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Archive for July, 2011

In Search of the Best Sour Fish (Pla Som)

Kasma Loha-unchit, Saturday, July 23rd, 2011

Pla som, or sour fish, is one of my very favorite foods from the northeastern Isan region, which is also known for its sour sausages. It’s made in a similar way as the Isan sour sausages, using fermented rice as the souring agent. I’m partial to fish and a perfectly fermented and crispy-fried sour fish is so delicious it’s hard to stop eating it! The problem is: perfection is hard to find, even in its home territory.

Ready-to-eat Sour Fish

Ready-to-eat sour fcod

My first encounter with pla som was some fifteen years ago in the then small riverside town of Nakhon Phanom in the northeastern corner of Isan. It was at a small rice shop near the hotel I spent the night. Hungry and looking for a good place for breakfast, I walked down one of the streets and noticed a busy rice shop crowded with customers – a good sign! Among the assortment of ready-made dishes in front of the shop was a yummy-looking fried fish topped with crispy fried garlic, fried dried chillies, sliced shallots and cut Thai chillies. I soon discovered it wasn’t any ordinary fried fish. It had a very unusual and delicious sour flavor definitely not from lime juice, tamarind, vinegar or any other sour condiment. That introduction to pla som was truly memorable and I fell deeply in love with this Isan food.

(Click images to see larger version.)

In those days, Isan food hadn’t yet become popular in the main heartland of the country’s central region. It was impossible to find it in any eatery or restaurant in the capital, even in the few so-called Isan restaurants just opening in the city. But memories of that first encounter remained vivid in my mind and on my tongue. I could only dream of another trip to Isan to savor the delicacy.

So-so Fried Sour Fish

Sour fish at Si Saket

Fast forward half a dozen years. Michael and I took a trip to Isan with our friend and adopted brother Sun, who drives for my Thailand tours. I was showing Michael around to the places I’d been and we were exploring new places as possibilities for organizing a future tour. I hadn’t offered an Isan trip for years as traveling in the vast Isan region, Thailand’s largest, during the last two decades of the last century could be tedious and standard tourist accommodations lacking in many of the fascinating areas worth visiting. With Isan now a popular destination among domestic Thai tourists and Isan food becoming an “in” cuisine nationwide, it was a perfect opportunity to check out the new infrastructure, as well as the lively markets and local eateries I’d been reading about in Thai travel magazines.

Sour Fish in Surin

Sour fish dish in Surin

We had just arrived in Nong Khai on the Mekong River. It was late in the day and after checking into a family-run guest house near the river, we went for a walk along the alley by the waterfront, hoping to find a good restaurant with views of the river for dinner. My eye caught a signboard with the words pla som and immediately I insisted that we have dinner there.

I ordered the pla som while Michael and Sun chose a couple of other dishes. Soon, both of them understood why I was so excited about eating there. The fish was very quickly gone before the other dishes received our attention. The next evening, after a full day of exploration, Sun was the one to adamantly insist that we return to the same place for dinner and, this time, forget about other dishes and just order three plates of pla som, one for the each of us!

Sour Fish in Ubon

Sour fish in Ubon market

For the rest of that trip, as we journeyed along the Mekong east- and southward to the border province of Ubon and then cut westward to Surin and Buriram before heading back to Bangkok, we kept an eye out for pla som but, unfortunately, did not find any place with as good a pla som as we had in Nong Khai. Some were actually rather disappointing. Most of the pla som we saw were uncooked, sold in open tubs in the fresh marketplaces and made with whole fish, as it’s traditionally done, particularly small silver barbs (pla tapian) that do have a lot of small bones. The pla som we had in Nong Khai was made with chunks of a large fish with plenty of moist meat and very little bones.

Kamnan Jun Sour Fish

Sour fish in bulk at Don Wai

Michael and I love to visit open-air fresh markets in Thailand and Sun often drives us to marketplaces far and near. We soon begin to notice raw pla som being sold in some of the larger gourmet fresh markets in or near Bangkok, like Aw Taw Kaw (Or Tor Kor) and Don Wai, either already packaged in plastic bags or sold bulk in big piles. The pla som made by Kamnan Jun sold in Don Wai market is particularly good. It’s made with a fish called pla nuanchan in large mostly filleted chunks with skin still on. The skin is important as it adds a good texture to the fish when it is crispy-fried.

The first time I saw pla som at Don Wai, I bought two large bags and fried all the pieces up the next morning for breakfast. Sun, whose home is in Nakhon Si Thammarat in the south, planned to breakfast with us before making his long drive home. He was so delighted to have so many pieces of pla som to feast on. The fish was crispier and even more delicious than he remembered having in Nong Khai. He was convinced that I must have a secret way of frying the fish that enhanced the crispiness and flavor. He devoured with great pleasure as much as he could but there were so many pieces we couldn’t possibly finish the two big plates. So he decided he would wait till afternoon to begin his long drive, so that he could have lunch and finish off the rest!

Sour Fish at Don Wai

Don Wai sour fish vendor

Sour Fish, Ready to Cook

Sour fish at Don Wai

Sour Fish Dish

Vientiane Kitchen's fried sour fish

Pla som has become much better known among Thais all over the country as Isan food continues to soar in popularity the past decade. As migrant workers from Isan find their way around the country, I’m seeing raw, ready-for-cooking pla som in markets far and wide, even in the southern region. A number of Isan restaurants in Bangkok now have it on their menus but so far nothing near as good as the best pla som I’ve had in Isan or that I’ve fried myself from fish bought at Don Wai and Aw Taw Kaw. Vientiane Kitchen on Sukhumvit 36 serves an acceptable one after the restaurant remodeled recently and put in a new menu (and perhaps new cooks, too), but it lacks the crispiness that has become a trademark of delicious fried pla som.

I can even find ready-to-cook pla som in my local Cambodian market in Oakland (see my blog on Sontepheap Market), in packages in the freezer imported from Thailand and labeled in Thai as pla som Mae Jinda. The ingredients are shown in English though, listing fish, garlic, rice and salt. To preserve the fish better for its long journey here, it is made saltier than what’s available in Bangkok’s markets and needs to be eaten with plenty of rice. Delicious though it is!

Frozen Sour Fish

"Mae Jinda" sour fish at Sontepheap

Mae Jinda Sour fish

Sour fish out of package

Tilapia for Sour Fish

Very fresh tilapia for making sour fish

I’ve also taken to making my own pla som and teach it in one of my advanced classes. (See Menus for Advanced Set F.) Definitely a fish with skin still on makes the best pla som. I’ve tried making it with red snapper, catfish, basa (swai) and tilapia. The best result so far is with very fresh tilapia that I buy live from the tanks in Asian fish markets, that I then fillet to remove only the center skeleton, head and tail, but leaving the skin on. In the Bay Area it takes about a week to sour the fish. Rubbed with a coating of tapioca flour before frying, it delivers a most satisfying combination of crispiness and natural sour flavor to rival the best I’ve had in Isan’s restaurants.

Making Sour Fish

Preparing the tilapia

Sour Fish, Ready to Fry

Week-old soured tilapia

Sour Fish Dish

Sour fish at Bao Pradit, Mukdahan

My most recent trip to Isan was in December 2009 with a group of twelve on a special northeastern Thailand tour. (On Picasa, see Kasma’s Northeastern Trip Photos, Part 2.) Whenever and wherever I saw pla som on a menu, I would order it. Several in my group loved it, but like me, they soon discovered that quality and taste could vary substantially. By far the best we had was at a truly native Isan restaurant in Mukdahan, called Bao Pradit. It’s south of town along the river, serving really hardcore Isan food made with local ingredients not found in other regions. With all the wonderful choices and fiery hot range of flavor combinations, Sun asked that I order for him his own plate of pla som and that’s the only thing he ate that night with a heavenly grin on his face. I would have to say it really was the best of the best pla som I’d ever had.

This fall, I’m offering another special 21-day trip to Isan and I’m already dreaming about a fabulous dinner in Mukdahan!”

More Ready-to-eat Sour Fish

More ready-to-eat sour fish

Sour Fish, To Go

Sour fish, to go

Written by Kasma Loha-unchit, July 2011.

Western Carbs in Thailand

Michael Babcock, Wednesday, July 13th, 2011

Skytrain Food Stall

Skytrain food stall

One of the changes that I’ve seen over my travels to Thailand, which commenced in 1992, is the increasing availability of Western-style baked goods. Donuts, croissants, cakes, white bread, cookies and similar food items can now be found at every mall, at most (even local) markets and, as in these pictures, at nearly every Skytrain stop. It’s not just baked goods: there is also a proliferation of Western fast food places, such as Pizza Hut, McDonald’s, Kentucky Fried Chicken and Burger king; I should include Dunkin’ Donuts and Krispy Kreme, as well.

(Click images to see larger version.)

Baked Goods

Western baked goods

This February (2011) when I was in Thailand I had an errand to run at Siam Paragon, a popular (and trendy) shopping center in Bangkok. When Kasma and I arrived, we saw a line of perhaps 30 or 40 people going out the door of the entrance. We were curious about what the people were lining up for; it turned out to be a Krispy Kreme donut shop. When we left the mall a couple hours later, the line was even longer. We saw several people with huge boxes of donuts walking away from the store.

Traditional Thai snacks are basically very healthy foods. Although they can be quite sweet, many of them are less sweet or are savory and they nearly universally include an ingredient that is quite healthy. For instance, Kanom Krok (Grilled Coconut Hotcakes) include coconut milk (a “functional” food that includes immune-system boosting Lauric Acid); Sangkaya (Coconut Egg Custard) includes both coconut milk & duck eggs; and Kao Niow Dtam (Black Sticky Rice Pudding) includes healthy, whole-grain black rice. Certainly Thai snacks with all empty calories exist but most of them include healthy ingredients such as coconut milk, pumpkin (or squash) or cassava root. (See my blogi on Thai (Sweet) Snacks – Kanom Wan

Baked Good Close-up

Close-up of baked goods

So the proliferation of Western baked goods is unfortunate because it replaces snacks that at least have some health benefit with goods made almost exclusively of white flour and sugar, which are basically empty calories that take more nutrition to process than they actually provide. See my recent blogs on A “Healthy” Diet and Thai Diet Changes for some of the references and information that indicate excessive carbohydrates are a major health issue.

These pictures show a few examples of the type of stalls that are becoming prevalent all over Thailand. It is almost certainly no coincidence that the mortality rate from heart disease is rising in Thailand at the same time.


See also Michael’s blogs or articles on:


Written by Michael Babcock, July 2011

Wat Mahatat in Nakhon Si Thammarat

Michael Babcock, Sunday, July 3rd, 2011

Thailand is predominantly a Buddhist country and throughout the country there are numerous temples – wat, in Thai. One of my favorite temples is Wat Mahatat in Nakhon Si Thammarat. This temple is considered one of the three most important temples in the south of Thailand, the others being in Chaiya and Yala. A morning visit here is part the itinerary for Kasma’s Kasma’s trips to southern Thailand.

View of Temple

View of chedi

Its full name is Wat Phra Mahatat Woramahawihaan, sometimes abbreviated to Wat Phra Boromathat. It is found a couple kilometers from the town center on Thanon Ratchadamnoen, the long street that runs the length of the town, and is easily reached by songthaew.

This is the biggest temple in the south of Thailand. The most recognizable feature is the nearly 80 meter high chedi (stupa), which is crowned by a spire made of solid gold and weighing several hundred kilograms. The main chedi is surrounded numerous smaller black and white chedis. To the right of the chedi there’s an entrance to a sanctuary. In the middle is a stairway leading up to a platform about half-way up the chedi; this stairway is open only some of the time. The stairway is flanked by demons, apparently guarding the way. At either end of the room there are walls with interesting bas-relief on the walls.

Buddha Statues

Buddha Statues

Off to the left as you head towards the central sanctuary is a wihaan or Buddha image sanctuary. In the shape of a square, it has Buddha images on the outside around the square; there’s also an inner walkway with more Buddha images.

After you’ve visited the temple, be sure to go to the market area at the far end of the temple – they have some interesting southern crafts and snacks.

Rather than spend more time on description, I’ve put together a slide show to show some of the beautiful images found here. Photographs were taken by both myself and Kasma.


Nakhon Si Thammarat – Wat Mahatat Slide Show

Click on “Play” below to begin a slideshow.
Clicking on a slide will take you to the next image.

You must have Javascript enabled to see the images.

View of Temple 1
View of the Temple 2
Entrance to Chedi
Sign Towards Wihaan
Thai Monks
Buddha Statue in Niche
Temple Roof
Temple Roof
Temple Guardian 2
Temple Guardian 1
Temple Bas-relief
Temple Detail
Buddha in Niche
Close-up of Buddha Statue
Temple Bells
Walkway with Buddha Statues
More Walkway
Inner Walkway
Temple Gong
Buddha Statue 1
Buddha Head
Temple Feature
Earth Mother Goddess
Temple Painting
Buddha Head 2
Buddha Head 2 Earlier
Buddha Image
Buddha Close-up
Buddha Close-up 2
Little Demon
Buddha from the Back
Elephant
Another Buddha
Buddha Statues

Here's a view of the chedi, which is above the main sanctuary
and several other buildings housing Buddha images

The chedi is in the right-hand corner in this view from the parking lot

The door at the end is the entrance to the chedi

Before reaching the entrance to the chedi at the end, turn
at the blue sign to enter the wihaan of Buddha statues

In 2007 we came across these novice monks leaving the area by the chedi

There are numerous interesting details in the
buildings around the entrance to the chedi

Don't forget to look up at the details around the roofs of the buildings

A view of one of the temple roofs, with its golden nagas

This demon guards the staircase leading up to the chedi

This demon and dragon guard the other side of the staircase

In the sala leading up to the chedi there are two
walls with golden bas-relief (to the right, here)

Here's a detail of the bas-relief

This is the Buddha statue at the end of one side with the bas-relief

Here's a close-up of the same statue

When the staircase is open you can go to a walkway around
the chedi, about halfway up - these bells are taken from there

This is the outer walkway in the wihaan off the entrance to
the chedi - it is lined with Buddha statues

Here's another view of the outer walkway, which has a mysterious, quiet feel to it

There's also an inner walkway, also lined with Buddha statues

At one end of this walkway is this huge gong - if you rub the
center in just the right way it makes a deep, resonant sound

One of the Buddha statues on the outer walkway

Cose-up of another Buddha statue in the outer walkway

This pillar is found at one of the corners of the outer walkway -
it shows the Buddha at the time of his enlightenment

Close-up of the statue of the Earth Mother Goddess, witnessing
the Buddha's enlightenment, from the previous image

Paintings such is this one adorn some pillars in the outer walkway

Close-up of one of the Buddha statues - painted gold and black

Here's the same statue in 2004 - before it was painted (see previous slide) -
like everything else, the Buddha statues are in a constant state of change

Here's one of the Buddha statues found on the inner
walkway, where they often are standing in a red alcove

Close-up of a Buddha in the inner walkway

Here's the same statue 4 years earlier - before restoration

Close-up (of a demon) shows some of the detail on the inner walkway alcoves

An outer walkway Buddha photographed from the inner walkway

The inner walkway has several of these elephants - the entire inner wall
has been wrapped by orange fabric, the same color worn by the monks

An outer walkway Buddha in a very different style

One last image showing several of the Buddha statues

View of Temple 1 thumbnail
View of Temple 2 thumbnail
Entrance to Chedi thumbnail
Sign Towards Wihaan thumbnail
Thai Monks thumbnail
Buddha Statue in Niche thumbnail
Temple Roof thumbnail
Temple Roof thumbnail
Temple Guardian 2 thumbnail
Temple Guardian 1 thumbnail
Temple Bas-relief thumbnail
Temple Detail thumbnail
Buddha in Niche thumbnail
Close-up of Buddha Statue thumbnail
Temple Bells thumbnail
Walkway with Buddha Statues thumbnail
More Walkway thumbnail
Inner Walkway thumbnail
Temple Gong thumbnail
Buddha Statue 1 thumbnail
Buddha Head thumbnail
Temple Feature thumbnail
Earth Mother Goddess thumbnail
Temple Painting thumbnail
Buddha Head 2 thumbnail
Buddha Head 2 Earlier thumbnail
Buddha Image thumbnail
Buddha Close-up thumbnail
Buddha Close-up 2 thumbnail
Little Demon thumbnail
Buddha from the Back thumbnail
Elephant thumbnail
Another Buddha thumbnail
Buddha Statues thumbnail

Wednesday Photos of Wat Mahatat

Previous Blogs on Nakhon Si Thammarat

  • Krua Nakhon Restaurant
  • Nakhon Si Thammarat Municipal Market
  • Written by Michael Babcock, July 2011