Steamed Fish with Lime, Garlic, and Chilies – Pla Nueng Ma-Nao (ปลานึ่งมะนาว)


I used pickled garlic here just to experiment. But fresh garlic is traditional and best.

I used to wonder why steamed fish with lime, garlic, and chilies or Pla Nueng Ma-Nao (ปลานึ่งมะนาว – literally “lime-steamed fish“) is considered more of a restaurant dish than a home dish. After all, it is so simple to make that you would think it shouldn’t be something anyone would want to pay someone else to prepare for them. How easy? A journalist friend of mine once described it this way: “… [lime-steamed fish] is so easy to make that when you assign the task of cooking it to a lemur, not only will the primate pull off the best version you’ve ever eaten, it will also look disdainfully at you in the eye — hands on hip — and ask whether you have anything else more complicated for it to make … .”

I don’t want to get a lemur involved here. But, um, yeah.

But here’s the catch: this dish is excellent only when the fish is extremely fresh. If you ask a hardcore seafood lover like my Uncle S. (who is notorious for sending back restaurant dishes which he believes are made out of previously frozen seafood when fresh is promised), unless you use a fish that had been pulled out of the ocean within the past few hours, don’t even bother making this dish. Premier seafood restaurants along the southern and eastern seaboards take pride in serving the best “lime-steamed fish” made from freshly-caught fish; top-tiered seafood restaurants in Bangkok, which is not a beach city, insist on making this dish from live fish in their tanks only.

This is a simple dish with huge expectation placed upon it.

If my Uncle S. were writing this post, he would say to you ad nauseam that this dish will be completely ruined by the use of anything other than just-caught fish and not just the fillets but the whole fish. Well, I’m nowhere near that picky. Still, use the freshest fish you can find and don’t overcook it. The seasoning can be adjusted to taste; old fish with stale, mealy flesh can’t be fixed.
 
thai steamed fish recipe

4.5 from 2 reviews
Thai Steamed Fish with Lime, Garlic, and Chilies - Pla Nueng Ma-Nao (ปลานึ่งมะนาว)
 
Prep time
Cook time
Total time
 
Author:
Serves: 2
Ingredients
  • 1.5 lbs skinless fish fillets (see notes below)
  • 2 tablespoons fish sauce
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • 1 teaspoon chicken bouillon granules (see notes below)
  • Juice of one large, juicy lime
  • 3 large garlic cloves, peeled
  • 5-6 bird’s eye chilies, more or less depending on your heat tolerance
  • a handful of fresh cilantro leaves
Instructions
  1. Place the fish fillets in a heatproof dish in a single layer.
  2. Chop the garlic and chilies finely. It's important to chop them as opposed to pulverize them; otherwise the flavor and smell will be too overwhelming.
  3. Sprinkle the garlic-chili mixture over the entire surface of the fish fillets.
  4. Mix together the remaining ingredients, except cilantro, together. Taste it to see if adjustment is needed in terms of saltiness or sourness, then pour the mixture over the fish.
  5. Cover the dish with a piece of foil and steam in a steamer until the fish is fully cooked.
  6. Remove the dish from the steamer, sprinkle fresh cilantro leaves over the steamed fish, and serve immediately.
Notes
Even though black banded kingfish (Seriolina nigrofasciata) or Pla Sam-Li (ปลาสำลี), the same type of fish often used to make fried sun-dried fish, is by far the most popular choice of fish to use in this dish, other kinds of fish (both salt- and fresh-water) can also be found prepared this way. I use swai here. Orange roughy, mahi mahi, or halibut work well also. Often prepared and served whole in most restaurants, this classic has been made simpler with the use of fish fillets. Chicken bouillon is added to the list of ingredients to make up for the loss of flavor in the absence of the flavorful fish bones and cartilage.

22 Responses to Steamed Fish with Lime, Garlic, and Chilies – Pla Nueng Ma-Nao (ปลานึ่งมะนาว)

  1. Karen from Globetrotter Diaries January 15, 2011 at 6:07 am #

    This looks so simple and beautiful. I can taste it now, yum!

  2. Diane January 16, 2011 at 2:56 am #

    I did this with cuttlefish just last week! I wanted a meal that fit the bill when I was dead tired but craving flavor.

  3. Leela January 16, 2011 at 3:40 am #

    Diane — Oooh, I like that variation!

  4. grania @ crumbs for dinner January 16, 2011 at 8:26 pm #

    Leela, I am drooling at the thought of this. I must try it, and soon!

  5. Paige January 26, 2011 at 11:14 pm #

    That looks delicious. So, if I were using a Macgyvered steamer, would I still want a heatproof dish? It kind of seems like it would work well just to make a packet out of foil, and use that.

  6. Leela January 26, 2011 at 11:19 pm #

    Paige – Actually, if you were using a Macgyvered steamer, a foil or parchment packet would be much better than a heatproof dish. Thanks for bringing this up! 🙂

  7. Sandie (Sandie's Bitchin' Kitchen) April 22, 2011 at 6:07 pm #

    Leela,
    This looks amazing! I will definitely have to be trying this very soon!!

  8. Laura November 5, 2011 at 4:01 am #

    So I can’t decide–if all I can get is fresh-frozen, vacuum-packed fish fillets (a la Costco, I live in the rural midwest) should I try this or not? It sounds wonderful.

  9. Admin November 5, 2011 at 12:33 pm #

    Laura – I would.

  10. RK January 3, 2012 at 12:49 am #

    Oh boy! Once when we went to our favorite Thai place, the server asked if we needed anything else, and I replied, “cooking lessons”! He translated my response to the cook and it earned a laugh – but no offers to share their recipes!

    I have tried on my own to duplicate flavors and have failed – UNTIL TONIGHT! OH BOY! I’m so excited how easy this is – and so packed with flavor! I will be back!

  11. Anonymous January 15, 2012 at 8:12 pm #

    Made this today for dinner with tilapia. Boyfriend said it was even better than in the restaurants. I did add some ginger which I think takes the fishy-ness away.

    Thank you!

    p.s. I’ve started jogging in anticipation of your roti recipe. Please post it soon!

  12. cooking for one February 11, 2012 at 2:13 am #

    I know you posted this over a year ago, but I had to comment. I was craving fish with chili and lime tonight, googled, and found your blog. I cut so many corners (realizing I had no limes, only lemons, I used concentrated juice from one of those plastic limes, frozen barramundi, dried coriander leaves added to the sauce before dousing the fish, put the one edible chili I had in the house through a garlic press to maximize its flavor) and it still managed to be so so good. Now I have to go to the grocery store tomorrow and buy all the proper ingredients so I can try it as you make it! I will be coming back to try your recipes often!

  13. E from Brisbane July 22, 2012 at 2:23 pm #

    Thank you! I tried this recipe tonight, and it’s wonderful!
    I used fresh bream and steam it with oven, wrapped inside foil.
    Definitely added to my fav recipes.
    Thanks again!

  14. welma_b August 8, 2012 at 9:55 pm #

    this is the dish I ALWAYS get at my favorite Thai restaurant in LA. been looking to recreate the dish at home… and here it is!!! it turned out EXACTLY the way they serve it… now I don’t have to wait till I visit my folks in LA!!!

  15. Admin August 8, 2012 at 9:58 pm #

    welma_b – So glad. It’s feedback like this that makes blogging and recipe testing so rewarding!

  16. devlyn September 2, 2012 at 4:58 pm #

    I made this last night and ended up just baking it (dinner at 10pm = no steamer setup). It was definitely delish, and I’ll have to try it again steamed. The left overs (we made 2.5lbs worth) will be going in fish tacos tonight. Yum!

  17. Elizabeth September 24, 2012 at 2:29 pm #

    This looks amazing! I stumbled on the recipe on pinterest so I’m checking out your blog for the first time! I love asian/thai food and love to make it…so I’m already seeing so many things I want to cook!…one question and maybe I’m totally missing it here: I’m not seeing any directions for this? is it just that you pop it in the steamer and top with the ingredients??
    thanks!

    • Leela September 24, 2012 at 11:23 pm #

      Whoops. That was a mistake on my part. Thank you so much for pointing it out. The recipe has been fixed.

  18. Needful Things January 10, 2013 at 5:51 am #

    I made this – not en papillote but in foil (baked 15 mins at 450F) and .. wow. We loved this recipe. I’m looking forward to try lots more from your recipe index.

  19. Yolanda May 30, 2013 at 8:09 pm #

    Leela, just found your blog and this recipe on Pinterest tonight and immediately tried it out.Don’t have a steamer, so I just cooked it in a deep skillet, bringing the mixture to a boil and then simmering it and adding the fish. It was delicious!!! My husband loved it. I am excited about trying out other recipes I see on here. Thank you for posting these awesome dishes.

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