The only mackerel I had ever tried before coming to Thailand was an oily, chewy hunk of raw fish at an inland Japanese restaurant some 5,000 miles from Japan. There’s nothing like a questionable piece of sashimi to turn one off to a particular type of seafood, but this salty fish known as pla tuu in Thai is extremely popular in Thailand, and it has since become one of my favourites.
Although popular throughout the kingdom, Samut Songkhram province southwest of Bangkok is famous for its pla tuu. These sleek bug-eyed silver fish teem in the Mae Khlong river’s brackish water as it nears the Gulf of Thailand. In Samut Songkhram villages like Amphawa you can feed long beans to schools of mackerel while enjoying a plate of their relatives on a riverside restaurant terrace. If Samut Songkhram isn’t in your travel plans, pla tuu are also ubiquitous on street vendor carts of Bangkok and elsewhere.
The most common Thai method of preparing pla tuu is by way of hot oil in a pan, but some of the best I’ve tried came from a vendor in Rayong’s old town who insisted that, apart from water, a grill is the only suitable place for a fish. Whether grilled or fried or swimming in a bowl of tom yum soup, pla tuu require some effort to eat.
Using your bare hands (close your eyes if you’re the squeamish type), start by removing the head, which pops off easier than the lid from a can of peanuts. Next, peel off the stringy strips that line the top and bottom of the fish so as to get rid of the tiny bones found within them. Then remove the long and narrow bones below the neck, but slide that brown meat off them first — you can eat that. Finally, gently nudge the thin white chunks of meat on either side to remove them from the spine, wash your hands, and enjoy. Pla tuu aren’t huge, so a full, messy meal can include anywhere from one to six fish per person.
There’s nothing quite like fresh mackerel meat. It’s not as firm as swordfish but not as flaky as tilapia, and the juicy white strips have an addictive natural saltiness that requires nothing else; you’ll almost never see the typical Thai seafood sauce of lime, garlic, chilli and fish sauce served with pla tuu. The fish is however commonly served with steamed or cold veggies, strips of khai jeow (Thai-style omelette) and a small bowl of nam phrik kapi, a pungent and spicy deep purple concoction made from shrimp paste, garlic, onion, chilli, lime and miniature Asian eggplants.
The other ingenious Thai way of preparing mackerel is to make a chilli paste out of the fish itself. Known as nam phrik pla tuu, this popular paste is created by pounding cooked mackerel meat along with several types of grilled chilli peppers, garlic, onion and lime with a mortal and pestle. If done properly, the added ingredients compliment the fish without disguising its natural flavour. As pictured above, nam phrik pla tuu is also served with steamed or fresh veggies and often enjoyed with whole mackerel fishes and rice.
If you make it to Amphawa for the weekend market, grab a table at any of the countless canal or riverside seafood joints to enjoy the Mae Khlong specialty that many Bangkokians specifically make the 75-kilometre trip for. Otherwise, vendors specialising in both the fish and the paste made from it aren’t too difficult to find in Bangkok — Charoen Krung Soi 46, Soi Ari and Silom Soi 20 are all safe bets. Let the head-popping begin!
By David Luekens
Last updated on 16th January, 2013.