Besides Thailand, I’ve lived in Singapore, Houston, Fort Worth, Austin, Baltimore, and now Salem, to name a few, and in each place there has been an abundance of Thai restaurants.
How do I tell the good ones from the not-so-good ones?
There is one dish I order at every new Thai restaurant I encounter so I can judge whether or not I think their food is good. It’s the standard by which I decide whether or not to give them my seal of approval: Tod Mun (fish cakes).
One reason I use Tod Mun as a standard is it’s one of my favorite Thai dishes. Another reason is as an adult I’ve learned how to make really good Tod Mun from my mother, Pranee. It’s also become one of Charles’ favorite Thai dishes.
The key ingredient in Tod Mun is fish; more particularly, fish paste made from the featherback fish. When ground up, the flesh of this fish turns into a sticky paste, and when you fry it, the consistency becomes al dente chewy. Think of something in between squid and shrimp.
When Charles and I went back to Thailand a couple of years ago, we were exploring an area of Bangkok and photographing street life when I saw a pickup truck pull past us with its bed filled with featherback fish on ice. I yelled at Charles to photograph them unloading the fish and told him what it was. It was the first time in a long time that I had seen fresh featherback fish.
In the U.S., you can find the fish frozen at some Thai markets, but instead of going that route and trying to make the paste yourself (this fish has lots of fine bones, Mom says), you can easily find fish paste in frozen blocks at most Asian grocery stores. Read the label to make sure that the fish paste is made from featherback fish.
Thai restaurants that serve good authentic Thai food will use fish paste made from featherback fish for their Tod Mun. If you try to use any other fish to make the paste, the result won’t have that al dente texture. I’ve had mushy fish cakes and flaky fish cakes that were telltale signs of other fish masquerading in the fish paste.
To make the fish cakes, it’s actually very simple, but you’ll need to work with your hands and get over the fact that they’re going to get gooey. It’s worth the effort. Take my word for it.
Tod Mun (Thai fish cakes)
For fish cakes
- 16 oz. (455 gr.) featherback fish paste
- 1 tablespoon (15 ml.) Thai red curry paste
- 1 egg
- 10 green beans sliced thinly
- 4 kaffir lime leaves sliced into very thin strips
- Oil for deep-frying
- 5 tablespoons (75 ml.) white vinegar
- 5 tablespoons (75 ml.) sugar
- 1 cup (240 ml.) water
- ½ teaspoon (2.5 ml.) ground chili paste
- 2 tablespoons (30 ml.) peanuts, slightly pounded in mortar and pestle
- Half of a cucumber, peeled and sliced into thin discs
- Leave the frozen featherback fish paste brick to thaw in the sink in the morning so that it will be completely thawed by the time you need to prepare.
- Make the sauce ahead of time. In a microwave-safe bowl, add sugar to water and microwave for a few minutes. Stir until sugar is completely dissolved. Add the vinegar, ground chili paste, stir and let cool. Add cucumbers and refrigerate. Before serving, add the peanuts.
- In a mixing bowl, mix together featherback fish paste, egg, and curry paste. Using your hands, squeeze the mixture between your fingers until it’s thick and sticky and until the curry paste and egg are completely incorporated (about 4-5 minutes).
- Add kaffir lime leaves and sliced green beans and mix more with your hands. At this point the paste can be covered with plastic wrap and held in the refrigerator until you’re ready to cook it.When you’re ready to cook the Tod Mun, heat oil to 350º F (170º C) in a wok.
- To shape the fish cakes for cooking, wet your hands with cold water. Grab about a tablespoon (15 ml.) of the fish paste mixture and flatten it between your hands, shaping it into a flat circle, then drop it into the hot oil. You should be able to fry about 4 or 5 cakes at a time without crowding the oil.
- After a few minutes turn each cake over until they’re slightly brown, drain and set on serving dish.
- Repeat and keep forming fish cakes and frying them in batches until you’ve used up all the fish paste.
- Serve with the sauce. (Remember to add the peanuts to the sauce before serving.)