This is probably a first for 196 flavors. I am about to head to Thailand as I am writing this post about pla kapong neung manao. Not virtually this time, but for real. Yes, tomorrow, we are leaving for 2 week-vacation in the Land of Smiles.
Even if I love sophisticated recipes with unique ingredients, I have to agree that some of the most delicious dishes sometimes come from the easiest to make recipes and use the most basic ingredients.
Pla kapong neung manao, even if it has a complicated name for us, is none other than one of the most popular and easiest to make fish recipes in Thailand.
Pla = fish. Kapong = barramundi. Neung = steam. Manao = lime. Yes, pla kapong neung manao is nothing more than steamed fish with lime.
It consists of a steamed fish, that is served in a fragrant sauce (or rather a soupy sauce) prepared with fresh lime juice, garlic, lemongrass, cilantro and chilies.
Originally, spearmint (bai saranae or ใบสะระแหน่) was used to garnish the fish and cover some of its strong smell but cilantro leaves (phak chi or ผักชี) are now more commonly used.
Although you could certainly use a different type of fish, like red snapper, tilapia or grouper, the fish that is most often used fish for this dish in Thailand is called pla kapong (ปลากะพง), which is nothing else than barramundi or Asian sea bass in English. It is interesting to note than the word barramundi is actually the name of loanword from an Australian Aboriginal language in Queensland, which means “large-scaled river fish”. Originally, the name barramundi referred to a fish called saratoga and not the Asian sea bass. Asian sea bass (L. calcarifer) only started to be called barramundi in the 1980s for marketing reasons, that helped raise the international profile for this fish.
Pla kapong neung manao is a classic dish that is often served at Thai restaurants. After the fish is gutted, scaled, scored and steamed, it is served with the citrusy sauce on an elevated fish-shaped pan over a flame or bed of charcoal to keep the dish steaming and constantly piping hot. It is also accompanied with steamed white rice.
Although you do not need to use this kind of portable furnace when you serve it at home, you do need to serve the fish on a platter that has edges to accommodate the good amount of sauce.
Steaming is really a healthy and tasty way to cook fish. You can use a steamer or make your own steamer, like me, by boiling water in a wok and placing a bamboo steamer above. Depending on the size of the fish, you might need between 12 and 20 minutes to cook it through. Just be careful not to overcook it.
It is interesting to note that a typical home kitchen in southeast Asia is not very big and doesn’t include a lot of appliances, maybe just a single burner. So in order to prepare a meal, people often work in layers, and steaming is the perfect technique for cooking several ingredients and recipes on one stove at the same time. While you steam the fish, you can steam something else above it in another tray or bamboo steamer.
In Thailand, people always cook the whole fish, including the head. Cooking or steaming the fish using this method releases intense flavor from the bones. You can definitely use filets for this recipe, although the end result will not be as traditional.
Recipes for steamed whole fish abound in Asia. We already discussed Chinese steamed fish (清蒸魚). This dish is a symbol of auspiciousness according to Chinese tables, and is one of the most emblematic dishes of Chinese New Year. In Malaysia, a similar recipe is called ikan siakap stim.
Pla kapong neung manao is the epitome of minimalist Thai cooking. The sweet, sour, spicy, garlicky, and well balanced sauce made with a handful of basic ingredients is just perfect over this delicately steamed white flesh fish.
I prepared pla kapong neung manao for a Sunday brunch with our friend Laurence a few weeks ago, before we had decided to leave for Thailand. Now, I can’t wait to taste the real deal in Bangkok!
Pla kapong neung manao is a very simple Thai recipe, which consists of delicately steamed fish with a flavorful spicy citrusy sauce.
- 1 or 2 whole fish e.g. barramundi, sea bass, red snapper, trout, tilapia or perch, about 3 to 4 lb, scaled and gutted
- 4 stalks lemongrass , bruised, and sliced into 1-inch sections
- 1 cup fish stock
- 2 tablespoons chopped palm sugar
- Juice of 3 limes
- 4 tablespoons fish sauce
- 8 cloves garlic , finely chopped
- 2 Thai red hot peppers , finely chopped
- ½ bunch cilantro chopped
Score the fish with 3 diagonal incisions on each side of the fish.
Stuff the lemongrass sections into the cavities of the fish.
Steam the fish in a bamboo steamer or double-boiler for about 15 minutes.
In a saucepan, bring the stock to a boil, and then add the palm sugar.
Reduce heat, and cook until the sugar is completely dissolved.
Pour the mixture into a bowl and set aside.
Mix the garlic, hot peppers, and cilantro, and add into the stock, along with the fish sauce and lime juice. Stir.
Transfer the steamed fish to a large serving platter.
Gently pour the sauce over the fish, with most of the garlic and chile peppers on the top of the fish.
Serve with steamed white rice.