The sheatfish (pla nuea awn in Thai) is the queen of the river fish in Thailand. It is a great favourite among those who love freshwater fish, especially when eaten in the breezy atmosphere of a riverside restaurant.
In the Central region, through Pathum Thani, Ayutthaya, Ang Thong and Uthai Thani, almost every customer at a restaurant of this kind will ask for a serving of pla nuea awn thawt krathiem prik Thai (sheatfish deep-fried with garlic and pepper) or chu chee pla nuea awn (sheatfish in a thick and rich curried coconut cream sauce). These dishes are so popular that every riverside restaurant will make sure to have some sheatfish on hand.
The way sheatfish fried with garlic and pepper is prepared these days usually depends on the size of the fish. If it is very small it will be fried until it turns golden brown and the whole body is crisp, and will be served with Sriracha sauce for dipping. Bigger ones will be fried until they begin to brown and then they'll be set on a platter with the crisp garlic with which it was fried sprinkled on top.
This method should be avoided. The reason that restaurants do it this way is probably just to save time.
The proper way to cook it, and the one used in households where the fish is prepared for the family table, is first to pound fresh coriander root, garlic, pepper and salt together and then marinate the fish in the mixture for at least half an hour. Then, when it is fried, some of the garlic and pepper will adhere to it, enhancing its delicious flavour. The fish should only stay in the pan until it is done, meaning when it begins to turn yellow, not until I becomes brown and crisp.
In making chu chee pla nuea awn, many restaurants fry the fish first until it is crisp, then fry the khrueang kaeng, or seasoning paste, with coconut cream and finally put in the fried sheatfish. But by cooking it this way they seal the flavour of the fish in by frying it beforehand.
In a home kitchen, the seasoning paste will be fried in the coconut cream first until it releases its fragrance, and then the fresh, uncooked fish will be put into the pan. It will be seasoned with nam pla and sugar and finely sliced kaffir lime lives will be sprinkled on top.
The seasoning paste used to make the chu chee dish should not be overly spicy, so that when the dish is eaten the flavours of the seasoning, the coconut cream and the fish will be balanced.
A special quality of the sheatfish, which is a scaleless species, is that it has tender meat and a long, soft backbone that is easy to remove, so that a person eating one does not have to worry about swallowing a sharp bone. Some other fish in the same group are pla sai yu, pla khao and pla thaypho, all of which are larger than the sheatfish and have more flesh. They can weigh from one to two kilogrammes each and are cheaper than the sheatfish, but can't beat it when it comes to popularity. Three or four of the sheatfish of the size considered best for eating will weigh about one kilogramme.
Fish in the same size category as the sheatfish are pla daeng, pla nam nguen and pla khang buean, all of which resemble it physically and have similar meat, but are becoming scarcer and are caught only in small quantities. They can sometimes be found before dawn in fresh markets in Sing Buri, Chainat and Uthai Thani, but are then usually all bought by locals, with none finding their way to restaurants. As a result, people who eat their fish dishes at restaurants are unlikely to have tasted them.
These days, there are far fewer fish in the rivers of the Central region than there were in the past, to the point where the Fisheries Department has initiated a regulation protecting the fish during the period when they lay their eggs, which lasts from mid-May to mid-September. In Thai this time of the year is known as rydu nam daeng (the red water season). It is the time during the monsoon when water from the North flows down into the Central region in great quantity, clouded with mud that gives it a reddish colour. The fish swim against the current, heading North to lay their eggs, and villagers in Chainat and Uthai Thani sometimes encounter fish that are rare at other times of the year. In catching them they have to follow Fisheries Department regulations, which specify that only nets with large holes can be used so that undersized fish can escape.
At other times of the year, there is no way for fishermen to know what types of fish they will catch. And when they do catch them, if they can't all be sold, what can be done with them?
In the Chainat/Uthai Thani area they make quite a lot of pla krawp (crispy fish) and smoked fish. Crispy fish can be made from several types, including sheatfish, pla daeng and pla kot, and once made can be used as an ingredient in many dishes.
First on the list is yam pla nuea awn krawp, a hot-sour salad made from crispy sheatfish. It is made by slicing the meat from the fish and frying it until it begins to brown and then placing finely sliced lemon grass and shallots on top together with some fresh coriander.
Then nam prik phao (a sweet, mild chilli paste) is mixed with sugar, lime juice and nam pla to make a thick sauce that is poured over the fish. The result is a first-class pla krawp dish.
The fish can also be made into a tom khloang with tender tamarind shoots. Tom khloang is a type of tom yam that contains shallots and dried chillies that have been roasted, and that is seasoned with nam pla, lime juice and chilli.
These are a few of the dishes that can be made with sheatfish, all devised by Thais who live near rivers who catch these fish and want to prepare something delicious that allows the fine flavour of the sheatfish to come through.
If there is any fish left over after the first meal, the fish can be fried to make a crispy fish dish for later. The special flavour and texture of this popular fish brings out the best in any dish that includes it.
About the author
- Writer: Suthon Sukphisit