Thai Crispy Fish with Green Mango Salad – Yam Pla-Duk Fu (ยำปลาดุกฟู): In Memory of the Pla Called Duk



This unique salad is one of those things that make me go, “Man, this is why I love Thai food!” The combination of a crispy, airy nest of fish meat and a tart, sweet salad of fresh green mango just cannot be beat. There are so many textures and flavors going on; yet they all work together so beautifully you can’t help but thinking that whoever first thought this up sure was bright. Beer drinkers nationwide would probably want to have that person sainted also for, this Thai crispy fish with green mango salad has got to be one of the most loved classic “drinking foods” of all time.

Yam Pla Duk Fu [1] is also a great party dish not only because your guests will go nuts over it, but also because the crispy fish part can be prepared in advance, frozen or refrigerated, then popped into the oven to be re-crisped just before serving. Come serving time, all you have to do is make the green mango salad to go on top of the crispy fish.

But first, the name.

This crispy fish and mango salad goes by the Thai name Yam (salad – rhymes with “numb”) Pla (fish – rhymes with “ma”) Duk (a type of fish – rhymes with “look”) Fu (fluffy – identical with “fu” in kungfu). But sometimes, as you may have seen in some Thai restaurant menus, it also goes by the more recent and less common Yam Pla Fu.

The reason for the emergence of the duk-less variant? You see, way back when, catfish (pla duk) was the only fish traditionally used to make this dish. Hence the “duk” in “pla duk,” (literally “duk fish”) which specifies that it is not just any old fish but catfish.


A wild-caught catfish (smaller and leaner than its farm-raised counterparts) would be roasted or grilled whole (A), then have its flesh fluffed into tiny cotton-like flakes (B). Next, both the fish flakes and the fish carcass — head, tale, spine bone and all — would be deep-fried until crispy and golden brown.

To plate, the crispy fish carcass would go on a bed of lettuce.[2] Next, the fish meat, which has formed one fluffy, crispy, elongated web of tiny flakes in the fryer, would be placed on the fish carcass in the same place whence it came. Then a simple green mango salad would go on top of the fish flakes. The garnish of fresh cucumber and tomato slices would be added to the sides.[3] Finally, the dish would be served in the manner that seeks to restore the former appearance of the catfish who died for the dish (C).

The name and the — literally — face of Pla Duk were once indispensable in this particular fish salad.

Cooked catfish meat, flaked and moderately dehydrated

Then, over time, people have figured out that there was nothing sacred about the meat of the whiskered fish and that most types of fish, salt- or fresh-water, with meat that becomes cottony when cooked can be used. (A few recipes online even suggest you use well-drained canned tuna! I don’t doubt that it works.)

In light of this, many restaurants have started using other types of pla, mostly anything less expensive than pla duk. Those with no self-respect choose to cut costs further by not only using a cheaper fish but also mixing the fish flakes into tempura-style batter. This is where I think they have crossed the line. I have no problem whatsoever with restaurants, or anyone, using the kind of pla that is not duk. But misleading the public into thinking they’re getting 100% fish when they’re being served half fish half fried batter is not cool.

Now that the use of the pla called duk has become optional, insistence on calling the dish by its original name is just silly, except when our friend, Duk, is actually the meat of choice. Besides, whether or not they use pla duk, all the Thai restaurants, save the hard-core old-fashioned ones in Thailand, have abandoned the cumbersome plating technique for a more sleek and modern look of a crispy, airy nest of fish flakes, sans carcass, underneath the mango salad.

This is when, I assume, the “duk” part began to drop off the name in some places. Though the duk-less name sounds odd to me, but there’s nothing wrong with it. Without the catfish head in all its whiskered glory on the plate or the actual catfish meat, calling the dish simply, Yam Pla Fu, makes heaps of sense.


But, to honor all the pla duks of old who have not only died, but allowed their bodies to be used as a garnish throughout the history of this dish, I decided to use catfish for this batch of pla fu, making it real pla duk fu.

There’s no recipe. What you need to know to make a good plate of Yam Pla Duk Fu is not exact measurements, but how it’s made.

All you need to do is come up with some cooked fish flakes. I could pretend to be a purist and tell you to grill a catfish whole over wood charcoals, then flake off the cooked meat with a fork. But, nah. The truth is, you can cook the fish, be it whole or filleted, however you want as long as you end up with dry-ish, skinless, unseasoned fish flakes. [Those prone to guilt trips may want to know that I’ve witnessed two Thai restaurant cooks preparing their fish flakes by cooking fish fillets in a microwave. It didn’t precipitate a collapse of Thai cuisine. Also, nobody died from the incident.]

As for the type of fish, I don’t recommend firm-fleshed plas like mahi mahi, shark, or monkfish. I do, however, like to use orange roughy, perch, whiting, tilapia, salmon, and other plas with flaky meat, depending on what’s available or on sale.

An extra step I take is to dehydrate the cooked pla flakes by spreading them out on a foil-lined baking sheet and let them dry out in a very low oven (120° F give or take) until the flakes are dry to the touch but not tough. This greatly minimizes the splattering of hot oil when you fry them up. It’s an extra step worth taking. You could spread out the fish flakes on a baking sheet and simply leave them out to dry at room temperature. But I’ve found the oven method to be much more effective.


The fish flakes are then to be shallow-fried (3-inches of oil) in batches over medium-high heat. I usually fry about 6 ounces of dehydrated fish flakes for a one-serving size crispy fish “nest.” Once the fish flakes hit the oil, they sizzle and rise to the surface almost immediately. With the tip of your spatula, gently guide all the flakes toward one another to form one cohesive nest. This is very easy to do as the flakes seem to want to do so on their own volition anyway.

Once the fish nest is golden brown and crispy, transfer it from the oil to a paper towel-lined plate. If you want to freeze some for later, let the crispy fish nests cool completely before storing them as instructed above. If you want to serve the dish in the next few moments, you can keep the crispy fish nests warm in a low oven while you make the mango salad.

Quickly toss together all the ingredients for a simple green mango salad and top the crispy fish with it. If you can’t find good green mangoes, Granny Smith apples, cut into thin matchsticks like what you see in this Thai spicy grilled beef salad, can also be used.

This salad needs to be consumed immediately as the dressing from the mango salad will cause the fish to lose its crispness.

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[1] Also transliterated Yum Pla Dook Foo, Yam Pla Duk Foo, etc.
[2] Because Thai people serve everything, especially a salad, on a bed of lettuce, including a lettuce salad.
[3] Most Thai restaurant cooks, especially back in the 80s, know that the time of the Apocalypse will be hastened by a decade, or that somewhere in the world a tiny panda cub is fed to a lion, every time — heaven forbid — they neglect to garnish their dishes with cucumber and tomato slices.

29 Responses to Thai Crispy Fish with Green Mango Salad – Yam Pla-Duk Fu (ยำปลาดุกฟู): In Memory of the Pla Called Duk

  1. KennyT September 12, 2010 at 2:19 am #

    I love any Thai salads, this one looks perfect!

  2. Mary September 12, 2010 at 2:26 am #

    love <3

  3. ♥peachkins♥ September 12, 2010 at 7:12 am #

    wow,the green mango salad really compliments the fried fish!

  4. LimeCake September 12, 2010 at 7:50 am #

    i absolutely love yum pla duk fu! i always thought the flaked fish meat was lightly floured and deep fried. do you steam the fish first?

  5. Leela September 12, 2010 at 2:18 pm #

    LimeCake – Yeah, that seems to be a common practice these days; adding flour or batter to the fish flakes as a way to increase volumes without adding costs. Flour is not a necessary ingredient and has not been used traditionally.

    Steaming the fish is fine as long as you get the flakes to dry out before frying them. Better to use a cooking method that doesn’t result in fish flakes that are too moist, though, as it would only take you longer to dry them out. Dry-roast in the oven, maybe? If you use fish fillets, dry cooking them in a nonstick pan works well. Grilling is good too. 🙂

  6. shaz September 12, 2010 at 2:21 pm #

    Love this post and the fish drawings! I’m totally addicted to green mango salad and always make it. However, I’d assumed the fish-nest part was too tricky to do at home. Thank you for demystifying the method and allowing the use of less than traditional means 🙂

  7. Leela September 12, 2010 at 2:22 pm #

    Hey shaz – Now you know it’s easy. 🙂

  8. LimeCake September 13, 2010 at 2:43 am #

    Thanks for your reply, Leela. now i know it’s not that complicated a process, and i’m much more inclined to try it!

  9. Couscous & Consciousness September 13, 2010 at 8:53 am #

    What a wonderful dish and a great post – love learning so much about the origins and history of the dish.
    Sue

  10. Chef Fresco September 17, 2010 at 2:24 am #

    Haha did you draw that?! That is awesome! This looks delicious!

  11. Anonymous September 17, 2010 at 1:47 pm #

    Any time you can have both deep fried food AND the nobility of eating a salad, you have a winner! I call this ‘fluffy fish’ with my friends locally, because they remember the dish better that way than when I use the real name.

    I had such a great version of this at Leks Seafood by Chong Nonsi station in Bangkok last year that I made it at home a couple of months ago. My flakes were quite moist, so the oil flared up a bit. It was delicious anyway. Thanks for going into detail on this, I know my next attempt will be better because of it.

    IanG

  12. Leela September 17, 2010 at 2:51 pm #

    Chef Fresco – Guilty as charged. 🙂 (If you notice, the more that catfish got cooked, the longer its whiskers grew …)

    IanG – Thanks, Ian. I have to check out that seafood restaurant. People have been telling me about it, and I’ve always wanted to find out for myself if it’s any good. Every time I go out for seafood in BKK, I always end up at Jae Ngor. 🙁 But, yeah, I’ll definitely check out Lek next time I’m in that neighborhood.

    Just have to work harder at freeing myself from the gripping talon of Jae Ngor’s stir-fried rice noodles and water mimosa …

  13. Anonymous September 20, 2010 at 6:25 pm #

    Hi Leelah – thats funny. I walked past Jae Ngor on my way to Thong Lee (64/3 Suk Soi 20) several times last trip! I never went in, but now with your recommending it I will have to, during the next trip. Don’t miss Thong Lee either – just accept their recommendations.

    IanG

  14. Leela September 20, 2010 at 6:29 pm #

    Ian – Again, thanks to Jae Ngor, I’ve never walked into Thong Lee. Will check it out for sure. I highly recommend stir-fried sen mee (rice vermicelli) with pak krachet (water mimosa) and jumbo shrimp. I could eat that every day and never get tired of it.

  15. Tanvi September 23, 2010 at 5:20 am #

    Hi Leela,
    what a wonderful fish fry…yum yum yum…it looks so sinfully crispy.

  16. Anonymous November 2, 2010 at 5:18 am #

    HI Leela, your yum pla duk fu looks so great.i just wanna know how to make it crispy airy nest?mine is so stiff.do u coat with batter or just lightly floured?thanks…

  17. Leela November 2, 2010 at 2:12 pm #

    Hey Anon – What kind of fish did you use? Very, very firm fish like shark, monkfish, or mahi mahi is too tough, especially when dehydrated. I like tilapia, catfish, and orange roughy the best. Very well drained can tuna (the cheaper type, not solid white) works too. Otherwise, try again and reduce dehydration time by a bit. The fish flakes don’t need to be bone dry; they just have to be dry to the touch. Let me know how it goes. 🙂

  18. mycookinghut November 21, 2010 at 8:14 pm #

    Looks really good! Love it!

  19. Anonymous November 29, 2010 at 12:43 am #

    my girlfriend at da time introduced me to the dish yum pla duk fu, while we were having singha beer on a humid bangkok nite, ever since then it has been a must have when i’m in thailand, god bless thai food, n may it be enjoyed n loved by the world over
    -rudy-

  20. Leela November 29, 2010 at 2:58 pm #

    Rudy – Oooh, memories come flushing back every time you eat pla duk fu, eh? 😉

  21. Lilian June 17, 2011 at 6:52 pm #

    Hi, love to try this recipe… however unsure about what fish to use. Can dory fillet work or would tilapia be better? Currently in Malaysia so perch/ whiting is not so easily available and salmon can be expensive.

  22. Leela June 17, 2011 at 10:11 pm #

    Lilian – Any white fish that gives you cottony, fluffy meat when cooked will do. i’ve never worked with dory, so can’t say for sure. If you can’t find anything, a safe bet, believe it or not, is very well-drained canned tuna.

  23. TaGa_Luto June 30, 2012 at 2:15 pm #

    Thank you for the share. This brought back memories. One of the best dish i’ve eaten in Bangkok. You made it look easy.
    I made this last night. I had tilapia ready so that’s what i used. I wasn’t able to do the fish net…they fell apart when i flipped them.
    Thanks again.

  24. Admin July 3, 2012 at 11:19 pm #

    Taga_Luto – You may need to help the fish flakes along with your spatula if it seems they don’t want to form a net.

  25. chris October 26, 2013 at 8:33 pm #

    This is the first google result when I typed yum pla dook fu. It was an entertaining read, and most importantly, my pla came out better this way! Last time I tried it, I wound up with fish cakes because, now I know, my fish was not dried out enough! This way it’s spot on. I can currently get a big bag of catfish filet pieces at my local grocery store for a few bucks a pound and they are perfect for this. I actually used my toaster oven to cook and dry about 3/4ths a pound, then followed the directions. I also cooked some slow cooked pork to come shortly after, and surprisingly, the fish sauce from this worked perfectly in the pork! YUM! (pla dook fu)

  26. Jennifer Sayles November 9, 2013 at 4:44 pm #

    This is one of my favorites when we go back to Thailand. I have never made it here so thanks for the post! I am going to try it with rockfish since my Thai husband spends most of his weekends fishing on the Cheasapeake Bay. When I am in Thailand I love to get this at the beach in Sattahip. I also found a version in a mall grocery store but it had curry paste added, it was pla duk fu with a twist? It was in a little container so I bought it and we all loved it with rice and some fresh veggies on the side.

    • Leela November 9, 2013 at 4:57 pm #

      Jennifer – I believe the crispy fish with curry paste you mentioned is a completely different dish, a dry curry: pad prik khing pal duk fu (ผัดพริกขิงปลาดุกฟู).

  27. Clay Erickson January 26, 2014 at 2:18 am #

    Sitting here at Ban Saen Beach over a plate of this with grilled chicken and a couple of Leos. I can confirm it is good with beer. Visited your site to see how it was made, maybe I can do it. Interesting read, thanks.

  28. jp498 March 13, 2014 at 2:16 pm #

    Despite having a TON of Thai restaurants around Yale, we only have one place that has yum pla [duk] fu on its menu. I tried it one summer night when it was just too intolerably hot to cook. The waitstaff hovered around me, asking ‘Have you had this before? Do you know how to eat it? DO YOU LIKE IT?’

    (No, no, and oh man yes I do.)

    I’ve made this recipe a few times since then, and my word, it captures the flavors right, even if I do have to accept the Granny Smith substitution. Thank you! Also it’s such a fun post to reread every time I make it.