Steamed Thai Fish en Papillote

Almost exactly one year ago, I took my first trip to Thailand. While I ate a number of incredible, authentic dishes perhaps my favorite was a Thai restaurant staple, fried fish with three-flavored sauce – sweet, salty, and sour.

The three flavors are a balance of classic, Thai ingredients. The sweetness comes from palm sugar, the salinity from tangy fish sauce, and the sour from the tamarind pulp.

This is Thai cooking at its best. The ingredients are first mashed into a paste and cooked down into a sauce and then a whole fish is coated in it before being deep fried and topped off with cilantro, chiles and lime juice.

Steamed Thai Fish en Papillote
Steamed Thai Fish en Papillote

To make this a little more practical for the every day, I combined the three-flavored sauce with the easier, healthier cooking technique of steaming fish in parchment (en papillote).

The overall concept is the same. Create the three-flavored sauce, but instead of deep frying a whole fish, gently steam smaller portions in parchment paper with vegetables for a quick and healthy week-night dinner.

Each package is like a mini-self container steamer that cooks and infuses everything together and creates an incredibly delicious sauce with very little work.

I like to serve mine with a bowl of jasmine rice or a small salad.

Steamed Thai Fish en Papillote
Steamed Thai Fish en Papillote
Know this: Choose quick cooking vegetables like mushrooms or cut others into thin matchsticks to ensure everything will be cooked by the time the fish finishes.
Thai Fish en Papillote
By Evan Kalman
Serves 4 as a light dinner

Ingredients

  • 4 large garlic cloves, crushed
  • 2 tablespoons chopped cilantro stems plus cilantro leaves for garnish
  • 1 shallot – chopped
  • 2-3 green Thai Bird’s Eye chiles
  • 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
  • 1-2 tablespoons of tamarind pulp
  • 1 tablespoon Thai fish sauce (nam pla)
  • 1 tablespoon Thai light soy sauce (Healthy Boy brand)
  • 1 tablespoon plam sugar (or light brown sugar if palm sugar is not available)
  • Pinch of freshly ground white or black pepper
  • 4 portions (4 oz each) fish of your choice
  • Seasonal vegatables such as mushrooms, zucchini, or bok choy – cut into small wedges or matchsticks
  • 1 lime – cut into thin rounds
  • 2 scallion – thinly sliced on the bias
  • 4 kaffir lime leaves (optional)
  • 2 stalks of lemongrass – root, upper two-thirds, and tough outter leaves of the stalk removed

Steps

Pre-heat an over to 400 degrees. While the oven is heating, prepare the fish.

To make the paste: With a mortar and pestle (or food processor), lightly pound garlic, cilantro stems, shallot, and chiles with a pestle until a coarse paste forms. Heat a skillet with the oil over medium-high and fry the paste until fragrant, about a minute or two. Stir in tamarind pulp, fish sauce, light soy sauce, sugar and about 2 tablespoons of water until combined. Bring to a boil then lower heat to a simmer. Reduce sauce until thickened and let cool.

To cook the fish: Evenly spread the paste over the fish and set sauce aside to marinate for 10 minutes.

Fold four 15″ square pieces of parchment in half. Starting at the fold of each piece, cut into a half-moon shape. Once unfolded you should have 4 circular pieces of parchment about 15″ in diameter.

Place a piece of fish skin-side down next to the crease on each piece of parchment. In the following order, top each fish with: 1/2 cup of your choice of vegetables, about 1 tablespoon of the sliced scallions, 2 slices of lime, 1 kaffir lime leaf (if using), and half of a stalk of lemongrass.

Fold the other half of parchment over fish. Starting at left-side make small, tight overlapping folds along the edges to seal the “package.” Twist both ends and tuck under to seal completely.

Place each package on a large rimmed baking sheet and roast for about 12 minutes, depending on the thickness of the fish.

To serve, transfer each package to a plate, slit with a knife and carefully open. Garnish with reserved cilantro. Serve with steamed rice.

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