Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Nothing Fishy Here: Lao-Style Whole Grilled Talapia

For being a land-locked country, Laos cuisine is chock full of fish. The rivers - in particular, the Mekong - are a huge source of food. Fish abounds in every market, every restaurant, and every street corner grill. As I was cruising down the Mekong River over the course of three lazy days, often the only other signs of civilization for hours on end were the fishermen in slender, low-slung boats, hand casting their nets.

So naturally, I ate my fill of fish. My favorite, which I have now attempted to replicate several times at home (successfully, I think!), is whole grilled talapia, aromatically seasoned by stuffing the cleaned fish with fistfuls of herbs and spices. I get the beautiful whole fish locally at... you guessed it... 99 Ranch Market, the Asian superstore that I mention here often. (Word of warning however: avoid 99 Ranch - especially the spectacular fish counter - the day before Chinese New Year. I learned the hard way.)

The trick is grilling the talapia without the whole fish just falling apart. I wish I had some tips for how to do that - I don't, really. You could use a fish basket gadget thingy, but dammit... it's just fish over a fire. I like being a purist. I wish I wish I had the set-up that they do in Laos; they sandwich the fish between two sturdy bamboo sticks that are bound tightly enough on each end to hold the fish in place. The ends of the sticks are propped on blocks so that the fish, belly-side down, spans the flame (see picture, above). It's like a perfect little spit, enabling even grilling and turning, without the filling spilling out or the fish falling apart. But alas - I have a regular ol' charcoal Weber... I simply take my chances and cook the fish on their sides. Only one fiasco so far.

At any rate - the ingredients I use to stuff the fish are the same that I had from a street-side vendor just outside of Luang Prabang: lemongrass, garlic, galangal, ginger, rau ram (Vietnamese coriander- cilantro is an acceptable substitute), basil, a sprinkling of salt and a few slivers of the extremely hot Thai birds-eye chilies. I simply pack the cavity of the fish until it's fairly bursting and then secure it closed with a bamboo skewer. I coat the entire thing with a liberal brush of olive oil to keep it from sticking on the grill (my own addition - certainly not a Lao tradition), and score the skin to save it from splitting from the heat. Once grilled, I finish it off with a squeeze of fresh citrus - lemon or lime.

How long do I grill the fish? Over what sort of heat? I have no idea. I just let the coals get nice and white-hot, let the fish cook on one side until it has firmed up enough to turn, and then pull it from the heat when the flesh is firm to the touch and the skin is crispy and golden. Nothing to it.

You can do it, right? No? Jeez... just come over then - I'll happily make it for you!

1 comment:

  1. My wife & and cooked this last night and loved it. Thanks for posting it, we love Laos and Lao food. Matched it with a Semillion from the Hunter Valley, Australia (just north of our place) ... we had a great meal