I had a fish thrown at my head almost 10 years ago in a kitchen in Paris. As a (pretty bad) cooking student, I had things thrown at me all the time. But the waste of a perfectly good sea bass brought a particular pang to my heart: After I had trimmed the tail into an attractive “V,” basted it to a sheen and garnished it with lemon, my teacher ended up tossing the fish at my ear upon discovering I had failed to remove the scales. He missed, of course (he was a French chef and not a baseball pitcher for a reason), but I still recall that day with some degree of shame.
While red-faced, fish-flinging Frenchies are probably not in your immediate future, it’s best to be safe and cover all the bases before venturing into your own kitchen to try your luck. Here, a few tips on how to keep your fish in the pan and not on your person.
Finding it Fresh
Lucky Thailand abounds with markets where cooks can get their fish plucked straight from the ocean. Favored among cooks are the wet markets that pepper the capital. Degrees of freshness depend on the shopper’s determination—and resources. Those with a yen for fish fresh off the boat and unlimited petrol can head to Samut Sakhon province (25 miles south of Bangkok), where the Thalad Talay Thai (Thai Ocean Market) in Mahachai boasts the freshest fish around. People who still want fresh fish but lack the traveling bug can head to Thalad Gow (Old Market) on Yaowaraj Soi 23 (open 4-11am), which once served as the seafood center for all market vendors and restaurateurs and is still the earliest-opening market in town. For those who think bigger is better, there is Thalad Thai (Thai market) on Phaholyothin and Wipawadee-Rangsit roads (open 9am-noon). Cooks-to-be with cleanliness on their minds can head to Sam Yan (Rama 4 and Ratchaprarop Rds., open 9am-5pm, MRT Sam Yan) or the Emporium (622 Sukhumvit Rd, 02 269-1000), where the high quality and freshness are rivaled only by the prices.
Get Your Hands Dirty
Once you get to the market, you have to pick yourself a good one. This may be the hardest part of the task, but there are plenty out there with advice (see the box below for ours). If there is an ultimate sensei on the issue of fresh fish, he or she must surely come from Japan, where people eat the stuff raw every day. Ryoji Ishii, owner of Japanese Restaurant Erawan (B1 Erawan Bangkok, 494 Ploenchit Rd., 02-250-7890), should know: his chefs go to the royal palace to cook three or four times a month. (See the box below for his tips) The easiest fish to find alive or fresh in Bangkok? The pla krapong, or sea bass, chefs say.
No Toil or Trouble
Once you have obtained your fishy treasure, it’s time to get to work. But while restaurant chefs can happily grill, deep-fry or poach their catch of the day, most home cooks have to make do with simpler recipes and easier techniques. Mediterranean maestro Nicolas Joanny of Le Vendome (All Seasons Place, M Thai Tower, 87 Wireless Rd., 02-654-1187-8) advises oven-baking a white-fleshed fish such as snapper, flounder or sea bass with white wine, shallots, garlic or tomatoes, or for those who favor Asian flavor, baking with soy sauce, sliced ginger and spring onion. To ensure against overcooking (which is even worse than not having any fish at all), Joanny suggests baking at 350 degrees (Farenheit) for no more than 10 minutes and flaking the fish with a knife toward the end to make sure the flesh is firm. Others simply poke the fish with a finger once the flesh turns opaque; it should feel a little softer than your forearm.