In the past, when people caught or bought so much fish or meat that they weren't able to eat it all, they had various techniques to preserve it so it could be stored for long periods of time. They did not let any meat spoil because it involved so much hard work and so many resources to acquire it. And of course, in those days, refrigeration was not an option.
Knowledge garnered from experience accumulated over decades helped people to determine which methods were best for preserving a particular kind of meat and how the preserved meat should be consumed.
Even though refrigeration and freezing are available to us now, preserving food remains essential. Salting, drying and smoking are still widely used to keep food from going bad and to achieve certain flavours, textures aromas.
In the North, pork is abundant, so northern folks have invented a few methods to preserve it. Making it into naem is one of their specialities. Naem is a fermented sausage made with pork, sticky rice, garlic, bird's eye chillies and shredded pork skin. The mixture is wrapped tightly in banana leaves and fermented for several days. The longer the fermentation process takes, the more flavour it has. Naem is used as a main ingredient in many Thai dishes.
Fermented pork is also very popular in the Northeast, where they call it naem som.
Sun-dried fish. Suthon Sukphisit
In most parts of the country, but not the South, when villagers catch a large number of fish and cannot finish the catch, they ferment it. Fermented fish or pla ra has long been an integral part of Thai cuisine.
Fish, especially snakehead, is plentiful in the North, South and Central Region. Dried, smoked and salted snakehead is among the most common products in these areas.
Snakehead is preserved in various ways. The fillets are rubbed with salt, arranged in attractive patterns and sun dried. The dried fish can be used in several dishes, e.g. chilli dip, which can be kept for a long time. The fish is grilled and pounded until fine. Then it is added to a mixture of pounded roasted dried chillies, shallots and garlic, and seasoned with tamarind juice.
Another famous old dish that features dried snakehead fish is a snack called pla heang tang mo. Simply fry ground dried fish until yellow and fragrant, toss it with some white sugar and sprinkle on top of watermelon. It is ready to serve.
Another easy preparation is to cook it in coconut milk. Slice the dried fish into thin pieces, put in boiling coconut milk and season with sugar.
A vendor selling smoked fish in Uthai Thani.
In the past, dried and salted snakehead was regarded by northerners as a treasured gift. This was because the riverbeds of the waterways in the North are typically composed of sand, while snakehead fish thrive only in muddy waters. In the North, they call dried and salted snakehead fish pla buang.
Smoking is one of the oldest techniques for food preservation. Smoked fish or pla krob (crispy fish) is popular throughout Thailand. When villagers had a lot of leftover fish, they would rub them with salt, skew them together with wooden sticks and place them in the sun until dry (but not too dry). The fish skewers were then smoked using wooden fires until completely dry and crispy. There are many different popular dishes made with crispy smoked fish. For example, you can use it in nam prik or put it in kaeng lieng to make the soup thicker and more aromatic.
Fish smoked in the oven. Suthon Sukphisit
Smoking is perfect for preserving flatfish with little flesh such as pla salad (grey featherback). After being smoked, the whole fish, including the bones, become crispy. Finely ground, it is used as an ingredient in many recipes.
The best crispy smoked fish is sheatfish, which is especially delicious when added to tom yum soup. Its tough dried meat becomes tender and breaks into small chunks when boiled. The head and bones make for a tasty soup with a grilled fish aroma.
Smoked sheatfish imported from Cambodia is very popular in Thai markets. Caught in Tonle Sap lake, the fish are big and meaty. Cambodian fishermen have a special method for smoking their fish to perfection.
A variety of crispy fish. Suthon Sukphisit
Some time ago, during a dispute between the countries, diplomatic ties between Thailand and Cambodia were suspended. The Thai government ordered a ban on various imported goods from Cambodia. But Cambodian smoked sheatfish defied the ban. Cambodian merchants transported the fish in caravans of oxcarts. It took them months before they reached the Thai border but their fish sold out within days.
Many Thai dishes use smoked sheatfish as a main ingredient, including yam pla krob (a hot and sour salad), fried pla krob with chilli paste, pla krob curry with bai kee lek (Siamese cassia leaves), tom yum pla krob (a hot and sour soup) and kaeng lieng (vegetable soup).
Smoked sheatfish. Suthon Sukphisit
Smoking fish is no longer just done as a means to preserve food for consumption in the future. It has become a cottage industry. Smoked fish is common as an Otop product and a popular export item. Pla krob can be made from several types of fish, including snakehead, pla kod kang (Asian redtail catfish) and pla sawai (pangasias). Fresh pangasia is not widely used in cooking as its fatty stomach has a strong odour. Also, they are often seen clustering to feed at piers in front of temples, which results in many Buddhists declining to eat them. Once smoked, however, the unpleasant odour completely disappears, to be replaced by a pleasing smokiness.
Our forefathers really deserve credit for the techniques they developed to preserve food, allowing us so many wonderful options today.