Thai Fish Cakes – How to Make Tod Man Pla ทอดมันปลา


how to make authentic thai fish cakesTod Man Pla (or Tawd Mun Pla, Tod Mun Pla, Tod Mun Pla thanks to the madness of Thai-English transliteration which, of course, affects the name ทอดมัน or, when fish is used, ทอดมันปลา, here is one of the most prominent appetizers on most Thai restaurants’ menus. The longevity of this old-fashioned dish’s popularity speaks volumes about its greatness.

Our family has a great recipe for Tod Man Pla which I can’t share lest my aunts and uncles smack me up the head next time I visit home. One of my aunts has a degree in culinary arts and her red curry paste recipe is the best I’ve ever had. Her curry paste combined with fresh water fish , Pla Grai (ปลากราย), makes for the best fish cakes. It’s one of those recipes that you just do not mess with; it’s already perfect. But the one I’m sharing here is about as close as can be to what I grew up with given the ingredients available outside of Thailand.

It is unfortunate that Pla Grai, traditionally used for fish dumplings and fish cakes in Thai cuisine due to its firm flesh, isn’t available fresh in the US. Back home we’re spoiled by freshly-grated Pla Grai flesh which we can get at any good market. No such thing in Chicago. I have tried using frozen whole Pla Grai, but it didn’t go too well. Not only did my kitchen smell like a fish exploded in it, the texture of frozen Pla Grai has rendered the death of that fish completely useless. Once frozen and thawed, the flesh loses its famous elasticity. (My guess is that it’s probably not that fresh to begin with prior to being frozen.)

The only remedy? Frozen prepared fish paste.

authentic thai fish cakes recipe
Prepared fish paste, in 1.5-lb packages, should be available at any large Asian grocery stores in your area. They’re usually tucked away in the back of the freezer, though, so you will have to put some effort into looking for them. Be forewarned that it’s not a single ingredient; seasonings and fillers have already been mixed into it. Some brands have tapioca starch added. Some have salt and pepper added. And some even have egg whites. But when it comes to Tod Man Pla, the varying formulae make little difference.

Good Thai fish cakes must be well-seasoned and have firm, bouncy texture. The seasoning part is easy. We just use prepared red curry paste (for those who look for a more difficult way to make Tod Man, you can make your own red curry paste). In fact, that’s the only thing I add to the prepared fish paste to season it. Chiffonade of fresh kaffir lime leaves and sliced Chinese long beans or regular green beans, are also added.

But the secret is this: in order to replicate the texture of the traditional main ingredient, Pla Grai, some egg whites are added to the fish paste mixture. The albumin in the egg whites creates the elasticity characteristic of good Tod Man Pla. Then last but certainly not least, since the bouncy texture is everything, the fish paste must be whipped until it becomes very viscous. In my family we have an heirloom terra cotta bowl in which we stir Tod Man paste with a wooden spoon in the same direction for at least 20-30 minutes. Here in Chicago, I let my KitchenAid mixer and its paddle attachment do the work for me. I’m lazy.

The fish cakes are best served immediately along with a bowl of cucumber relish. (But they can be frozen and thawed/reheated for later as well.) You can have these as an appetizer, but I eat my Tod Man with rice. Jasmine, of course.

authentic thai fish cake recipe
 

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Thai Fish Cakes – How to Make Tod Man Pla ทอดมันปลา
 
Prep time
Cook time
Total time
 
This is a recipe for classic Thai fish cakes as you will find on the streets of Bangkok as well as family restaurants and rice-curry shops. The post includes tips and tricks on how to make chewy, bouncy fish cakes using ingredients you can find in the US.
Author:
Recipe type: Main Dish, Entree, Meat, Appetizer
Cuisine: Thai
Serves: Makes 30 two-inch fish cakes
Ingredients
  • 1.5-lb package prepared fish paste
  • 2 large egg whites
  • One 4-oz can red curry paste (I use Maesri.)
  • 1 cup thinly-sliced (crosswise) green beans or Chinese long beans
  • 4 tablespoon chiffonade of fresh or frozen kaffir lime leaves (roll them up like a cigar and slice thinly crosswise)
  • Vegetable oil for deep-frying
  • One recipe of easy cucumber relish (see notes)
Instructions
  1. Put the fish paste in a large mixing bowl. Add the egg whites and red curry paste and stir briskly with a wooden spoon until the mixture is homogeneous, thick, and sticky (you can also use a hand-held mixer or a heavy-duty stand mixer with the paddle attachment to mix the fish paste). This should take about 30 minutes by hand or 5-8 minutes on high with a machine.
  2. Once the paste becomes very sticky, fold in the kaffir limes leaves and sliced long beans.
  3. Heat up vegetable oil in a small wok. You want at least 2-3 inches of oil in depth.
  4. Get yourself a bowl of water and place it close to the fish paste bowl. Your hands need to be wet — not just moist, but wet — in order to be able to form decent fish cakes without losing your sanity. The paste is very sticky.
  5. Once the oil is hot, form ¼ inch-thick rounds with roughly 2 inches in diameter and gently slide them into the oil.
  6. With a pair of wooden chopsticks or tongs, move the fish cakes around to allow for even browning. Once one side is golden brown (after 30-40 seconds), flip them. It should take a total of one minute or so to cook both sides. You know your fish cakes are done when you poke them lightly with the tips of the chopsticks and feel the bouncy resistance.
  7. At that point, transfer the fish cakes from the wok to a paper towel-lined plate. Repeat the process until all the paste is gone.
  8. Serve the fish cakes with cucumber relish as an appetizer or a main dish with rice.
Notes
For the cucumber relish: (Mine is a cheater’s version. You don’t even have to make a vinaigrette for this. If you’re a Thai food fan, I assume you have some Thai sweet chilli sauce in the refrigerator. Just use that as the base of your cucumber relish.) Mix together ¾ cup Thai sweet chilli sauce, store-bought or homemade, ½ cup thinly sliced cucumber, 2 tablespoon finely chopped dry-roasted peanuts, 2 tablespoon coarsely-chopped cilantro leaves, and 3 tablespoon thinly sliced shallots or red onion. Keep chilled in a covered bowl.

 

Now boring and unimaginative people who blindly follow convention will tell you that, the classic shape of these fish cakes is flat and round with roughly 2 inches in diameter. However, given that some of us are too hopelessly non-dexterous to make perfectly round fish cakes to save our lives, with some creativity, you can make fish cakes in various, though not at all random, shapes. (Notice the zoology, paleontology, and geography themes? If I hadn’t accidentally eaten Einstein’s head, we would have gotten the Nobel Prize winner theme also.)

 

authentic thai fish cake recipe

authentic thai fish cake recipe

authentic thai fish cake recipe

authentic thai fish cake recipe

41 Responses to Thai Fish Cakes – How to Make Tod Man Pla ทอดมันปลา

  1. Arwen from Hoglet K June 15, 2009 at 11:18 pm #

    I love the shapes, especially stegosaurus and South America! It’s a shame about Einstein.

  2. KennyT June 15, 2009 at 11:38 pm #

    I love the special basil-y flavour and aroma in this Thai fish cake. Kobkoonkrub!

  3. doggybloggy June 16, 2009 at 12:10 am #

    the shapes made the whole read worth it – these cakes sound so good too bad I cant get a hold of your family recipe…

  4. Chef Fresco June 16, 2009 at 1:43 am #

    Hahah nice shapes! What fun food art :) Looks quite tasty too!

  5. 5 Star Foodie June 16, 2009 at 3:23 am #

    Those cakes look just scrumptious and such cute shapes! Love this!

  6. Manggy June 16, 2009 at 3:33 am #

    Oh, darn. A scientific name for pla grai would help, because I can’t find it in davidson’s seafood of southeast asia, either. Oh well :( Thanks for sharing this unique process- I didn’t know it was so labor intensive! (well, I don’t have a mixer…) The stegosaurus is the coolest one :)

  7. oysterCulture June 16, 2009 at 3:36 am #

    I’m assuming based on your post that all Thai fish cakes made in the US are inferior to the Thai variety. What kind of fish do they use instead? I did a search on pla grai and could only find references to the fish back in Thailand, although I did see it looked like it was related to the infamous snake head and that we can get fresh in the States.

  8. Leela June 16, 2009 at 3:42 am #

    Manggy and Oyster – I have no idea what to call Pla Grai in English or how to figure out what its scientific name is. Snake head fish *could* work, but it wouldn’t be an ideal substitute, though, because its flesh is more fluffy than firm and bouncy. The fish paste I use lists “ladyfish” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ladyfish) as the main ingredient.

  9. Aruna June 16, 2009 at 10:34 am #

    Wow this is so interesting, i like ur creativity with map and animals lol. Nice pictures too. ‘M here for the 1st time. Good. :-)

  10. Rick June 16, 2009 at 12:04 pm #

    Love the shapes, takes a creative eye to pick these out…stegosaurus a great match!

  11. lisaiscooking June 16, 2009 at 2:17 pm #

    As usual–every time I visit your site I immediately want to try whatever you’ve posted! These look delicious.

  12. The Duo Dishes June 16, 2009 at 6:36 pm #

    HA! Your shapes are so funny. That South America and Ty Rex are spot on. Your talent transcends. That cucumber relish also sounds too good.

  13. Ozge June 16, 2009 at 7:50 pm #

    Not everyone probably make perfectly round cakes then again it’s the same for yours! Your post made me feel more positive towards them now haha. Although I have no idea how this dish tastes, I’d just have them because of coolness. A-ha. I just got my mommy’s ways now.

  14. dp June 16, 2009 at 7:53 pm #

    My son really really loves Thai fish cakes. We like them too, but it’s just so much cuter when a six year old is gobbling them down. And I think people are surprised by how easy they are to make.

  15. Hornsfan June 17, 2009 at 1:43 am #

    I’ve never had a fish cake but it looks delicious, will have to find them on a menu locally or make some too!

  16. Kelly June 17, 2009 at 4:05 pm #

    Ok, I love the comparisons at the end! Too cute, really! Those fish cakes sounds just lovely. You need to come to Texas and make me Thai food! I’ve decided! I’ll bake for you … we could trade!! :)

  17. Juliana June 17, 2009 at 10:35 pm #

    Interesting recipe…fish cakes, very different from what I am used to…love the ingredients in it, must taste very yummie! Nice pictures!

  18. Carolyn June 18, 2009 at 2:13 am #

    I was pretty excited about this recipe even before seeing those shapes — but stegosaurus? Are you kidding me? It’s a spitting image.

  19. Azam Mansha June 18, 2009 at 3:01 am #

    Thai cuisine as we know it today traces its history back into the far past and has undergone numerous changes and adaptations. It nevertheless retains its distinctiveness which makes Thai food highly popular among connoisseurs of fine dining the world over. Thai food will certainly bring an even wider appreciation of its many delights.

  20. Tangled Noodle June 20, 2009 at 3:11 pm #

    These shapes are great – you could start a gallery of Thai Fish Cakes Oddities! 8-)

    For Manggy, pla grai looks to be Chitala chitala ( featherback or clown knifefish). Apparently, they are popular as aquarium fish here in the US (info from http://bit.ly/FkXLc). Forget the fishmonger – looks like we have to go to the pet store or aquarium shop for this particular ingredient!

    Now, on my next trip to the Asian market, I will dress warmly so that I can dive into the deepest recess of the freezer to find the fish paste and make these myself. Wonder what amazing shapes might be created? 8-)

  21. Leela June 20, 2009 at 10:24 pm #

    TN – Thanks!! That fish you mentioned is exactly what Pla Grai is. I’m so glad I now know what other names it goes by. I have posted a part of your comment in the post for the edification of the general public. Thanks again. I love it when you guys add stuff like this to the comments.

  22. Sally October 12, 2010 at 2:44 pm #

    Can the fish cakes be frozen raw? And later thawed and fried or dropped into curry?

  23. Leela October 12, 2010 at 2:55 pm #

    Sally – Wonderful question! Thanks. Yes, you can do all those things. I’ve done that before. The texture is slightly less bouncy and firm, though not by much. The only disadvantage is that thawed fish cakes cause oil splattering, so you just have to be careful about that.

    Another alternative is to go head and fry the fish cakes fresh, freeze them, and reheat them in the microwave. I’ve tried that and liked this method as well. The disadvantage is that you don’t get the crispy bits around the edges that you get from freshly fried fish cakes.

    To use the fish paste in a curry, you don’t even need to do anything to it. The prepared fish paste is ready to use as is. Just thaw it, shape it, and use it as explained in my green curry post. You can also apply the tips mentioned above to fish balls.

  24. Shantihhh December 14, 2010 at 11:48 pm #

    Clever shapes, btw did you know they just discovered million-year-old crocodile fossil found in Thailand (Nakhon Rathchasima known as Korat). They think it fed on fish, had longer legs, and could run very fast. So here is a new shape for Tod Man! LOL

    The species has been named “Khoratosuchus jintasakuli,” after Korat province, where the fossil was found.

  25. Leela December 15, 2010 at 1:07 am #

    Shantihhh – Awesome! Thanks for telling me this. Just googled it and found this. So cool. My next batch of tod man will definitely include the big guy from Korat.

  26. Boogybool February 16, 2012 at 10:17 am #

    I LOVE tod man pla and wanted to give your recipe a try but couldn’t find all the ingredients so :
    - I used white fish because I couldn’t find the fish paste
    - and lime zest instead of kaffir lime leaves.

    Also I cooked them in the oven for 20-25 minutes without oil.

    I must say that it tasted pretty good. Not exactly like the authentic tod man pla but it’s a good, lighter, alternative. Thank you so much for the recipe !! :-)

  27. Bruce May 17, 2012 at 8:39 pm #

    South America looks more like Africa to me.

    Also, the Marina Market in Redwood City, Ca sells fresh Ladyfish paste @$4.95/Lb

  28. Admin May 17, 2012 at 8:45 pm #

    Bruce – Ouch. ;) Thanks for the tip.

  29. Bruce May 18, 2012 at 3:02 pm #

    I had an open container of AROY-D red curry paste so I used that instead of Maesri.
    It all came out great but was a little too salty. When I make this again I will definitely use Maesri Curry Paste as it has over 20% less salt according to the label content.

    It’s possible that the fresh Ladyfish paste I used was over salted by the supermarket when they prepared but I don’t have a lot of control over that.

    One question, if there is no starch in the paste I buy should I add tapioca to stiffen it?

  30. Admin May 18, 2012 at 5:51 pm #

    Bruce – I’ve never used Aroy-D, but thanks for the heads-up on the sodium content. It’s definitely possible that that particular brand of fish paste has been seasoned with plenty of salt in which case it’s a bit tricky. On the one hand, if you add too much curry paste, the end product will be too salty. On the other hand, if you add too little curry paste, your fish cakes will be too bland. I don’t know which is the lesser evil, although I think I’m leaning towards the latter …

    Next time, regardless of what fish paste-curry paste combination you end up with, try adding half of the curry paste the recipe calls for first, then cook a small portion (a tablespoon or so) in a microwave to see how it tastes. If more curry paste is needed, you can always add more.

    As far as potato starch, you can add some to the fish paste. I’d say 2 tablespoons per pound sounds about right.

  31. Anonymous June 13, 2012 at 5:58 am #

    Hi, wld like to try this recipe. But i dont have red curry paste (nor green), so can I substitute with something else. (I dont have access to prepack Thai paste) where I live. Thanks.
    chrissie

  32. Admin June 13, 2012 at 7:07 am #

    Chrissie – Unfortunately, no. Red curry paste is the main seasoning ingredient that defines these fish cakes (you can’t even use other types of curry paste). If prepared curry paste isn’t available where you are, you can make it from scratch. Can you find fresh ingredients like shrimp paste, lemonrass, kaffir limes, etc., though? If not, there is no way to make these shrimp cakes successfully.

  33. Anonymous June 19, 2012 at 9:02 am #

    hi Leela, I wish to make fish paste myself because I can’t find it. Could you please give me some advice ? Thank you ! I still love your recepies, so detailled, and your sense humour.
    Lily

  34. Admin June 19, 2012 at 12:32 pm #

    Lily – Thanks! Request noted.

  35. presa1200 September 6, 2012 at 10:55 pm #

    perhaps the secret recipe calls for roasted shrimp paste and fish sauce?

  36. bawa September 23, 2012 at 5:13 am #

    Hello,

    Just one question. I live in a Spain and a wide variety of fresh fish and shellfish is readily available. What kind of fresh fish would you suggest for this? No fish paste available. If you give me a few names in English, I should be able to work out the nearest thing in local!

    Thanks.

    • Leela September 23, 2012 at 5:21 am #

      I’d go for a firm white fish. Pollock, catfish, grouper, haddock, cod should work. Make sure to cut it into cubes and freeze the cubes until extremely cold (but not solid) before blending them in a food processor. For every pound of fish, you want to add 1 tablespoon of tapioca starch or cornstarch and 1 egg white to it. This increases the bouncy texture.

  37. Ray October 29, 2012 at 11:52 am #

    My friends wife (Thai) gave me her recipe for Thai Fish Cakes. I met them in Kuwait while I was working there, He is Australian. She used shrimp paste with the kingfish (Mackrel) she had to work with in Kuwait. If you want I can send you the recipe complete with pictures they took while she was preparing the recipe for my benefit. Drop a line here as I have clicked on the notify me when new email is posted. She gave me the ingredient subistutes to use that I would be able to purchase outside of Thailand.

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