Tom Kha Goong Made with Sustainable Shrimp

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Image courtesy of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

Researching and writing The Asian Grandmothers Cookbook has given me an appreciation for traditional and authentic recipes and eating the way our grandparents’ generation ate. It’s been a perfect complement to my other passion–sustainable foods.

Many of us shop at the neighborhood farmers market (or even work at one; I just got a job as a manager at the Pacific Grove Certified Farmers’ Market but more on that later) for fresh, seasonal produce and to support sustainable agriculture and small family farmers. But have you ever given sustainable seafood a thought?

I have to admit that I’ve only become more in tune with this important issue in the last two or three years. But since moving to the Monterey Peninsula and living so close to the Monterey Bay Aquarium, one of the nation’s leaders in ocean conservation, it has risen to top of mind. Their Seafood Watch Program encourages us as consumers to play a role in protecting the health of the oceans to:

  • Ensure a bounty of seafood for this and future generations.
  • Support environmentally responsible fishing and fish farming.
  • Increase the demand for ocean friendly seafood.
  • Give species that are in peril a break so that they may recover

So what is sustainable seafood? According to the Aquarium, “Sustainable seafood is from sources, either fished or farmed, that can maintain or increase production into the long-term without jeopardizing the affected ecosystems.”

To help you guide you in your sustainable seafood decisions, you can download a regional pocket seafood guide here. Both Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch and the Blue Ocean Institute have also produced sustainable sushi lists. Yes, that sake, toro and–woe is me–unagi served at American sushi restaurants aren’t sustainable. (Read more about this issue in a post I wrote for National Geographic Traveler’s Intelligent Travel .) Another tool is the Green Guide’s nifty fish finder. Just plug in the name of a fish and learn how ocean-friendly it actually is.

To celebrate National Seafood Month, fellow food-blogger Jacqueline over at the Leather District Gourmet launched Teach a Man to Fish 2008, a blog event to create awareness about sustainable seafood.

I’ve chosen to focus on shrimp. Over the last decade, shrimp has become American’s favorite seafood but with a high cost to the environment. According to this article in the San Francisco Chronicle , “some 85 percent of shrimp eaten in the United States comes from China, Thailand, Vietnam, India, Taiwan, Ecuador, Mexico and other Asian and Latin American countries, as well as Australia… Yet most guides to sustainable seafood consumption advise against buying imported shrimp because the way these are farmed or caught is generally destructive to the environment.”

As cheap as they are, I’ve had to slap my hands many times to stop them from picking up that pack of tiger shrimp from Thailand at the market. Along the coast of Thailand, as well as numerous other tropical nations, mangrove forests once sheltered wild fish and shrimp which the locals caught to feed their families. Mangroves also filter water and protect the coast against storm waves. However, with increasing demand from Europe, Japan and America, many mangrove forests have been cut down and replaced with shrimp farms. After a few years, waste products build up in the farm ponds and the farmers have to move on. The end result: no shrimp farms and no mangrove forest.

So, farmed shrimp from Thailand is a big no-no. According to the Seafood Watch guide, pink shrimp from Oregon (the tiny shrimp used for shrimp cocktail or salads) is a best choice (green), U.S. and Canadian farmed/wild shrimp and U.S. and British Columbia spot prawns are good alternatives (gold), but imported farmed or wild shrimp should be avoided (red!!). Click here for the details.

I have to tell ya, shopping for sustainable shrimp isn’t an easy task. I made a trip to Trader Joe’s the other day and found that their frozen farm-raised shrimp is imported from various sources: Bangladesh, India, Mexico, Thailand, and Vietnam. At Safeway, the frozen shrimp hailed from China and Thailand. The shrimp in the refrigerated section wasn’t even labeled!

Ack! Where was I to find shrimp that I could buy without treading on my conscience? At Nob Hill Foods it turned out. Here, I found wild white shrimp from the U.S. at $12.99/pound–ouch!–as well as Canadian farmed shrimp ($8.99/pound) and Thai tiger shrimp ($4.99/pound). I bought a pound of Canadian shrimp. I made a mental note to explore local fishmongers next time. I live right next to Monterey Bay for goodness sake!

At home, I transformed my shrimp into tom kha goong, using a recipe from Nicky and Jill Sriprayul who own Thai Bistro II in Pacific Grove, CA (if you visit the Monterey Peninsula, dine here for some yummy Thai food!). As I sipped the fragrant soup, I relaxed knowing I was doing good by my taste buds, my conscience and the environment. 

I’m a practical person. I realize that not everyone is fortunate enough to live in a locale where sustainable shrimp (or sustainable edible anything for that matter) is readily available or affordable. It’s easy to follow this mantra if we don’t have to go too much out of our way. But if it’s beyond our means or pocketbooks, we can do one of two things–abstain or go easy. Abstaining is a little drastic. If you’re not prepared to go full-throttle then I believe that everything in moderation is a good thing (yes, that means no more all-you-can-eat shrimp buffets!). You’ll still be making a difference, albeit with baby steps.

Thai Hot and Sour Soup with Shrimp and Coconut Milk (Tom Kha Goong)

tom_kha_goong by you.

Like all home-cooked dishes, tom kha comes in many guises. Remember tom ka kai? The Sriprayuls’ version is spicier and has a little more kick. Substitute the shrimp with chicken (perhaps chopped-up chicken wings as Nicky likes) or a mixed seafood medley. For tom yum, omit the coconut milk entirely.

Time: 30 minutes
Makes: 4 servings

3 tablespoons fish sauce
3 tablespoons fresh lime juice
1 1/2 tablespoons sweet chili paste
1/4 teaspoon sugar
2 cups shrimp, chicken or vegetable stock
1 cup unsweetened coconut milk
5 thin slices fresh galangal
2 stalks fresh lemongrass, using white parts only, chopped into 2-inch pieces
2 fresh kaffir lime leaves, crumpled
8 mint leaves, hand torn
1/2 cup grape tomatoes, halved
1/2 cup sliced button mushrooms
1/2 cup straw mushrooms
1/3 cup red onions cut into thin slices
12 medium shrimp, peeled, deveined with tails intact
2 tablespoons chopped green onions
1/4 cup loosely-packed cilantro sprigs
1 teaspoon finely chopped Thai red chilies (optional)

Mix the first 4 ingredients in a small bowl to form a chili sauce.

In a large pot, bring stock and coconut milk to boil over medium heat. Add galangal, lemongrass, and lime leaves. Reduce heat to low and simmer for 4 to 5 minutes for spices to infuse broth.

Stir in chili sauce, mint leaves tomatoes, mushrooms, and red onions. Bring to boil and cook for 2 minutes.

Stir in shrimp and cook until pink, about 1 minute. Do not overcook!

Fish out herbs and ladle soup into a serving bowl. Garnish with green onions, cilantro, and chilies, if desired.

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Fish Tales or Ama Sua’s claypot steamed WHOLE fish with lemongrass

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Trout, brook
Credit: Knepp, Timothy, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

I know, I know, you don’t like your dinner staring back at you. But please heed my one impassioned request: don’t wimp out and get fish fillets.

Before you get yourself into a tizzy, hear me out.

There are so many reasons to forgo floppy fillets and reach for a whole fish with its head and tail fin intact–the number one reason being flavor. I truly believe that fish tastes so much better cooked on the bone (no bias here). The gelatin-rich backbone is an excellent heat conductor and the fatty skin seals the moisture in, producing sweet-tasting flesh with all the natural flavor of fish and a cushiony texture unsurpassed by any ol’ fillet. 

Whole fish makes for a beautiful and dramatic presentation the table. If you or your dinner companions are a little queasy, remove the eyes when cooked and stuff the sockets with a few sprigs of parsley.

By cooking the entire fish, you won’t be wasting an ounce of gorgeous flesh and you’ll be able to savor the cheeks, delicious morsels considered by many cultures the finest part of the fish. (Side note: In Singapore, we eat fish head curry and fish cheeks are all you get! Oh, and some people enjoy sucking on the eye balls too.)

And of course, cooking a whole fish is a breeze (just be sure to ask your fishmonger to scale, gut and clean the fish first!). Simple seasonings–salt, lemon juice, slivers of ginger, or olive oil–are all you need.

No bones about it 

OK, so we’ve discussed all the wonderful reasons fish should be cooked whole. You must be thinking, what about those darned spindly fish bones?

They’re really not that much of a nuisance, honest! All it takes is a short lesson in fish anatomy. Fish have a simple, two-dimensional bone structure and there are fish that lift off the bone more easily than others after cooking: black sea bass, striped bass, flounder, catfish, rockfish, red snapper, trout, etc. just to name a few.

When ready to eat, use a knife and fork, or even a spatula, to lift the fillet in sections from the flat bone structure–gently please. After the top side of the fish has been removed, do not flip the fish over! It’s said to be bad luck and if you were a fisherman or a sailor, your boat would capsize. Instead, lift the backbone (I’d leave the head and tail behind to pick at but that’s up to you) to reveal the bottom fillet.

There still might be shards left behind, mind you, so it behooves your tongue be diligent. If you do get a bone in the mouth, the easiest thing to do is remove it discreetly with your thumb and forefinger. (If anyone else would shed some light on fish etiquette, please enlighten us.)

What? Now, I have to buy the fish? 

Now you’re all geared up to cook fish en tout, but ack … cooking a whole fish means buying a whole fish! Never fear, whole fish is brimming with freshness indicators.

  • Fresh fish doesn’t smell fishy. It should smell subtly of the water it came from, whether river or sea.
  • The gills should be shiny, bright red, and odorless.
  • The eyes should be glossy with a clear sheen. After a couple of post-caught days, they cloud over.
  • Fresh fish should be firm, with flesh that springs back when touched. Any mushiness in the body of the fish is usually a sign of age or that it was bruised during netting or transportation.
  • Make sure skin is free of any dark blemishes. The tail should not be dried out, brittle or curled.

That’s the end of “Whole Fish 101” and we are now ready for Pranee’s dish. Simple to prepare and oh-so healthy, this dish was a favorite of Pranee’s grandmother, Ama Sua. True to her frugal nature, she would only use the discarded leaf ends of the lemongrass to line the claypot, saving the rest for other dishes.

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Here’s my mum’s pretty claypot

You have to admit it’s a pretty innovative way to steam fish: the lemongrass lattice raises the fish from the bottom of the pot, preventing it from sticking as well as flavoring and scenting it.

Steamed fish with lemongrass in claypot (Pla Nueng Morh Din)

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Pranee didn’t make cuts into the trout because it was pretty slender. But if you’d like to ensure your fish cooks evenly–i.e. that the thinner tail end doesn’t cook before the thicker middle–make two diagonal bone-deep slashes into the broadest part of the fish on each side, about two inches apart.

Any white fish with natural fat such as halibut and true cod would work well in this recipe. Claypots are relatively inexpensive and are available at most Asian grocery stores. You can also experiment with other steaming methods I’ve outlined here.

Tip: Allocate 3/4 to 1 pound of fish per person. If you’d like to steam two fish (I wouldn’t put more than this in the steamer at one time), just use the same amount of lemongrass.

Time: 30 minutes
Makes: 2 servings

1 1-1/2 to 2 pound whole trout, head and tail intact, scaled, gutted and cleaned
4 stalks lemongrass
1 tablespoon sea or kosher salt
1/2 cup water or more as needed

Optional: Lay fish flat on a cutting board. At thickest part of the body, make two diagonal bone-deep cuts perpendicular to backbone, about two inches apart. Turn fish over, and repeat.

Remove about 1-1/2 inches from the hard root end of the lemongrass and the leaf end leaving about 6 inches of the center. Smash lemongrass with a meat pounder or a large knife to release the essential oils.

Fold one stalk into half and rub it all over the fish, inside and out. Discard stalk. Sprinkle salt and rub into the fish, inside and out.

Tear each of the 3 remaining lemongrass stalks into 4 strips. Lay lemongrass in a grid pattern at the bottom of the claypot.

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Place fish on top. Tuck in the tail if it doesn’t fit.

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Add enough water to reach bottom layer of lemon grass without touching the fish.

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Cover with lid and bring water to a boil over medium heat.

Once steam appears from the hole in the lid, about 5 minutes, check water level and add more water if necessary. Steam for another 8 to 10 minutes, checking on the water level at least once. At the thickest part of the fish, lift the flesh with a fork and if it separates easily from the bone, it’s done.  

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Serve in claypot or carefully remove the fish with two spatulas onto a plate. Spoon liquid from plate over fish before serving.

Pranee’s Shrimp and Pineapple Red Curry

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Chilies and shrimp

The first thing Pranee Khruasanit Halverson did (after she enveloped me in a warm and fuzzy Thai hug, of course) when I entered her kitchen was make me a drink. In this instance it was bale fruit tea, simply the dried fruit boiled in water. “Americans like to use this in potpourri,” she says, laughing. Bale fruit tea–a natural laxative, it turns out–is a popular herbal tea in Thailand.

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Dried bale fruit is sold in packets at Asian grocery stores

That was just the beginning of Pranee’s Thai hospitality.

Effervescent in personality and in possession of a big heart, Pranee is the owner of I Love Thai Cooking, and teaches Thai cooking classes around the Puget Sound and also leads culinary tours to Thailand. She invited me over to show me how to cook some of her favorite dishes that her grandmother taught her so long ago in their home on the paradise island of Phuket off the southwestern coast of Thailand. 

Before we began, Pranee pointed to a black and white photo encased in a simple wooden frame perched on her dining table. “I took out her photo so that she can be with us while we cook,” she said with a smile. Hence, her grandmother Kimsua Khruasanit sat regally in her chair, frozen in time, as her spirit guided our culinary capers. 

Grandma Kimsua Khruasanit

Kimsua Khruasanit a.k.a. Ama Sua (photo courtesy of Pranee Khruasanit Halvorsen)

After we sipped on the aromatic and slightly astringent bale fruit tea, we soon got to work. While I minced garlic, Pranee glided around the kitchen pulling ingredients together–lemongrass, lime leaves, bean sprouts, tofu–and started recounting stories about her grandmother in her musical sing-song voice. 

When Pranee was growing up, her grandmother lived with her and her parents, as is common among Asian families. Pranee called her “Ama Sua” (pronounced ah mah, it means grandmother) and learned many culinary skills from her. In fact, Pranee eventually became her right-hand woman in the kitchen. “She was in an accident and lost one rib,” explained Pranee, and she was unable to stand for long periods of time and had to sit down while cooking.

Pranee’s Ama Sua has since passed away but she lived to the ripe old age of 85. “She cooked very healthy food,” noted Pranee who also benefited. In Phuket, their diet comprised lots of fresh vegetables and herbs and seafood. “We ate more seafood because it was cheaper than meat,” Pranee explained. “In Phuket there was no land for cattle and cows.” Her grandma improvised a lot in the kitchen and used up whatever ingredients were available. “She was also very good with the budget,” Pranee continued. Somehow or another, her Ama Sua always managed to stretch the tight household budget making it go a long way, and never failed to serve tasty, nutritious meals right to the very end of the month. 

Needless to say, Pranee is grateful to her grandma for passing on many culinary gems to her. During my afternoon with Pranee, she was kind enough to share several recipes and tips. I’ll in turn share them with you over several blog posts. Here’s the first one. 

Shrimp and Pineapple Red Curry (Keang Kue Sapparod) 

You can make red curry paste from scratch however it is rather time consuming and the ingredient list rather lengthy. Pranee special orders her curry paste from a supplier in Thailand. (Side note: Pranee said she asked her supplier to make it 70 percent less spicy than normal and yet my mouth still felt like it was ablaze when I sampled this dish!) For the rest of us, Mae Ploy brand curry paste is a superb choice (and not a fire hazard for the taste buds). Try this recipe with chicken or pork too. I’m going to use duck and lychees instead of shrimp and pineapple next time!

Time: 30 minutes
Makes: 4-6 servings

1 cup coconut milk, divided (Pranee recommends Mae Ploy or Aroy-D which my mum swears by too)
2 tablespoons red curry paste
2/3 cup canned pineapple chunks, drained of juice 
1/4 cup reserved pineapple juice
15 medium shrimp (about 1 pound)
3 kaffir lime leaves
1 stalk lemongrass, tough outer layer discarded, then sliced on the diagonal into thin ovals 
Ground peanuts to garnish (optional)

In a medium saucepan, heat 3 tablespoons coconut milk and red curry paste. Stir until well combined. Add 2 more tablespoons coconut milk.

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Boil until coconut oil separates from the mixture and rises to the surface. (You can also add vegetable oil to stimulate this process which may be slowed down by pasteurization/preservatives). About 3 minutes.

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Add another 3 tablespoons coconut milk and 1/2 cup water. Add pineapple chunks and remaining coconut milk. Increase heat to high and bring to a boil.

Reduce to medium heat. Add shrimp, and cook 1 to 2 minutes until pink.

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Add kaffir lime leaves and lemongrass. Give everything in the pan one thorough mix and take off the heat. Serve immediately with jasmine rice.