The traditional Thai way of life has always been centred around water, and Thais have always had a very strong bond with it. The closeness of this relationship was not limited to the places they chose to live, which were usually close to water or floating on it, but also included travel, which was generally by boat, and even the cuisine, largely based on the fish and other animals caught in rivers, streams and the sea. In Thailand there are more recipes for fish than for any other kind of dish.
REGIONAL FAVOURITE: ‘Pla yeesoke’ in Myanmar.
Fish dishes are found everywhere in Thailand, but they vary from place to place. Locations where a certain kind of fish was plentiful were often named after it, but over the years, fishing, unrestrained by any conservational restrictions, completely depleted stocks of some of them, so that now all that remains is the name.
One example of such a place is Lat Pla Khao in the Bang Khen district of Bangkok. The Thai word lat refers to a wide body of water, and pla khao is a flat, blade-like fish that belongs to the same family as the sheetfish, although it is larger. These days not a single resident of the district is familiar with the fish it is named for.
Another example is Bang Pla Kot at Phra Samut Chedi district in Samut Prakan province. The word bang is similar to a tambon or village, and Bang Pla Kot was once an agricultural area located near the Chao Phraya River. A pla kot is a freshwater fish similar to a catfish, and it is quite hard to find. Today only the name of the fish survives in the name of this vicinity. No pla kot has been seen there in more than 70 years.
Then there is Bang Pla Soy in Chon Buri, which is a coastal city. In the past it was an agricultural area criss-crossed by canals that flowed in from Phanat Nikhom and Phan Thong districts, and these were inhabited by pla soy, very small fish related to carp. The locals liked to ferment them with salt to make nam pla known as nam pla pla soy.
In those days Bang Pla Soy was famous for its nam pla pla soy, but today Phanat Nikhom and Phan Thong are full of factories and few people recall that there were once canals there. Bang Pla Soy is now a densely populated part of Chon Buri whose markets sell sea fish brought in by fishing boats.
The story is the same with Bang Pla Ma in Suphan Buri, with the name remaining but the fish long gone. The pla ma, now almost extinct in Thailand, is another relative of the sheetfish.
LIP-SMACKING: A hot fish stir-fry.
Lad Chado is a community in Phak Hai district in Ayutthaya. It is located on the banks of Khlong Chado, which branches off from a small river that is a tributary of another small river that is itself a tributary of the Chao Phraya. The pla chado is a relative of the snakehead, and is a fierce carnivore that feeds on the young of other kinds of fish, shrimp and frogs, attacking them ferociously. Its meat is firm and coarse-textured and makes delicious nam ya sauce to eat with the fermented noodles called khanom jeen. But these fish have been gone from Lad Chado for more than half a century.
Another fish with geographical associations is the pla yeesoke. They were plentiful in Kanchanaburi and Ratchaburi. The pla yeesoke is another relative of the carp, but it is bigger and has thick skin and yellow, fine-textured sweet and tender flesh. Its native territory is the upper Khwae Noi and Khwae Yai rivers, which are fast-flowing and turbulent and follow winding courses. They have sandy bottoms with dangerous rocky stretches. The two rivers join at Muang Kanchanaburi to form the Mae Khlong River, which flows past Ban Pong and Photharam districts in Ratchaburi, and then on past Muang Ratchaburi before reaching the sea at Samut Songkhram.
The pla yeesoke is a clean fish that feeds on underwater plants. It will only live in fast-flowing, rocky rivers that have sandy bottoms, so both the Khwae rivers are good habitats for them. In the past there were so many of the fish that the local people ate them all the time and they were thought of as common, with no special value.
In those times, 60 or 70 years ago, it was hard to get to Kanchanaburi. The road from Nakhon Pathom was small and narrow, and the only tourism site most people knew was the Erawan waterfall in the Khwae Yai River. Tourists had to travel from Muang Kanchanaburi to Lad Ya district, getting covered with red dust thrown up from the road, then take a wooden boat that transported rice but also had seating for passengers. A boat with a motor would tow a second wooden boat upriver, leaving in the evening and arriving at the Erawan waterfall at 2am, then wait until morning, when the tourists would explore the waterfall while the boat's crew fished to kill time.
The bait they used was just rice pressed into a pellet, and the only fish caught were pla yeesoke, which took the bait in great numbers.
The fish has an ugly mouth with a big swollen lump caused by constant collisions with rocks when the fish is feeding. Fishermen generally went for them mostly as a way of passing the time, with no plan to eat them all.
Pla yeesoke became famous outside the area where they live because of their delicate, finely flavoured meat. The skin is supple but not tough, like that of big sea fish, and the scales can be fried and are tasty when sprinkled over a yam or tom yam dish.
In time, pla yeesoke became one of the most desirable fish. Every restaurant in Kanchanaburi serves tom yam, tom som, yam and other dishes made from it, and most people felt that if they went to the province and don't eat any pla yeesoke, they might as well not have gone at all. In Muang Kanchanburi all of the road signs have the name of the street over a picture of a pla yeesoke.
But Kanchanaburi is not the only place where the fish is found. They are also caught in Ratchaburi, in the Mae Khlong River, a continuation of the two Khwae rivers.
When numbers of the fish began to fall in Kanchanaburi, there were still plenty in Ratchaburi, where the river is wide and clean with a sandy bottom, plenty of rocks and thick vegetation along the banks.
In the area of Ratchaburi from the boundary with Kanchanaburi, Ban Phong district and through Photharam to Muang Ratchaburi, where there is a large Chinese population, there are many Chinese recipes that use pla yeesoke: steamed, or fried with Chinese celery or pepper. They are very famous and anyone who visits this part of Ratchaburi should give them a try.
These days there are far fewer of the fish. Chances of spotting them in the markets in riverside districts are small. Sometimes they can be found in the late afternoon in the small, informal farmers' markets held at some riverside temples, but then they will be sold quickly, despite the very high price.
This means that anyone from Bangkok who wants to buy and cook the fish must go there armed with knowledge of which farmers' market might have it for sale, and when.
So, as the environment is plundered there are fish that disappear and leave behind only their names, attached to the places where they were once abundant. The delicious pla yeesoke is still there to be caught in its native waters, but whether or not you can find one is a matter of chance.
About the author
- Writer: Suthon Sukphisit