Thai fish cakes or tort man pla are an ultimate favourite of mine. My grandmothers have a secret war against one another for who’s recipe is the most loved and coveted. Both me and my sister, and my mum prefer my Kun Yai’s (maternal grandma) version the best as they are thick and sticky in texture and lovely and juicy to bite into. The taste of kaffir lime and chilli is perfectly balanced and she makes them outside over a fire in her very old wok. My father loves them crispy on the outside and papery thin- almost burnt in colour. I think the thickness tends to depend on how much pounding the fish gets, how much air is pumped into the mix itself. I have tried a few versions of Thai fish cakes in the past, but they never did seem to taste the same as my Kun Yai’s. Often in Thailand you can find them in market stalls which are then served in little see-through plastic bags with the relish in a small pottle. I love them piping hot served with the traditional cucumber chilli relish and also cold eaten just on their own. The cucumber relish with its sweet and sour syrup-like quality is really refreshing as an accompaniment with the fish cakes.
Thai Food by David Thompson has a great recipe for fish cakes that is almost as authentic as the ones found in the snack markets of Bangkok. I got this cookbook as a Christmas present from my sister in 2007. I didn’t really use it so much back then as I did not find it particularly appealing during that time in my life when all I cooked was pork cooked in milk or recipes from River Cafe cookbooks. Also, being Thai myself, I was naive to think I already knew enough about Thai cooking but how wrong was I! At the start of this year the book emerged from the back of my shelf of cookbooks and I have been using it quite a bit lately. The preliminary pages on the history of food and spices used in Thai cooking are simply eye-opening. I was amazed to discover the chilli originally came from the Portuguese. The book puts much of its recipes in context with the history and culture of Thailand and there is a lot of absorb. The next recipe I am dying to try is the hor mok (steamed fish curry in banana leaf) being as it is my favourite Thai curry and the meal I would wish to have if it were my last.
For this recipe, I cheated and used pre-made red curry paste (I know what a crime!) as I couldn’t get a hold of fresh galangal that day but it still turned out really delicious. The recipe says you can blend the fish in a food processor with the egg, however I prefer the option of mincing the fish in the food processor then pounding it with the egg, curry paste and fish sauce in a mortar and pestle as I think the texture works better this way. Also, I have an obsession with palm sugar as I love the caramelised unique flavour of this sugar so I try to put it in anything Thai that I make. But when using palm sugar I always ground it so it becomes quite fine as sometimes it is a little lumpy. Here is an adapted version of the recipe for fish cakes which can be found in Thai food:
Thai fish cakes (Tort man pla)
300 g white fish fillets (whiting or cod)
4 Tbsp red curry paste
1 egg, beaten
3 tablespoon fish sauce
2 teaspoons palm sugar
6 kaffir lime leaves shredded as finely as possible
2 tablespoons finely sliced green beans
oil for deepfrying
Mince the fish in a food processor roughly and set aside. Mix curry paste with fish sauce and sugar in a mortar and pestle, add fish and egg and pound together so that it is evenly coloured. Knead on a clean surface by gathering the mix into a ball and throwing it on to the surface. Do this repeatedly until the mixture is firmer and stickier in order to aerate so the fish cakes are puffy as a result. Mix in the lime leaves and beans, shape into small flattened rounds and deep fry over a medium high heat. Eat them as fast as possible or put them in the fridge to firm up and eat cold as a midnight snack when you have major cravings for savoury tastiness.
The cucumber relish in Thai food is really quite a good recipe as it stands, but I would add less shallots next time as these were a little over-powering. Also, I love relish sprinkled with some freshly roasted peanuts that have been roughly ground (this is usually how it would be served in my family). Again, the recipe below has been adapted from Thai food.
3 tablespoons white vinegar
3 tablespoons white sugar
4 tablespoons water
half a cucumber, peeled and diced very thinly
3 red shallots, finely sliced
2 tablespoons very finely sliced ginger
1 red chilli cut into rounds
1 tablespoon lightly roasted and freshly ground peanuts (roughly ground)
Mix vinegar, sugar, water and salt in a saucepan and boil, stirring at all times, remove once the sugar has dissolved. Taste the syrup to check it has a perfect balance of sweet and sour. Once completely cooled, add other ingredients and at the last minute, sprinkle the ground peanuts on top.