One of the favorite ways to prepare fish in Thailand is to fry it until it is thoroughly crispy – head, tail, fins and all – but not greasy. To get it this way, the fish is fried unskinned in plenty of hot oil for longer than what is normally recommended in western cooking, so that it is not just cooked through and still moist with juices inside the flesh, but until it is completely dried through. When no moisture remains, oil molecules do not have any place to attach themselves to on the dried-out surface of the fish; as a result, the crisped fish is not heavy, soggy and oily. Fish fried this way does not lose its crispiness soon after it comes out of the oil from juices inside being sweated out, but remains crunchy crispy even after it cools.
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Of course, the kind of oil used for frying the fish is important. It should be one that can be heated to and kept at high temperatures without burning and breaking down, such as peanut oil or palm oil. The oil should be heated very hot before adding the fish, so that it sears the outside of the fish and does not penetrate it. This also reduces the likelihood of the fish sticking to the pan and yields cooked meat that is more fluffy rather than dense and compacted.
To help the fish cook and crisp faster, make a series of slanted (45°) cuts about one-and-a-half inches apart through the thickness of the flesh to the level of the center bone on both sides of the fish; or score with a diagonal criss-cross pattern.
Make the cuts with the knife blade positioned at a 45° angle to the surface of the fish; the flesh overlaps the cuts so that when it shrinks with frying the bone is not exposed, giving a better presentation.
In brief, to deep-fry a fish, fill a wok about half full with oil, or enough to submerge at least two-thirds of the length of the fish, and heat over high heat until it is smoking hot. While waiting for the oil to heat, coat the fish thoroughly inside out with a thin layer of flour, preferably tapioca flour or starch, which sticks better to the fish, does not get washed out in the oil and contributes a light, crispy texture when fried. Tapioca starch also dries up the surfaces of the fish, eliminating splattering from the interaction of liquid and hot oil. [Note: in Thailand tapioca starch is seldom used. It is recommended for use here because it helps to keep the frying fish from making a mess with splatters.]
Holding the fish by the tail, gently slide it into the oil, letting go along the side of the wok as close to its surface as possible so that the oil doesn’t splash up on your hand – letting go too soon is more likely to hurt you.
If your stove is not a very hot one, the fish can be fried from start to finish over high or medium-high heat. For a very hot stove, reduce and fry at medium heat to keep the surface of the fish from burning before it is cooked and dried through.
While frying, occasionally tilt the wok from side to side, so that the head and tail get submerged and crisped along with the mid-section of the fish. This is easy to do if the wok is well-balanced on a wok ring; it is even possible to leave the wok tilted on its own in one position for a minute or two before shifting to another position (see Kasma’s blog Adapting the Wok to your Stove). Oil may also be ladled continuously over the fish, which will cut down on the time needed to fry the second side when the fish is turned over.
When the first side is well-browned, well-crisped and dried through, nudge the wok spatula under the fish from its top edge and gently roll it over on its belly, taking care not to break any fins. Fry the second side the same way until it is as brown and crispy as the first side. It takes a few minutes less time than the first side. For a one-and-a-half pound whole fish, the first side usually takes twelve minutes to crisp while the second side about eight minutes. For smaller or flatter fish, like pompano and white perch, less time is required.
When the fish is thoroughly crisped, again nudge the wok spatula under it from its top edge. Tilt it up against the side of the wok above the oil for a few seconds to allow the oil to drain from the body cavity. Then lift it out onto a wire rack. Let drain and cool a few minutes before transferring to a serving platter.
Not all fish should be so thoroughly fried and crisped as described. Use soft- to medium-firm-flesh fish, no larger than two pounds and preferably varieties with thin fins and tails that crisp up nicely for crunching on. Delicious fried this way are snapper, rock cod, grouper, catfish, pompano, white perch, tongue sole and other small and flat fish. Because of their size, smelts, fresh anchovies and whole sand dabs can be fried completely immersed in oil. Firm, meaty fish with thick, dense flesh are not good fried so long and should only be lightly crisped to retain some juices – cut down on the frying time by one-third to one-half.
The wok is a very safe utensil to use for deep-frying, so if you are afraid to fry fish in such a large quantity of oil, read the my article Using Your Work. The deliciously crunchy results produced are worth the try.
If you’d like to see a slideshow of Kasma making Crispy Fried Whole Fish Topped with Chilli-Tamarind Sauce (Pla Rad Prik) from start to finish, check out Michael’s Blog on Kasma’s Intermediate Class #1. Or, come take Kasma’s Thai cooking classes.
Slideshow – Some Crispy Fried Fish Dishes
I would hate to estimate how many different fried fishes there are in Thailand. This slide show is limited to a dozen dishes that we’ve come across on trips. It should begin to hint at the variety of delicious dishes that are available.
Click on “Play” below to begin a slideshow.
Clicking on a slide will take you to the next image.
Note: A version of this blog originally appeared on pages 97 & 98 of Dancing Shrimp: Favorite Thai Recipes for Seafood, published in 2000 by Simon & Schuster. All text is Copyright © 2000 & 2013 Kasma Loha-unchit.
All photographs are Copyright © 2013 Michael Babcock or Kasma Loha-unchit
Written by Kasma Loha-unchit, 2000 & 2013