The fish that makes a great catch

Once a strictly seasonal food, catfish is now enjoyed all year round in a wide variety of new breeds

A BOTTOM FEEDER THAT REMAINS TOP: Spicy catfish is tasty and cheap.

I'm sure that there are many people who have the same relationship with catfish dishes that I do. When they think of a particular favourite -- grilled catfish with boiled neem flowers and the sweet-spicy sauce called nam plaa waan, or the fish deep-fried with spicy seasonings and crisp-fried basil leaves scattered on top -- they crave to eat some right then and there.

The reason for this potent appeal is that catfish has deep and long-standing roots in Thai cuisine. Although there may be people who don't like it, everyone knows that there are famous Thai dishes that cannot be made with anything else.

There were originally two types of catfish found in natural Thai waters. Those with yellow bellies were known as plaa duke ui or plaa duke thong naa (field catfish). White-bellied ones were called plaa duke daan. Thais of the past preferred the plaa duke ui. Although it was smaller than the plaa duke daan, the meat was thought to be firmer and sweeter, and to contain more fat than that of the white-bellied type.

In those times, the eating of catfish was seasonal, coinciding with the beginning of the cool season when rice was being harvested. The cleared fields would contain hollows that formed bodies of water ranging from puddles to ponds of various sizes. Some were broad and deep, other smaller and shallow. These pools were considered to be public.

The level of water in them receded when the weather started heating up until they became completely dry during the summer. But it was during the period when the level was dropping that they became a source of fun for the local people. They contained fish that villagers caught by hand or using simple tools. Many different types would be caught, including the yellow-bellied catfish. This is why they are also known as field catfish.

It was also at the beginning of the cool season that farmers would dig out the mud from the bottoms of irrigation canals in the fields and place it around the bases of the raised rows of plants. This practice benefited the crops by giving them new, more nutritious soil and also by deepening the canals so that they could convey more water. In clearing these canals, the farmers were also able to catch plenty of fish, including plaa duke ui.

What was done with the fish once they were caught? It was at exactly the same time of year, the beginning of the cool season, that the neem trees came into bloom. For devotees, there is nothing more delicious than grilled catfish eaten with nam plaa waan and dawk sadao (neem flowers) that have been either scalded in boiling water or briefly grilled. This is how the fish were eaten in the past when they were a seasonal food.

At other times of the year, both kinds of catfish were eaten in many other ways. One option was plaa duke soang khrueang. To make it, coconut cream was simmered with lemongrass, galangal and nam plaa raa (the liquid from fermented fish). Then the catfish was added together with bamboo shoots, shallots, makhuea poh (small round eggplants), long beans, the aromatic rhizome called krachaai, makrood lime leaf, chillies, palm sugar, nam plaa and sour tamarind water. The finished result was a delicious dish in the old Thai style.

Finding it on menus these days requires real detective work. When people from present generations find out that it contains the fermented fish liquid, they keep clear, so curry shops rarely prepare it. Another old recipe is for plaa duke lae. The meat is taken from the catfish and fermented to make dry plaa raa, then deep-fried. After cooking it is topped with sliced shallots, phrik khee nuu (hot bird chillies) and lime juice.

Then there is kaeng awm plaa duke kap mara (a spicy coconut cream curry made with catfish and bitter melon and seasoned with palm sugar and nam plaa). One place that offers it is a curry shop at the Lampang train station. Although they offer a whole roster of dishes, the kaeng awm plaa duke kap mara is the best seller. The shop is open during the day and closes after the train from Chiang Mai, which arrives at 6pm, has passed through.

The train leaves Chiang Mai at 4.40pm, and while it is travelling its staff take orders for supper from passengers. People who are in the know about the dining opportunities that are in store don't ask for anything, though. When the train arrives at Lampang at 6pm, those on board who know about the offerings at the station wait by the door and take off at a run for the curry shop. The shop will have a big staff who have boxes of rice ready and waiting. Among the available dishes, it is the kaeng awm plaa duke kap mara that gets snapped up fastest.

Another delectable way to enjoy catfish is as a stir-fry with spicy seasonings or as a dry stir-fry with kaeng khio waan curry paste and makhuea poh added. Eat it together with a fried duck egg and you will have a simple meal that approaches perfection.

Fish farmers like to raise catfish because they are both tough and easy to care for. There are no worries about diseases that affect fish. They can be farmed out in the open in big ponds or pools lined with concrete or plastic. They will thrive in ditches dug in the household yard or even in big jars.

Nowadays more and more new kinds of catfish are being bred. In the past, native, natural catfish were small, but now there is a new variety called the Russian catfish that is very large. They are believed to have come into Thailand from Laos, one of a number of different varieties introduced there as part of a Russian assistance project (although the fish themselves are not from Russia).

Thai farmers interbred them with native Thai catfish to produce a large Thai type. Other variants have also been developed, including one that has a yellow stomach like the plaa duke ui. To produce fish with a sweeter flavour, some are fed kluay nam waa bananas or papaya as a supplement in addition to commercial prepared fish feed.

In nature, catfish have black skin on the upper part of their bodies. Some people find this unappetising, so farmers scatter rice straw in the bottom of the tanks. The fish like to crawl around under it looking for food, and as they move about the straw scrapes their backs, lightening their colour and making them look cleaner and more appealing.

When customers show that they prefer a certain quality in the catfish they buy, farmers and breeders are able to raise them in a way that produces it.

And the more different kinds of catfish that find their way to the markets, the more people there will be waiting to pay for them. It is not hard to understand why. This one fish combines tastiness, a low price and a versatility that make it right at home in a great number of popular and delicious dishes.

POPULAR: Grilled catfish is a favourite dish. Photos: Suthon Sukphisit


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