This unique salad is one of those things that make me go, “Man, this is why I love Thai food!” The combination of a crispy, airy nest of fish meat and a tart, sweet salad of fresh green mango just cannot be beat. There are so many textures and flavors going on; yet they all work together so beautifully you can’t help but thinking that whoever first thought this up sure was bright. Beer drinkers nationwide would probably want to have that person sainted also for, this Thai crispy fish with green mango salad has got to be one of the most loved classic “drinking foods” of all time.
Yam Pla Duk Fu is also a great party dish not only because your guests will go nuts over it, but also because the crispy fish part can be prepared in advance, frozen or refrigerated, then popped into the oven to be re-crisped just before serving. Come serving time, all you have to do is make the green mango salad to go on top of the crispy fish.
The name of this dish
This crispy fish and mango salad goes by the Thai name Yam (salad – rhymes with “numb”) Pla (fish – rhymes with “ma”) Duk (a type of fish – rhymes with “look”) Fu (fluffy – identical with “fu” in kungfu). But sometimes, as you may have seen in some Thai restaurant menus, it also goes by the more recent and less common Yam Pla Fu.
The reason for the emergence of the duk-less variant? You see, way back when, catfish (pla duk) was the only fish traditionally used to make this dish. Hence the “duk” in “pla duk,” (literally “duk fish”) which specifies that it is not just any old fish but catfish.
A wild-caught catfish (smaller and leaner than its farm-raised counterparts) would be roasted or grilled whole, then have its flesh fluffed into tiny cotton-like flakes. Next, both the fish flakes and the fish carcass — head, tale, spine bone and all — would be deep-fried until crispy and golden brown.
To plate, the crispy fish carcass would go on a bed of lettuce. Next, the fish meat, which has formed one fluffy, crispy, elongated web of tiny flakes in the fryer, would be placed on the fish carcass in the same place whence it came. Then a simple green mango salad would go on top of the fish flakes. The garnish of fresh cucumber and tomato slices would be added to the sides. Finally, the dish would be served in the manner that seeks to restore the former appearance of the catfish who died for the dish.
The name and the — literally — face of Pla Duk were once indispensable in this particular fish salad.
Then, over time, people have figured out that there was nothing sacred about the meat of the whiskered fish and that most types of fish, salt- or fresh-water, with meat that becomes cottony when cooked can be used. (A few recipes online even suggest you use well-drained canned tuna! I don’t doubt that it works.)
In light of this, many restaurants have started using other types of pla, mostly anything less expensive than pla duk. Those with no self-respect choose to cut costs further by not only using a cheaper fish but also mixing the fish flakes into tempura-style batter. This is where I think they have crossed the line. I have no problem whatsoever with restaurants, or anyone, using the kind of pla that is not duk. But misleading the public into thinking they’re getting 100% fish when they’re being served half fish half fried batter is not cool.
Now that the use of the pla called duk has become optional, insistence on calling the dish by its original name is just silly, except when our friend, Duk, is actually the meat of choice. Besides, whether or not they use pla duk, all the Thai restaurants, save the hard-core old-fashioned ones in Thailand, have abandoned the cumbersome plating technique for a more sleek and modern look of a crispy, airy nest of fish flakes, sans carcass, underneath the mango salad.
This is when, I assume, the “duk” part began to drop off the name in some places. Though the duk-less name sounds odd to me, but there’s nothing wrong with it. Without the catfish head in all its whiskered glory on the plate or the actual catfish meat, calling the dish simply, Yam Pla Fu, makes heaps of sense.
But, to honor all the pla duks of old who have not only died, but allowed their bodies to be used as a garnish throughout the history of this dish, I decided to use catfish for this batch of pla fu, making it real pla duk fu.
How to make it
There’s no recipe. What you need to know to make a good plate of Yam Pla Duk Fu is not exact measurements, but how it’s made.
All you need to do is come up with some cooked fish flakes. I could pretend to be a purist and tell you to grill a catfish whole over wood charcoals, then flake off the cooked meat with a fork. But, nah. The truth is, you can cook the fish, be it whole or filleted, however you want as long as you end up with dry-ish, skinless, unseasoned fish flakes. [Those prone to guilt trips may want to know that I’ve witnessed two Thai restaurant cooks preparing their fish flakes by cooking fish fillets in a microwave. It didn’t precipitate a collapse of Thai cuisine. Also, nobody died from the incident.
As for the type of fish, I don’t recommend firm-fleshed plas like mahi mahi, shark, or monkfish. I do, however, like to use orange roughy, perch, whiting, tilapia, salmon, and other plas with flaky meat, depending on what’s available or on sale.
An extra step I take is to dehydrate the cooked pla flakes by spreading them out on a foil-lined baking sheet and let them dry out in a very low oven (120° F give or take) until the flakes are dry to the touch but not tough. This greatly minimizes the splattering of hot oil when you fry them up. It’s an extra step worth taking. You could spread out the fish flakes on a baking sheet and simply leave them out to dry at room temperature. But I’ve found the oven method to be much more effective.
The fish flakes are then to be shallow-fried (3-inches of oil) in batches over medium-high heat. I usually fry about 6 ounces of dehydrated fish flakes for a one-serving size crispy fish “nest.” Once the fish flakes hit the oil, they sizzle and rise to the surface almost immediately. With the tip of your spatula, gently guide all the flakes toward one another to form one cohesive nest. This is very easy to do as the flakes seem to want to do so on their own volition anyway.
Once the fish nest is golden brown and crispy, transfer it from the oil to a paper towel-lined plate. If you want to freeze some for later, let the crispy fish nests cool completely before storing them as instructed above. If you want to serve the dish in the next few moments, you can keep the crispy fish nests warm in a low oven while you make the mango salad.
Quickly toss together all the ingredients for a simple green mango salad and top the crispy fish with it. If you can’t find good green mangoes, Granny Smith apples, cut into thin matchsticks like what you see in this Thai spicy grilled beef salad, can also be used.
This salad needs to be consumed immediately as the dressing from the mango salad will cause the fish to lose its crispness.
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