Thai-ish steamed fish with curry custard

A Thai classic, reborn in America with a pit stop in Sweden. Yes, it's as good as it sounds

Published January 30, 2010 1:29AM (EST)

OK, so I left out a fun detail in yesterday's story about Ganda Suthivarakom's steamed salmon curry custard: The Thai recipe she was cooking from in the Swedish food magazine was actually her own.

Ported over to Stockholm for work, she grew tired of facing the 20 hours of darkness a day alone, so she geared up a charm offensive: She offered to go to people's houses and cook; all they had to do was invite enough of their friends to make it a proper dinner party. "Because who doesn't want someone to come cook for them?" she asks.

It turns out the Swedes have a real thing for Thai food. "Everyone in Stockholm's been to Thailand five times," Ganda says. "They have a lot of vacation time. And, you know, Thailand's politically stable, lots of sun, no landmines, pretty girls ... So anyway, Stockholm has lots of great Thai grocery stores. And I made lots of Thai-ish food." Which is what she called it when she spoke with a journalist who ended up writing about this funny little American's movable feast and her very personal repertoire of Thai-American-Swedish dishes.

"Well, and how did all the friend-making go?" I asked.

Ganda thought for a moment. "You know, I really wanted to be exotic there," she said. "Not like in a yellow fever kind of way, but when you're an American, you value individuality. You're in a sea of people who are all individuals, but sometimes, you want to know what it's like to be totally different. I wanted to be the brash, loud American who tells funny jokes, the loudest person in the room, you know? And it was fun. A whirlwind coming into your home and cooking a whole meal! But the Swedes didn't get my jokes."

Thai-ish steamed fish with curry custard
Serves 6 as part of a multi-dish meal with rice

1 pound salmon, skinned, cut into ½-inch slices (Ganda also suggests scallops or other non-flaky fish)
1 or 2 13.5-ounce cans coconut milk* (not "coconut cream") chilled right-side-up in fridge. DON'T SHAKE IT!
1 tablespoon Thai red curry paste** or more to taste
1 tablespoon vegetable oil (might be unnecessary)
1 egg plus 1 yolk
1 teaspoon cornstarch
10 kaffir lime leaves
12 Thai basil leaves
1 small hot chili
1 teaspoon palm sugar (or light brown or even white sugar)
salt and fish sauce, to taste

Special-ish equipment

6 6-ounce ramekins (preferable, but bowls or cups work)
steaming rack, which can even be a wire cooling rack set in a pot with a tight lid

  1. In a large bowl, season the fish with a few pinches of salt and a dash or two of fish sauce. Go ahead and taste it if you'd like, or just trust yourself.
  2. Open one can of the UNSHAKEN coconut milk. If it's very cold, the fatty cream should have solidified and will be easy to spoon out. (Now you see why I'm maniacal about not shaking the can.) You want that thick cream, and you should get about ½ the can's worth, if not more. If it's still kind of liquidy, just keep scooping it until you see the watery milk. Then dig down at the bottom of the can and you should find some more cream. (No, I don't know how it got down there either.) Don't fret if you get a little of the watery stuff mixed in, but in total you want 1 cup of cream. If you don't have that much, open the other can. Guard your coconut cream jealously, but go ahead and put the rest of the coconut milk away for another use.
  3. Now take out about a 1/3 cup of the coconut cream and mix it with 1 teaspoon cornstarch. Set it aside. It will come in handy later.
  4. Heat up about 2 tablespoon of the coconut cream in a pan, so that it melts and sizzles, and add 1 tablespoon of the curry paste. Sauté the paste, flattening and stirring it, until it's really fragrant, and add it back to your coconut cream. Depending on the brand and sometimes even the batch, curry pastes can vary wildly in intensity. Taste the curried coconut cream. Is it flavorful but delicate, or just weak? You can keep sautéing curry paste in a touch of vegetable oil, adding it to the coconut, until you get it the way you want. I ended up using 3.5 tablespoons of Mae Ploy red curry paste to get a fragrant but not overwhelming flavor. (Note that when sautéing in oil, the paste will have bits that bounce around and want to splatter a bit, but it will also toast more effectively and become more aromatic. Cook it until it turns a deep brick red.)
  5. Chiffonade the kaffir lime leaves, which means to cut it very, very finely. When doing this with tender herbs like basil, it's easiest to pile the leaves on top of one another, roll them up like a cigar, and shave off slices that unfurl like confetti. But since the kaffir lime leaf is so tough, it's actually easier to pile them up and keep them flat while shaving; I like to pull off the really tough stems first. Really try to get them thin, or you'll be pulling them out of your teeth. Keep about a quarter to a third of the slivered leaves aside, and mix the rest with the curry-coconut mixture.
  6. Season the curry-coconut mix with a couple dashes of fish sauce and ½ teaspoon palm or other sugar. Give it a taste. Is it delicious? Does it need more saltiness? Add fish sauce. A little more sugar? More curry?
  7. Beat the egg and yolk together to combine them smoothly, add them to the coconut curry, and pour the whole thing over the fish, stirring to combine.
  8. Set up your steaming contraption, where you can elevate the ramekins clear above an inch or two of water. Bring the water to a boil.
  9. While the water is heating up, fill your ramekins: tear a Thai basil leaf into a few pieces at the bottom of each ramekin and then add a few slices of fish. Tear another basil leaf, and add another layer of fish. Top with the curry coconut sauce to cover.
  10. When the water is boiling, turn it down to a simmer and add the ramekins. "You want a gentle steam, not a coming-out-of-your-ears kind of steam," Ganda says. Cover tightly, and set a timer for 9 minutes.
  11. Meanwhile, cut the red chili into very thin strips.
  12. At 9 minutes, uncover (quickly, so the water collected on the lid doesn't pour into the curries) and check on them: poke a paring knife in the center of one, and five seconds later pull it out. Is the blade warm, but not quite hot? Great!
  13. Give the coconut milk and cornstarch a good stir and top each ramekin with a couple of spoonfuls. Sprinkle on a few chili strips and the reserved kaffir lime leaves and cover. Steam for another 3 minutes. Take out immediately. Serve with steamed jasmine rice. (Note that these time recommendations work best with this size of ramekin; if yours are much smaller, pull them out earlier; if bigger, turn down the heat slightly and cook longer.)

* The brand of coconut milk, Ganda says, "Must be Asian; Latino brands have much less fat, and definitely don't get any in UHT paper boxes. That stuff is thoroughly useless." Also note that coconut "cream" is iffy -- often "creams" are sweetened or worse, homogenized. It's key in this dish that you be able to separate the coconut fat from the milk, so don't use them here.

**Mae Ploy is a good brand, if a little gutless, but whatever you get, try to find a kind with shrimp paste in the ingredients.

By Francis Lam

Francis Lam is Features Editor at Gilt Taste, provides color commentary for the Cooking Channel show Food(ography), and tweets at @francis_lam.

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