Saturday, September 12, 2009

Thai Triple-Fish Nam Ya Curry with Rice Noodles

During our summer trip, I was reintroduced to a Thai dish I did not remember well. It was so outstanding, I'm not sure how its memory faded. I would have had it at Thai homes years ago. Perhaps the swirl of flavors back then and the stunningly new tastes obscured this one. Well no longer.

In Northern Virginia, my sister-in-law, Nai, who is from Chiang Mai, Thailand, made it as part of a dinner she and I co-prepared. (I fixed Indian food, and the dishes fit well together.)

The base for Nai's dish was "kanom jeen," literally Chinese snack or cake. It is a swirled pad of rice noodles on which, in this case, Nam Ya, a curry-like sauce with fish, was ladled. Nam ya literally means medicine water. Blanched beansprouts and narrowly cut green beans, along with Asian basil are the accompaniments.

Kanom jeen with whatever topping is an appetizer course or a light meal, rather than part of the main course of a traditional dinner.

The fish is traditionally chopped, making Nam Ya a somewhat lumpy pinkish-brown sauce to spoon over the rice noodles. I use tuna, as I learned from Nai, plus tilapia. The third fish is the anchovy in nam pla, Thai fish sauce.

No specific drink goes with this, because it is a starter course rather than a main dish. But in Thailand with the entire meal the drink would be beer, especially Singha, which is imported here. Wines are hard to pair with this one. The best bets would fruity and gently acidic whites like Sauvignon Blanc, dry Riesling, or a wonderful wine from Argentina I'm just becoming familiar with, Torrantes.

Thai Triple-Fish Nam Ya with Kanom Jeen

Make curry ahead and rewarm to serve.

3 tablespoons Nam Ya curry paste (available only in 14-ounce containers -- freeze the remainder, placing the container in a zip-lock bag)
2 (5-ounce) cans light tuna in water, drained
1 (14-ounce) can unsweetened coconut milk plus 2 tablespoons water
2 stalks lemon grass
12 ounces fresh or frozen tilapia
2 teaspoons Thai fish sauce, plus more to taste
1 teaspoon sugar
8 leaves Asian or regular basil

In sauce pan, heat curry paste and tuna together, stirring frequently, until starting to bubble. Add coconut milk. Rinse out can with 2 tablespoons water, and add it to the mixture.

Cut lemon grass into 4-inch pieces, and bruise with side of cleaver or bottom of pot. Add to the mixture. Simmer 10 minutes.

Quickly thaw tilapia, if frozen, in lukewarm water. Or if fresh, rinse it off. Cut into 1/2-inch squares, and add to curry. Stir and simmer several minutes until tilapia looks cooked. The mixture should be thick but creamy and pourable. If it looks too thick, add a little water.

Stir in fish sauce and sugar, and remove from heat. Stir in basil leaves. Remove lemon grass stalks, shaking off clinging curry.

Taste, and add more fish sauce if not salted enough.

Kanom Jeen

12 to 14 ounces straight rice vermicelli ("Guilin" style, Golden Eagle brand works well)

Bring large quantity of water to boil. Add noodles, and stir with long fork until noodles soften, so they do not stick. Boil, stirring frequently, until tender to the bite, 6-8 minutes, depending on the brand.

Drain in colander. Rinse with cold water, mixing noodles to cool thoroughly. Drain well.

Pick up small handful of noodles and swirl them gently on a large platter to make small, flat circular packet of noodles. Repeat, making packets of the same size, until noodles are used up.

Cover platter with plastic wrap and let sit at least 15 minutes at room temperature to set the noodles. The noodles can held like this up to two hours. If holding for longer, refrigerate noodles but bring back to room temperature to serve.

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