This cross between a stew and a soup, called gaeng pla by the Shan, has a layered depth of flavor that makes it a real keeper. Starting with a paste of ginger, lemongrass, garlic, and shallots that perfumes the water the fish cooks in, the stew gets a balancing acid note from fresh tomato and a little heat from green chiles.

Use whatever fish you prefer, from freshwater options such as trout, tilapia, or pickerel to barramundi, snapper, haddock, or even salmon.

Serve the stew as a main course over rice or, nontraditionally, over couscous or new potatoes. Accompany with a simple vegetable stir-fry and a salad.

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Ingredients

  • ¼ cup thinly sliced lemongrass
  • 2 tablespoons sliced turmeric root, or substitute 1 tablespoon ground turmeric
  • 2 tablespoons salt
  • ½ cup coarsely chopped shallots
  • ¼ cup coarsely chopped garlic
  • ¼ cup sliced ginger
  • 2 tablespoons minced coriander roots, or roots and stems
  • ½ cup sliced green cayenne chiles
  • 8 cups water
  • 1 cup tomato wedges
  • 2 tablespoons chopped or crumbled toasted Soybean Disk (see Cooking with Tua Nao), or substitute 2 teaspoons brown miso paste
  • 3 to 3½ pounds cleaned whole fish (see the headnote), cut into steaks about ¾ inch thick and rinsed
  • Scant 2 tablespoons minced scallions
  • 2 cups loosely packed Thai basil leaves, or a mix of basil and coriander leaves

Method

Combine the lemongrass, turmeric, and a pinch of salt in a large mortar or food processor and pound or process to a coarse paste; set aside. Using the mortar or food processor, make a coarse paste of the shallots, garlic, ginger, coriander, chiles, and a pinch of salt. Combine the two pastes and mix well.

Bring the water to a boil in a wide pot. Add the spice paste, along with the tomatoes, crumbled soybean disk (do not add miso paste now), and the remaining salt, bring to a boil, and boil hard for 10 minutes.

If using miso paste, scoop out a little broth and use it to dissolve the paste, then add back to the pot. Add the fish, including the heads if available, cover, and cook at a medium boil until the fish is cooked through, about 10 minutes. Add the scallions and stir, then add the basil (and coriander) leaves, stir, and remove from the heat.

Serve hot or at room temperature.

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