The concept is straightforward enough. Steam a fish on a bed of lemon grass and serve it with a sauce that requires no cooking. The end result is a lemony, moist fish with the savory, sweet, sour and spicy perfectly balanced. Elegant yet so simple and easy.
I wish I can offer a better photograph to do the recipe justice. However, it was a weekday dinner where everyone was coming home at different times. The big grouper was carved into pieces such that individual portions could be cooked and served in minutes after a family member sat down at the dining table. I have to agree with the ever so practical Mother: quality has to take precedence over aesthetics and my blog in this case, steamed fish is best served pipping hot.
Steamed Fish With Lemon Grass (Pla Neung Takrai)
adapted from Stylish Thai In Minutes by Vatcharin Bhumichitr
1 whole fish, about 500g (grouper, sea bass, pomfret or any lean, firm textured fish)
4 stalks lemon grass
4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
3 Thai bird's eye chili, finely sliced
3 tbsp Thai fish sauce (nam pla)
3½ tbsp lime juice
2 tsp sugar
Make sure the fish has been scaled, gutted and cleaned. Score fish with 2 or 3 diagonal cuts on both sides.
Remove outer layer of lemon grass. Trim the top and bottom of the stalks to fit a heat proof dish. Bruise the lemon grass with the back of a knife and then halved each stalk length wise. Stuff a few pieces into the cuts on the fish. Layer the rest of the lemon grass on the dish.
Place fish on the bed of lemon grass and steam over medium to high heat for about 15 minutes or until cooked.
Put together the fish sauce, sugar and lime juice. Stir until the sugar has dissolved. Add chili and garlic to the sauce. Let stand for at least 30 minutes before use to allow the flavors to blend.
When the fish is cooked, remove it from the steamer straight away. There will be be some liquid in the dish due to moisture from the fish and the lemon grass. Spoon that liquid over the fish. Then pour the sauce over and around the fish. Garnish with coriander leaves. Serve immediately.
Freshness of the fish is in my opinion what makes or break this dish. If possible, get the fish fresh from the market and cook it on the same day.
I specify the use of Thai fish sauce in this recipe because it is milder in flavor and as the sauce is not cooked, a more robust fish sauce like the Vietnamese or Chinese variety may be too salty and fishy. If you have to use Vietnamese or Chinese fish sauce, replace 1 to 2 tablespoon of the fish sauce with water to dilute.
The sauce used here is very similar to a popular Vietnamese dipping sauce known as nuoc cham. I usually make extra to use as dipping sauce, salad dressing and marinade. It will keep in the fridge for about a week.