How to make the perfect Thai fish cakes

A staple on Thai menus, these sumptuous snacks require tender fish and a well-spiced curry paste.

By Pailin Chongchitnant
Published 2 Sept 2021, 17:02 BST
A classic recipe, these red-curry-flavoured fish cakes can be found everywhere in Thailand.

A classic recipe, these red-curry-flavoured fish cakes can be found everywhere in Thailand.

Photograph by Alamy

These soft, bouncy snacks are packed full of fragrant Thai ingredients and are simple to make, too. Here, chef and food writer Pailin Chongchitnant lists six key elements to get right while trying your hand at making them, and shares her own recipe.

1. The taste
Once you’ve made the fish paste, cook up a small amount and try it. You may need to add a little more fish sauce or curry paste. Salt and spice levels in different brands of curry pastes vary significantly, so it’s vital to taste and adjust.

2. The texture
You’ll need to process your fish cake mixture in a food processor for longer than you think. Processing develops the proteins and makes the paste sticky, allowing it to hold its shape once formed. The paste is ready when it doesn’t fall off a spoon that’s turned upside down, and when it has a slight bounce to it.

3. The filling
The type of fish used is the most important factor in getting the right texture. Go for very tender fish like basa, sole or catfish and stay away from firm fish to avoid tough cakes. You may have to experiment with a few types first.

4. The paste
Red curry paste is the main flavour in these fish cakes. When buying it, try to find a brand that’s made in Thailand. It also shouldn’t contain any additives or seasonings other than salt and shrimp paste. Asian shops will have a better selection of authentic pastes.

5. The frying
Thai fish cakes are traditionally deep-fried, as it offers an easy way to cook large numbers at a time. However, deep-fried fish cakes often shrink and go wrinkly as they cool. Pan-frying, meanwhile, results in nicer-looking fish cakes, and the gentler heat makes them more tender. This method also uses less oil.

6. The sauce
You can buy bottled sweet chilli sauce to go with the fish cakes, but a homemade one is so much better — plus, it’s easy to make. Add cucumber pieces to the dipping sauce for a crunchy freshness.

RECIPE: Pailin Chongchitnant’s Thai fish cakes

A classic recipe, these red-curry-flavoured fish cakes can be found everywhere in Thailand. The preparation is simple; the hardest part is getting the right fish. Go with something tender and you'll be fine, because the firmer the fish, the firmer the fish cakes (I personally prefer them on the softer side). In Thailand, the fish used is pla grai (the clown featherback), but as that’s not available to me, I use basa, which works great. If the fish you have is a bit too firm, try adding 1-2 more egg yolks to tenderise the mix a bit. If you’re sensitive to spice, start out with just 2 tbsp red curry paste. Avoid pastes that are quite salty (Mae Ploy brand, for example) or else the saltiness will overpower the curry flavour. I used 3 tbsp Maesri paste and didn’t need to add any fish sauce. The dipping sauce is similar to the ‘sweet chilli sauce’ you can find on supermarket shelves — you can use that instead, but it really makes a difference if you make it yourself. This recipe involves pan-frying the fish cakes, but you can also deep-fry them, as is the traditional method. Tip: I find it easier to form the cakes as I fry them, as opposed to pre-forming them, because the mixture is quite soft and it can be hard to pick up a pre-formed patty.

Makes: 17-19 pieces
Takes: 40 mins

350g basa or other tender fish fillets, dried thoroughly if thawed from frozen
2-3 tbsp red curry paste (see intro)
1 egg yolk
1 tsp sugar
45g long beans or green beans
5g Thai basil or holy basil, sliced into ribbons if large
5 kaffir lime leaves, finely julienned
fish sauce, to taste

For the sweet chilli dipping sauce
3 cloves garlic
1 spur chilli (or other large red chilli pepper that's not too spicy), topped and tailed
1-2 Thai chillies, to taste (optional) (for extra spice, add up to 5 chillies)
80ml white vinegar, cane vinegar or rice vinegar
½ cup sugar
½ tsp salt
cucumber slices, to serve
roasted crushed peanuts and sliced shallots, to serve (optional)

To make the dipping sauce, put the garlic, spur chilli, Thai chillies (if using), vinegar, sugar, salt and 3 tbsp water in a blender and blitz just until there are no more chunks (use a low speed to blend, if you like, to retain the chilli seeds and pieces for a nicer visual).
2. Pour the blended chillies into a small pot, set over a medium heat and bring to a simmer, then simmer for about 3-5 mins, or until it has the consistency of a thin syrup. The sauce will thicken as it cools, so if it’s too thick once cool, add more water. Set aside until ready to use (it will keep for several months if stored in a sealed, airtight container in the fridge).
3. To make the fish cakes, combine the fish, curry paste, egg yolk and sugar in a food processor. Process until fine, scraping the sides as needed, then keep processing for a few minutes longer until the fish is firm enough to hold its shape well when spooned. If this is your first time making this dish, cook up a bit of the mixture to taste for salt and spiciness. If you want a stronger curry flavour or more spiciness, add more curry paste, keeping in mind that it also adds more saltiness; if you only want more saltiness, add a little of the fish sauce.
4. Transfer the fish paste into a mixing bowl and add the long beans, Thai basil and kaffir lime leaves. Stir until well combined.
5. Get your workspace ready by setting a bowl of cold water and some paper towel (for your hands) by the stove. Heat a skillet over a medium heat until hot, then add just enough oil to coat the bottom of the skillet. Wet your hands and a tablespoon in the cold water, then use the wet spoon to scoop 1 heaped tbsp of the fish paste into your hands. Gently pat to form into a patty, then place in the skillet. Repeat with the remaining paste, to make 17-19 fishcakes. Fry for around 2 minutes on each side until browned (you may need to add more oil as you go).
6. Stir the cucumber slices, peanuts and shallots into the dipping sauce, then serve alongside the fish cakes. You can also serve extra cucumber on the side, if you like.

Pailin Chongchitnant is a chef and YouTuber and the author of Hot Thai Kitchen (£20.99, Random House)

Published in Issue 11 (spring 2021) of National Geographic Traveller Food

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