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Tastes of home

Passport & Plate - Steamed turbot with green papaya salad (som tam)

Thailand | Sunday, 1 March 2015 | flickr photos



Ingredients
FOR THE FISH
1 fresh whole (1-1.5kg) firm white-fleshed fish (seabass, bream, turbot etc.), gutted, scaled, finned and cleaned
2 garlic cloves, crushed
1/2 bunch of coriander, roughly chopped
6-8 spring onions, skin and ends removed, cut until the beginning of the green part, then chopped in half again
1 lime - half juiced, half sliced
2cm chunk of ginger, finely chopped
2 red chillies, finely chopped
2 tbsp peanut oil
1 tsp sesame oil
4 tbsp oyster sauce
2 tsp soy sauce
1 tsp salt

FOR THE GREEN PAPAYA SALAD (SOM TAM)
1 large green papaya, shredded or julienned (if you can’t find this, 1-2 green mangoes prepared in the same way will work as an alternative)
Juice of 2 limes
2 red chillies, finely chopped or minced
2 garlic cloves, minced
2cm chunk of ginger, minced
2 tablespoons fish sauce
1 tbsp palm sugar, grated
Handful of green beans
1 large ripe tomato, pulp removed, sliced

 

How to prepare this recipe
FOR THE SALAD
In a large bowl (or use a mortar and pestle if you have one), add all of som tam ingredients (bar the beans and tomato) and ‘pound’ to mix with the pestle, or a wooden spoon.
Blanch the beans in lightly salted boiling water for about 2 minutes, or until tender, then refresh under running cold water. Slice them lengthways.
Add the beans and the sliced tomato to the papaya mix, move to desired serving dish. Set aside or refrigerate until ready to eat.

FOR THE FISH
(Note: Exactly how you prepare the fish depends on your catch!)

Pat the prepared fish dry with paper towel and rub it all over with salt.
Place the fish in a bamboo steamer, on a bed of foil (to catch the juices!). If the fish is too big, you can cut it in half (or thirds, as I did with this big-mama turbot).
Mix the garlic, chilli, ginger, oyster sauce, soy sauce, the juice of half the lime and the sesame oil in a small bowl.
Stuff the fish cavity (where the fish was gutted, or otherwise create a cavity using a sharp knife) with most of the contents of the bowl, all of the coriander and a few of the spring onions.
Baste the fish with the rest of the mix, then scatter the rest of the spring onions around it on the foil and place a few slices of lime on the fish.
Place the bamboo steamer over a wok or saucepan filled with about 5cm of boiling water. Tightly fit the lid and reduce the heat slightly.
Cook for about 20 minutes, or until the flesh is white and flakes apart easily.
Before serving, heat the peanut oil in a small saucepan until you see smoke, then pour the sizzling oil over the fish skin to make it crispy.

Put the fish and the salad in the middle of the table along with fluffy steamed rice to soak up the juices. Then dig in!

(Watch out for bones and don’t forget to turn the fish over when you’ve finished one side.)

 

The story behind this recipe
It’s low tide on the River Torridge; boats lean over on the exposed mudflats, rain has cleared and sunshine peeks through the clouds.

If I close my eyes, lift my face to the sun and breathe in the briny air, I could almost be home – 15,000km away on Australia’s east coast. When I open them, I might find myself crouched by a running tap, scaling freshly caught yellowfin bream or a glistening red morwong – speared by my husband or my brother in the ocean that day. Waves crashing within earshot, the hot sun on my bare shoulders…

I open my eyes and greet the little English town I currently call home. It’s not a bad alternative – it’s unfamiliar and exciting; an adventure. I’m at the farmers’ markets to meet Dan the Fisherman and pick up the catch of the day, turbot. It’s not a fish I grew up eating, but it’ll work with my recipe, Dan assures me with a whiskery grin.

The seafood I ate growing up was fresh and simple – pan fried whiting fillets, thin sliced abalone, oysters flipped open and eaten standing knee-deep in an estuary. Over time, my own cooking took on influences from around the world and Sydney’s vibrant multiculturalism – particularly from South East Asia, our exotic neighbour.

In Australia, I often cooked fresh-caught fish as I have in this recipe – in a bamboo steamer bought at a local Thai supermarket, using Asian-inspired ingredients. I’ve served it with a newer discovery, green papaya salad or som tam, from my honeymoon in Thailand last year. For those three weeks I ate it whenever I could – usually under a whirring ceiling fan, sticky with sweat, and blissfully happy. Som tam is fresh and spicy, and like most Thai food it’s about finding the perfect balance between sweet, salty and sour.

This recipe represents things I miss from home – the bounty of the Pacific Ocean, Asia at my doorstep – but it’s also a reminder that food can be the vehicle in which I travel back every now and again, while exploring all the rest of the world has to offer.

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