Thai fish parcels
Updated: Aug 30, 2022
Most of us are familiar with red curry in its traditional form, as a curry. However, it is also used in several other ways, most notably as a seasoning for grilled foods. I try to bring to you some dishes that stray from the normal, so here is a dish that uses Thai red curry as a marinade on fish.
Banana leaf cooking is popular all over the world, across most of Asia but also in Africa and parts of South America and the Caribbean. This is a wonderful technique, especially for grilling because the leaves do two very important things. First, they add a wonderful mild flavour and aroma to the dish as they steam with the food. Second, and more importantly, they keep the meat moist, more so than parchment or foil-wrapped foods. I do enjoy banana leaf-wrapped dishes, and you will see quite a few of them on my blog.
This dish is bold and beautiful. The red curry permeates the fish and the flavours are beautiful. The bold spices and the twist of lime bring a tartness that cuts the richness of the dish, and the branches of basil bring the Thai herb in perfect harmony. This is quite a simple dish, especially if you have a good commercial Thai red curry and one that will please your guests. I usually serve this as an appetizer, but you can also serve it as a main course, especially if you use whole fish.
This is a new cookbook on my shelf, one I have craved for a long time. The cookbook is from a chain of restaurants in London and across the UK. The recipes are very authentic and they pop with flavours. Most recipes are super simple to make and those that I have made are always wonderful. You will see me cook from here again when I crave simple Thai cuisine.
For more recipes from this cookbook, click here.
2 lb sea bream, tilapia, or red snapper, whole or fillets
1 bottle red curry paste, about 1/2 cup (see note)
Toothpick, the sturdy kind
Thai basil leaves
For the dressing:
5 Thai red chillies, chopped
5 green chillies, chopped
6 garlic cloves, chopped
Juice of 2 limes
1 tablespoon sugar
A few drops of fish sauce
1 tablespoon cilantro, minced
Salt, to taste
For the red curry paste (makes about 3/4 cup):
1/4 cup dried Thai red chillies, or substitute fresh
3 tablespoons coriander seeds
1 1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds
1 2-inch piece lemongrass, chopped
1 banana shallot, or Asian shallot, chopped
1-2 kaffir lime leaves
1 1/2-inch piece galangal, chopped
1 1/2 teaspoons kra chai, chopped (optional, but add if available)
1 1/2 teaspoons coriander roots, well cleaned of grit
Salt, to taste
Water, as needed
2-3 tablespoons of oil
To make the red curry paste, dry roast the dried chillies, coriander seeds, and cumin seeds individually till lightly toasted and aromatic. Grind to a fine powder in a spice mill.
Add the spice powder to the rest of the ingredients, and fresh Thai chillies if using, and grind to a paste with minimal water till very smooth. Add the curry paste to a saucepan with the oil and fry over low heat for 15-20 minutes till the curry has cooked down to a bright red and the oils are floating to the surface. You can make a large batch and freeze the paste for the future.
Make the dressing by adding the chillies and garlic to a mortar and pounding till you have a rough paste. remove to a bowl and add the rest of the ingredients and mix in. Set aside to steep for at least 1 hour for the flavours will mingle and mellow.
Chef's note on red curry: I have included the original recipe for red curry in this recipe. However, today several commercially available red curries are also very good. Having said that, most commercial red curries are purée spices and chillies. They need to be cooked to have the flavours come out. To do this, add 1-2 teaspoons of oil to a small pan. Add the curry quantity desired and cook for 2-3 minutes on a medium-low flame. The curry will cook down and give out a wonderful aroma. This is particularly important for dishes like this one, or other roasts and marinades, where the curry have very little time on heat to develop fully and permeate the food with its flavour. The same is also true for commercial yellow, green, and massaman curry pastes.
To assemble the fish, rub the red curry evenly all over the fish. If using whole fish get some into the cavity too.
If you have whole banana leaves, cut out the centre stem. Cut into large squares and blanch the leaves, or microwave for 2 minutes with a drizzle of water to steam them and make them more flexible and less prone to tearing. You can prep the leaves and freeze them for use in the future.
Take a large piece of leaf and set the fish/fillet on it. Wrap the fish in the leaf covering it completely. Be careful not to tear the leaf along the veins, if you do, don't stress it. Seal the package with toothpicks, making sure it is sealed completely. If the leaf has torn, add a second layer of banana leaves. Marinate the wrapped fish for 30 minutes. I generally wrap the fish in the morning and cook the fish for dinner, allowing the spices to infuse the fish well.
You can grill the fish on a barbecue, about 4 minutes a side for fillets, and about 7-9 minutes a side for whole fish. Do not over-steam the fish, it will dry out. It should be moist and flaky.
Alternatively, you can broil the fish in the oven for 5 minutes, flip and broil for an additional 4-5 minutes depending on the size of the fillets. Do not overcook and dry out the fish, it should be moist and flaky.
To serve, open up the fish, you can choose to cut off the excess banana leaf folds and serve the fish on the bottom portion. Garnish with basil and serve with the dressing on the side. Alternatively, take the steamed fish off the leaves carefully, careful not to break them apart, and serve on a plate with the dressing on the side.