Friday Night Fishcakes With a Thai Twist

The story behind this story is one to which we all can relate: What should I cook for dinner tonight?

I was pondering that very question yesterday afternoon, but was coming up empty, even with hundreds of books in my midst. To help fire up the synapses, I turned to my food-stained copy of "The Kitchen Diaries," an old reliable by Brit food writer Nigel Slater. In "The Kitchen Diaries," Slater chronicles a year in the life of his own home kitchen in London.

Thai fish cakes: A sure-fire way to break out of a cooking rut. (Kim O'Donnel)

I peeked at the Feb. 7 and Feb. 8 entries (with the idea of coinciding with the calendar) which dish up "lamb shanks to warm the soul" and "a smoked fish supper." The idea of fish appealed -- but without the smoke. So I kept thumbing through until I saw the entry for April 9, which also happens to be Slater's birthday. To celebrate, he prepared supper, a multi-course affair that included Thai fish cakes, which sounded positively tongue-ticklish and worth a kitchen whirl.

The fact that today is the first Friday of Lent, when many observant Catholics eat fish, sealed this deal. Let's see what we can do spritz up ye olde stodgy fishcake, I thought.

The Thai aspects of this dish are fish sauce (aka nam pla), lime leaves (found in the frozen section of any Asian and Indian grocery) and to a certain degree, cilantro. Although you could substitute the rind of several limes, I highly recommend getting your hands on the leaves, as the flavor is a knockout that will forever be imprinted in your memory.

Slater tends to write in long hand, often without exact measurements, so I've filled in the gaps in my notes below. His idea of making a spice paste that gets integrated into a fish paste (from a quick "pulse" in the food processor) is brilliant; the resulting patties are gloriously green and when fried up, transform into an intriguing medley of flavors that will be cause for pause and contemplation.

To go with, Slater suggests a limey-gingery dipping sauce that gets a little time atop the stove, so that it thickens and jams up a bit (that's due to the sugar and the fish sauce).

The house will smell like limes, which is never a bad thing, and you and your lucky guests will be doing a tableside jig because these little patties are so darn interesting. Good stuff!

A couple of notes: The original recipe does not include a binder, such as egg, potatoes or bread crumbs. I followed Slater's instructions and ended up with a crumbly mess. So I scrapped the first batch and added one beaten egg and a small amount of bread crumbs. If you don't do eggs, try boiling a potato and mashing it, then adding completely cooled potato to the fish mixture. As mentioned earlier, Slater's recipes are meant to be tweaked.

I also dredged the patties in flour, a step worth doing so they get brown and crispy. You could try cornstarch as well.

Have a delicious weekend!

Thai Fish Cakes

Adapted from "The Kitchen Diaries" by Nigel Slater

2 small red chiles, stemmed and seeded (I used 1/2 habanero)
3 scallions, cleaned, root removed
2 cloves garlic, peeled
6 lime leaves (available at an Asian or Indian grocer)
1 small bunch cilantro, roughly chopped
1 heaping tablespoon Thai fish sauce (aka nam pla)
1 pound white fish (haddock, hake, cod, tilapia, turbot - keeping in mind eco-friendly choices), skinned if necessary
1 egg, beaten
1/4 cup plain bread crumbs
1/4 teaspoon salt
black pepper
flour for dredging
vegetable oil for frying

Roughly chop chiles and scallions and place in the bowl of a food processor. Add garlic, lime leaves, cilantro and fish sauce. Process into a smooth paste, then scoop out of food processor into a medium mixing bowl.

Cut fish into chunks and pulse in food processor, until you have a rough paste. Scoop fish out of food processor and add it to spice paste, mixing until well combined. Add egg, bread crumbs salt and pepper, and cover with plastic. Refrigerate for at least 30 minutes to set up.

Flour your hands and shape mixture into small, flat patties about the size of a gingersnap. Return to the fridge for an additional 20 minutes.

When ready to cook, heat skillet over medium heat and add at least three tablespoons of oil. Dredge patties in flour and evenly coat. Place patties in skillet and fry patties until golden on both sides. Drain on paper towels; keep in a warm oven while and serve with dipping sauce.

Makes enough for two; amounts may be doubled.

Dipping Sauce
2 large red chilies of medium heat, diced (fresno, mirasol; remove seeds if you like a milder result)
3 tablespoons fish sauce
7 tablespoons water
3 tablespoons rice vinegar
7 tablespoons superfine sugar
thumb-sized knob of fresh ginger, peeled, chopped and pulverized
Juice of 2 limes (or l large lime)
1 1/4 teaspoons soy sauce

In a small saucepan, combine fish sauce, water, rice vinegar and sugar and bring to a boil. Add ginger and allow mixture to boil until it has begun to slightly thicken. Pour over a sieve, leaving behind larger ginger pieces.

Let sauce cool, then add lime juice, chopped chiles and soy sauce.

By Kim ODonnel |  February 8, 2008; 11:04 AM ET Dinner Tonight , Seafood
Previous: Cook's Grab Bag: Year of the Rat, CSA Sign-Up, Spinach Salad | Next: Cooking: The Next Happy Pill?


Please email us to report offensive comments.

Kim, I like the sound of these a lot!
Speaking of fish, I have an only slightly related question for you. How long can you keep a dish that contains cooked fish in the fridge before it's no longer safe to eat? More specifically, I have a lovely recipe for a fish pie (like shepherds pie, with mashed potatoes on top). If I make small, single-serving portions on Saturday, can I keep some of them in the fridge and bake them on Monday? The filling would be fully cooked, the baking just browns the top. Thanks!

Posted by: Rosslyn | February 8, 2008 12:07 PM

A related question to Rosslyn's - I know it says to refrigerate an extra 20 minutes after shaping - could I refrigerate longer (like 2-3 hours) if I needed to make them a little bit in advance? Or if I'm refrigerating for the extra hours be better to do before shaping?

Posted by: Cassie | February 8, 2008 12:34 PM

Rosslyn, the problem is that fish breaks down pretty quickly, at a much more rapid pace than say chicken or beef. I also am concerned about it tasting fishier than you might like. I think I'd freeze it before keeping in fridge.
Cassie: you may certainly form patties a few hours in advance. Keep covered with plastic. Don't dredge in flour til just before frying.

Posted by: Kim O'Donnel | February 8, 2008 12:51 PM

Kim, what do you think of dredging in panko instead of flour? Add a nice crunch or only unnecessary starchy-ness?

Posted by: Seattle, WA | February 8, 2008 2:12 PM

Hello Kim

About lime leaves: No doubt you mean kaffir lime leaves (though kaffir is a pejorative, and the SE Asian name of this lime is makrud). I find the leaves tedious to use, what with excising the tough central spine and julienning the rather tough leaves. If fresh makrud are available where you live (here on Maui there's a German goat milk producer who has a citrus fetish, so no problem) try substituting the zest. Much more interesting, to my palate.

Posted by: David Lewiston | February 8, 2008 2:33 PM

PS I have a herb fetish. I would use large quantities of cilantro AND mint (roughly equal amounts of each). Same thing with ginger. For my palate, there can never be too much ginger.

Another divine use for pureed fish: Otak otak. I first had it in a food court in the basement of a huuuge department store on Orchard Road in Singapore. Instantly addictive.

Posted by: David Lewiston | February 8, 2008 2:51 PM

David: I'm all for adding mint with the cilantro, good idea, particularly in your neck of the woods. I've not had the pleasure of otak otak, will have to explore this. And yes, I'm referring to kaffir lime leaves. I will tell you, at first I was concerned with the tough quality of the leaves, but they chopped beautifully in the food processor. I also removed vein before chopping.

Seattle: I used panko instead of regular old bread crumbs as my binder, fyi, but I think it'd be worth a shot rolling them in the crumbs, seeing what happened.

Posted by: Kim O'Donnel | February 8, 2008 3:31 PM

Hello Kim

A suggestion: Since you're in DC you have exceptional access to info on cooking styles, in the form of the many embassies that import their own chefs. Using the WP as your Open Sesame, calls to the information officers at the Thai, Malaysian, Indonesian & Singaporean embassies should yield invitations to meet their chefs. Get some insights into Nyonya cooking, the uses of the divinely smelly blachan shrimp paste, and much else. Nyonya? Blachan? Ask Google.

Posted by: David Lewiston | February 9, 2008 12:29 AM

Soy sauce gives me a migrain. I either avoid recipes with it, or leave it out.

Posted by: Dee | February 11, 2008 7:03 AM

What if I cannot find lime leaves - what can I substitute?

Posted by: Washington, DC | February 13, 2008 2:26 PM

Oh. My. God. These were incredible. The flavor in every mouthful was unbelievably fresh and complex. Finding lime leaves was a PITA, but definitely worth the effort -- there is no real substitute. I was also a tad concerned about the fish sauce aroma as I was making the dipping sauce, but it all worked out just as you promised. I had neighbors and parents over for dinner, and we all fell over dead with happiness. Served with saffron couscous and zucchini, and glazed carrots (for my boyfriend). It's not a matter of IF I make these again, but HOW SOON. Thank you so much!

Posted by: Louise | March 6, 2008 9:27 PM

The comments to this entry are closed.


© 2010 The Washington Post Company