Choo chee fish

A fragrant Thai classic full of vibrant flavours.

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For years this has been my go-to order in any Thai restaurant: I love its layered combination of heat and sweetness coupled with the freshness from kaffir lime leaves and sweet Thai basil. It might seem like a kitchen-sink approach to creating flavour but, like many Central Thai dishes, it’s the balance that makes it work.

Once I taught myself how to make it, I understood why it appears on every menu. The sauce, which constitutes most of the work and time of the dish, can be prepared ahead if necessary. It’s then a simple and speedy matter to heat it up and simmer the fish in it.

The ingredients are staples of Asian cooking and earn their keep in my cupboard in lots of other ways. All I normally have to buy to get this on the table for dinner is the fish itself – and it works with any firm-fleshed white fish – and the Thai basil, and sometimes the kaffir lime leaves if my supply, kept in a brown paper bag in the freezer, is running low.

My version uses three kinds of chilli – sambal oelek, red curry paste and fresh – so there is a lot of heat here, even if much of it is tempered by the coconut milk. Serve the fresh chillies separately if you want to tone it down, and deseed them completely to take them down another notch. I serve this with steamed rice and some fresh lime wedges.


Choo chee fish

 

Serves 2.

500g (1 pound) firm white fish fillets
2 tablespoons sambal oelek
1 tablespoon red curry paste (I use the Mae Ploy brand)
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
2 small red chillies, finely sliced, deseeded if desired
1 small onion, halved and sliced
2 cloves garlic, finely grated
6 kaffir lime leaves
300ml (1¼ cups) coconut milk
1 tablespoon fish sauce
1 tablespoon palm sugar, grated (or brown sugar)
1 handful (about ½ cup) Thai basil leaves
spring onions (scallions), to garnish

Heat a frying pan large enough to accommodate all the fish in a single layer over medium heat. Measure the sambal oelek, curry paste and oil into the pan and cook gently for 2 minutes, until warmed through and fragrant.

Stir in the chilli, onion, garlic and lime leaves (fold them along their spine before adding) and cook until the onion has softened.

Add the coconut milk, fish sauce and sugar. Stir to combine and simmer for 4 minutes.

Add the fish to pan and spoon over some of the sauce. Simmer for about 5 minutes, until it is cooked through.

Take the pan off the heat and stir through the basil leaves.

Garnish with finely sliced spring onions and a few fresh leaves of Thai basil.