Lon Pla Salmon: Salmon Coconut Milk Relish (หลนปลาแซลมอน)


Unless you grew up/have lived in a Thai household or are a non-Thai who regularly eats Thai home-cooked meals with a Thai family, chances are you’re not familiar with a family of coconut milk-based relishes called lon1 (หลน). After all, this is not something readily available on the streets of Bangkok; it’s not something Thai restaurants overseas usually serve either. This, to me, is Thai home cooking through and through.

So, if I were to start a series of posts on traditional Thai dishes beyond Pad Thai that have remained largely obscure to Thai food enthusiasts worldwide, lon, especially this one, would be the perfect series premiere. It’s quite mild and made of ingredients which aren’t generally considered acquired tastes. It’s also delicious, and that’s the most important factor.

Dishes categorized as nam prik 2 (น้ำพริก) and krueang jim 3 (เครื่องจิ้ม) are awkwardly rendered “relishes” and “dips” —  probably the best English words for them mostly due to a lack of better alternatives. Most Thai restaurants don’t even put dishes in this family on the menu, perhaps because they’re afraid their diners won’t know how they fit into a traditional Thai meal ensemble. Are they stand-alone appetizers? Are they main dishes? Are they dipping sauces? How do you eat them — like you do curry? Do you ladle it over a plate of rice and eat it like that? Or do eat it one spoonful at a time? Do you eat them in the manner of carrot sticks and ranch dressing? Are they used as condiments the way the Korean use their gochujang?

In the household in which I grew up, lon – doesn’t matter what kind — was always served with a large platter of raw vegetables, raw young mango leaves from our front yard, raw Thai round eggplants, young leaves and pods of white popinac (which grew like crazy in our house), and slices of peeled white turmeric. It’s a main dish, as far as I’m concerned, served along with other dishes to form a family meal. I’ll let other people tell you how they eat lon in the comment section, but here’s how I do it: I pick half a bite’s worth of one item from the vegetable platter and place that on half a bite’s worth of rice, then I top it off with half a tablespoonful of lon, and eat that combination in one big bite. A bite containing white turmeric will give you one taste; a bite containing cucumber will give you a different taste; a bite with raw eggplant will, likewise, be completely different.

Lon is such a fun food.

Alas, as you know, there are no young mango leaves, white turmeric, or white popinac to be found in the US. But I’ve learned to be thankful for what I do have. Red  or yellow bell peppers, radishes, cucumbers, green beans are all great with lon. Raw cabbage would also be nice. Thin coins of carrot, perhaps? Maybe celery hearts? I’ll let you decide. In general, you can’t go wrong with mild, crunchy vegetables.

This recipe is my adaptation of the century-old original by Lady Plian Pasakornwong (ท่านผู้หญิงเปลี่ยน ภาสกรวงศ์), one of the first Thai cookbook authors who lived during the reign of King Rama V. There’s much to be said about this aristocratic lady’s many accomplishments, and I will hold off on any more information about her for the amount of material is large enough to warrant a separate post.

For now, notice something: a non-native fish, salmon, is used. In a traditional Thai dish recorded in a document published at a time when salmon wasn’t locally farmed or imported fresh? If you find this a bit odd, know that I do too. As a matter of fact, as I sat in the library archive, poring over the newsletters in which Lady Plian’s recipes first appeared (before they were compiled into a series of cookbooks), I nearly fell out of my chair when I saw “canned salmon” listed as the main ingredient.4

lon of Isan-style fermented fish (Pla Ra)  – maybe. A lon of salted fresh-water black crabs (Pu Khem) — maybe. But a lon of imported canned salmon? Is that the sound of the purists’ kang keng nai getting into a bunch I’m hearing?

I’ll talk more about that in the next post (added Sep 18th, 2012: it’s here). For now, let’s lon, shall we?


Lon Pla Salmon: Salmon Coconut Milk Relish (หลนปลาแซลมอน)
 
Prep time
Cook time
Total time
 
Author:
Recipe type: Condiment, Main Dish, Entree
Cuisine: Thai
Serves: 6
Ingredients
  • 2 lbs skinless salmon fillet
  • 2 cups coconut milk
  • ¼ cup (~40g) palm sugar, chopped into small pieces
  • ¼ cup fish sauce
  • ¼ cup prepared tamarind pulp
  • 2 large shallots, peeled and sliced thinly
  • 3 serrano or jalapeno peppers, cut crosswise into slices
  • Raw vegetables
Instructions
  1. Steam the salmon until cooked through, and flake into chunks with a fork; set aside.
  2. In a medium-sized pot, heat up coconut milk and palm sugar over medium heat until the sugar has fully dissolved.
  3. Add the shallots; cook just until they start to wilt a little.
  4. Add the flaked salmon, fish sauce, tamarind pulp, and sliced peppers; bring to a gentle boil and immediately turn off the heat.
  5. Allow the lon to cool down to room temperature. Serve with raw vegetables as a main dish to be eaten with rice.

 

1Pronounced like “lone” but with a shorter vowel quantity.

2 Official transliteration: nam phrik

3Official transliteration: khrueang chim

4There is documentation of how local ingredients were prepared Western-style and served to the royals and aristocrats during that time, e.g. Théboh (ปลาเทโพ black ear catfish or Pangasius larnaudii) sauce au beurre on the menu served at the Grand Palace in 1904. That seems to be a common practice. Now we know that using an obviously foreign, imported ingredient in a traditional Thai preparation was also practiced among the elite (who else could afford imported salmon?).

14 Responses to Lon Pla Salmon: Salmon Coconut Milk Relish (หลนปลาแซลมอน)

  1. Laura September 14, 2012 at 12:22 am #

    As you guessed, this is one I have not heard of, although I am familiar with the Thai custom of eating “dips” and “relishes” with rice and raw veggies–we had one meal in Chiang Mai that also had sausage with it that was pretty much a selection of these dips. But anyway, I was wondering if you would like to suggest a sub for salmon, which I rather dislike, as does my husband?

    Thanks for posting. I love Thai food and we are always up for trying new dishes!

    • Leela September 14, 2012 at 12:27 am #

      For unsalted fish lon, fatty fish is the best, in my opinion. If not salmon, then I’d go with trout, mackerel, or tuna.

  2. kampong boy September 14, 2012 at 3:02 am #

    Thanks for an excellent post on this elusive subject. I lived in Thailand on and off for the past twenty years, and I have never met Lon, until recently when Nahm opened in Bangkok, and I had a chance to eat there. Lon or relish is listed as a category of dish. I was very surprised when I saw this.

    The categories are canapes, salad, soup, relish, curry, stir-fried steamed and grilled. I have been wondering since then, what the hell is a relish, what did I missed all this years.

    Now thanks to you, it’s getting clearer and clearer. I am looking forward to your posting on this subject!

  3. Tesei September 14, 2012 at 7:17 am #

    Wow, mouth watering! I love everything coconut and I love tamarind so what is there not to love about this dish?
    I’d like to make it for dinner tonight but only have at hand frozen shrimp, do you think I can use them in stead of the salmon? Thank you so much for your recipes I love them all!!!!

    • Leela September 14, 2012 at 7:28 am #

      Should be fine. I’d chop up the shrimp into pea-sized pieces, though. Have fun.

  4. Tesei September 14, 2012 at 7:36 am #

    Thank you Leela, you’re such a darling! Will let you know how that works.

  5. lea September 15, 2012 at 10:13 pm #

    Looks amazing!

  6. Lizzie September 19, 2012 at 4:08 pm #

    Yup, never heard of this but it looks right up my street. More secret Thai dishes please! :)

  7. Renee September 20, 2012 at 2:34 pm #

    This is a cool story. I love the history you tell about the dish, as well as the anecdotes from family. Very touching. You’re a good writer.

  8. Sandy October 5, 2012 at 1:48 am #

    Here where I live, mimosa trees (looks like what you call white popinac but with pink blossoms) grow everywhere. Occasionally I see one with white blossoms…is the flower color what determines if it’s the edible kind? I know there is a small Thai community as my mother and I both had friends who were Thai when I was younger…they’ve since moved away…and we use to eat heavenly food at their houses. I remember seeing the seed pods there, and some grew the plants in their yards, so I wonder if they’ve since spread throughout the community. I’ve been eye-balling the pods on the pink trees with curiosity, but didn’t know enough about them to try. Also, I read on wiki that mimosan plants contain a mildly toxic element, so I didn’t know if only certain varieties were edible. Do you remember seeing the pink blossomed trees? Were they eaten as well? Do you think the ones with white blossoms are safe? Or are there other indicators for the edible type?

    • Leela October 5, 2012 at 5:46 am #

      Sandy, I think what you’re referring to is mimosa pudica http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mimosa_pudica . I’m not sure if it’s edible, but it’s not something we eat. We play with it, yes (when you touch the leaves or poke them with a stick, they fold up instantly). But we don’t eat it. White popinac http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leucaena_leucocephala on the other hand, is completely edible and routinely eaten (raw). White popinac always has white blossoms. And when you touch its leaves, nothing happens.

  9. Douglas October 17, 2012 at 12:05 pm #

    I make smoked salmon regularly in large batches and always try to think of different way to use it. I did have to make a slight modification. I didn’t have any tamarind because I used it all making extra pad thai sauce. Then I remembered the pad thai sauce has the same ingredients (tamarind, fish sauce, palm sugar) to be added here to the coconut milk. A 4 to 1 ratio of coconut milk to sauce seems about right with no additional sugar. It turned out really good with the raw veggies and rice. Don’t leave out the chilies either.

  10. Lauren @Ephemerratic October 27, 2012 at 2:23 pm #

    Lon! My first lon-like dish was at a Cambodian restaurant in San Francisco, a pork shrimp dip served with shrimp chips, raw cabbage leaves, and sliced veggies. Then in Thailand, in Chiang Mai, I found other Northern Thai lon (I think) — the most startling textured one with minced pig ears, among other bits. Your salmon one looks easier to tackle at home than pig ears would be.

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