Rotten fish isn't always a bad thing.
Take bplaa raa (literally, 'rotten/moldy fish' in Thai). This fishy condiment with the unforgettable odor is a key ingredient in the cuisines of Thailand's northern and Isaan (middle northeastern) provinces. Though Thais classify it as a type of pickle (a 'dawng kem' - salty pickle; the other type of pickle is 'dawng priaow' - sour pickle), it's really more of a fermented product. It finds its equivalent in Cambodian prahok and Lao padek.
Bplaa raa starts as an assortment of freshwater fish, whatever's been pulled up with the net. After being cleaned the fish are packed with salt and rice bran or powdered rice in big, rounded earthenware jars called hai saen. The jars are covered and left outside for anywhere from six months to two years. A strong sun will hurry things along. (Villagers making bplaa raa in small batches for home use might use rice flour instead of bran and, after tying a piece of cloth over the mouth of the jar, spread it with ashes to absorb the odor of the decaying fish. The jar of fermenting fish is kept in the house, away from hungry animals.)
When it's 'done' bplaa raa is a mix of fish and thin brine that varies in color from grayish white to dark brown. If it's being made for commercial use it might be packed in jars - as is, or ground to a slurry.
Bplaa raa is to nam bplaa (fish sauce) what a fine French blue cheese, shot through with veins of mold, is to cream cheese. It is salty fish essence with a bit of a tang, earthy and pungent. Once it gets on your hands, the odor is hard to remove. Leave a jar open in the kitchen and you'll soon smell it in the dining room. Bplaa raa stinks to high heaven. And the punch it gives to dishes is seriously, addictively, delicious.
Northern Thais, at least those in the east, use more bplaa raa than they do fish sauce. Earlier this year we spent a few days in the kitchen of a talented home cook in Nan province. 'Bplaa raa is for flavor,' she explained. 'Fish sauce is to adjust the food's saltiness.'
We watched her stir 'creamed' bplaa raa (upper right) into coconut milk-free gaeng (curries) and pound it, with chilies, into a nam prik (a sort of dip) to eat with raw and blanched vegetables. To make another kind of nam prik she pulled whole fish from a vat of 'chunky' bplaa raa, dropped them into a small pan of boiling water, and simmered the mixture until the fish broke up. (Bplaa raa fish pieces are never eaten uncooked, because of the risk of parasites. If they're not to be cooked in a curry or soup, they're boiled in water or steamed.) After straining the bones out of the liquid she returned it to the heat, added chilies, galangal, lemongrass, and garlic, and let it thicken to a thin batter-like consistency. Allowed to cool and seasoned with lime juice and fish sauce, this nam prik was dipped up with balls of sticky rice and more vegetables.
If you're a Thai food fan and fond of fishy flavors - whether in the form of Asian shrimp paste or Western ingredients like bottarga and anchovies packed in salt - then bplaa raa will seem a natural progression from fish sauce. Start by substituting bplaa raa for fish sauce (or go half and half) in Thai salads and (coconut milk-free curries), and then move on to a bplaa raa-forward spicy/fishy nam prik, served with a good mix of raw and blanched vegetables.
Bplaa Raa Song Kruen (Spciy Pickled Fish with Prawn/Shrimp)
This nam prik is from Vatch's Thai Cookbook by Vatcharin Bhumichitr. It includes prawns or shrimp; they'll soften the intensity of the bplaa raa, so it's a good introduction to the world of bplaa raa-seasoned nam prik. If all you can lay your hands on is the 'creamed' product (usually labelled 'preserved mudfish' or 'preserved gray featherback fish'; be sure the product you buy is made in Thailand, Vietnamese mam is not a substitute) try dissolving 3 tablespoons in the amount of water called for in the recipe and proceeding from there. (KL residents can buy bags of chunky bplaa raa, both Isaan and northern Thailand produced, at the city's well-stocked Thai grocery; see below for details.) When making nam prik's it's best to taste and taste often, adjusting for salt, sour, and chile-hot along the way. Serve with a mix of raw (cucumber, wing beans, cabbage, green or long beans, sugar snap peas, morning glory) and blanched (eggplant, green or long beans, cabbage, summer squash) vegetables.
120 ml/1 half cup water
4 oz/120 g fish pieces from a jar of bpla raa, filleted
3 kaffir lime leaves, chopped
1 tbsp finely chopped galangal
1 tbsp finely chopped lemon grass
4 roughly chopped shallots
2 finely chopped garlic cloves
1 inch/2.5 cm piece of young ginger, sliced into matchsticks
4 or 5 fresh small red or green chilies, finely chopped
4 oz/120 g peeled raw prawns or shrimp, finely chopped
1 Tbsp fish sauce (or to taste)
2 Tbsp lime juice
1 tsp sugar
Heat the water in a small saucepan. Add the fish and simmer, breaking it up, until the liquid begins to thicken. Add all the remaining ingredients, stirring throughout. When the mixture has cooked to a runny paste, turn it into a small bowl. Serve with vegetables.
Note: Bplaa raa and almost any other Thai ingredient you'd care to lay your hands on can be found in Kuala Lumpur at Font Thai Market, 5G Jalan Pandan Indah 4/8, Pandan Indah. Tel. 012-387-3963 (K.O. Tan) and 012-327-5718 (Font).