More times than I can count, people have asked me to name some of the biggest culture shocks I experienced when I first came to the US. I can’t think of any. Sure, I once went to a public library hoping to check out some good adult movies and once publicly inquired fellow students in my immediate vicinity if any of them would lend me a piece of rubber to use right then and there. But, for the most part, nothing really threatened my emotional well-being.
In most cases, seafood is very simply prepared in Thailand. Poaching, grilling, and steaming are the most prevalent methods of preparation when it comes to freshly-caught seafood. Anything else would only detract from its beauty. Blessed with long coastal lines of the eastern seaboard and both sides of “the axe handle,” we always have fresh seafood in abundance.
Some of my fondest childhood memories involve frequent family beach vacations the highlight of which was all of us sitting around a brick barbecue, grilling various marine lives that were swimming just moments ago. I remember the firm flesh, the flavor of the ocean, the natural sweetness.
So it took me a while to get used to seafood dishes that are:
- Covered in bread crumbs.
- Enshrouded in thick batter then deep-fried and served with tartar sauce.
- Chopped up, mixed with bread crumbs or other fillers, shaped into patties, then pan-fried.
- Boiled up and served with corn on the cob and new potatoes.
- Served with clarified butter as the dipping sauce.
- Swimming in mayonnaise.
- We’re not talking about good vs. bad or better vs. worse here; we’re talking about two different ways.
I guess I’m set in my way when it comes to seafood. The corn, potatoes, and coleslaw — I can do without. The bread crumbs — I don’t hate, but I don’t “get” either. What I need, though, is this spicy, tangy dipping sauce I grew up with. It’s the first article in my seafood creeds.
How to make Thai spicy seafood dipping sauce my way (notice the number 3): In a blender, liquefy 3 large cloves of garlic (peeled), 3 red or green bird’s eye chilies (you can also use any color jalapeño or serrano; just adjust the amount and heat level accordingly), 3 tablespoons fish sauce, and 3 tablespoons water. Pour the mixture into a small saucepan, add 3 tablespoons sugar, and bring to a gentle boil over medium-low heat; simmer for 30 seconds. (Most people skip this step which is fine. I like to do this to take the edge off the raw garlic.) Remove the pot from heat. Add fresh lime juice to taste. Adjust sweetness and saltiness to taste. I like my sauce equally salty, sweet, and sour. This makes about half a cup.
This sauce goes best with poached shell-on jumbo shrimp (shown here), steamed fish, steamed mussels and clams, lightly-poached squid, grilled whole fish, and other simple, unadorned, minimally-seasoned fresh seafood.