprouts (optional)
lime wedges for serving
Hot steamed jasmine rice for serving
Trim all membranes and most of the fat from the boneless skinless chicken breasts and remove all tendons. Cut the meat into a rough dice, then mince by hand. It should be unevenly done, with some larger pieces and some much finer–this is why it is easiest to do this by hand. Using a food processor or buying ground chicken results in a texture which is too uniform. (In order to see an example of of mincing chicken with two cleavers, there is a reference photograph in my post about minced chicken in lettuce cups.)
Mix chicken in a bowl with fish sauce and cornstarch and set aside in a bowl while prepping the vegetables and garnishes
Heat wok until smoking, add oil. When it is very hot, add minced garlic, ginger, chiles, curry paste, cilantro, and peppercorns and stir fry until very fragrant–about one minute. Add chicken all at once and stir fry, chopping at the chicken with the wok shovel to get it to stop sticking together. When chicken is half done (when roughly half of it is white and half is transluescent pink), add fish sauce.
When chicken is mostly done, add carrots and stir fry about thirty seconds, then add onions and stir fry until chicken is done. Add snow peas, herbs, lime zest and the juice of two limes, and continue stir frying until the herbs begin to wilt–about thirty or forty seconds.
Add half of the peanuts and stir to combine.
Pour contents of wok onto serving platter and mound decoratively. Scatter cilantro sprigs around and over mound.
Garnish with remaining peanuts and whatever garnishes you choose to use.
To serve, flatten a serving of rice on a plate, and scoop up nam sod, being certain to get some of the lettuce leaves, and put on top. Serve with a lettuce wedge on the side.
If you do not have homemade curry paste in your freezer (I realize not everyone does), you can use Mae Ploy’s red curry paste. It comes in a resealable plastic tub that seems to last forever in the fridge.
You can make this as hot or as mild as you like depending on how many Thai chiles you use, and how much red curry paste you use. This batch was pretty mild–I actually used no Thai chiles whatsoever in making it and use fresh local serranos, which were mild even for serranos, and the curry paste.
Nasturtium blossoms make really stunning garnishes to top this recipe–especially since they taste nice and peppery, which goes well with the dish.
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