Tod 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.
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.
- 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)
- 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.
- Once the paste becomes very sticky, fold in the kaffir limes leaves and sliced long beans.
- Heat up vegetable oil in a small wok. You want at least 2-3 inches of oil in depth.
- 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.
- Once the oil is hot, form ¼ inch-thick rounds with roughly 2 inches in diameter and gently slide them into the oil.
- 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.
- 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.
- Serve the fish cakes with cucumber relish as an appetizer or a main dish with rice.
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.)