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      RECIPE TITLE "Pan-Fried Mackerel and Assorted Vegetables with Hot-and-Pungent Fermented Shrimp Dipping Sauce (Nahm Prik Bplah Too)"
    Recipe from Dancing Shrimp, © copyright 2000 by Kasma Loha-unchit

    yields Serves 6 to 8 in a multicourse, family-style meal. time--- difficulty moderate


    3 small mackerel, approximately 1 1/2 lb. total
    1/4 to 1/2 tsp. fine sea salt
    2 to 3 Tbs. dried shrimp
    3 Tbs. good-quality shrimp paste (gkabpi)
    Small piece of banana leaf or aluminum foil
    10 cloves chopped garlic (about 2 generous Tbs.)
    12-15 Thai chillies (prik kee noo), cut into thin rounds
    Juice of 2 limes (about 4 to 5 Tbs.), to taste
    3 1/2 to 4 tsp. granulated or palm sugar, to taste
    Assorted vegetables
    10 green or long beans
    4 to 6 cups morning glory
    1 medium-size bitter melon
    4 to 5 round Thai eggplants
    1 to 2 long Asian eggplant
    12 small okra
    2 tsp. sea salt
    1 beaten egg with a pinch of salt added
    1/4 to 1/2 cup oil, for pan-frying
    1 to 2 Tbs. tapioca starch


    Clean mackerel, rinse well, and drain. Rub evenly with a little salt, and let sit at least twenty minutes at room temperature before frying.

    In a small, dry pan, roast dried shrimp over medium heat for several minutes, stirring frequently, until they have browned and become brittle and very fragrant. Cool a few minutes, then pound into a coarse powder with a mortar and wooden pestle. Transfer to a small sauce dish.

    Wrap shrimp paste in a piece of banana leaf or aluminum foil and roast over the flames of a gas burner, holding the packet with a pair of tongs (or place directly on the heated coil of an electric burner). Turn frequently until leaf is charred and the aroma of shrimp paste is pronounced (5 or more minutes).

    Cool a few minutes, then peel back charred leaf or foil.

    Pound garlic and half the chillies in the mortar until pasty. Add roasted shrimp paste and powdered roasted dried shrimp and pound together to blend. Add lime juice, sugar, and remaining chillies, stir well, and adjust flavors to make a sauce that is intensely hot, salty, and sour, with a slight sweetness. (If it is not salty enough, add a little fish sauce; since most shrimp pastes are already highly salted, it usually is not necessary.) Set aside for the flavors to mingle and marry.

    Prepare vegetables. Trim and cut long or green beans into 2-inch segments. Snap morning glory into shorter stem-with-leaf segments. Cut bitter melon in half lengthwise, scoop out the seeds, and slice crosswise into 1/4-inch pieces. Score round Thai eggplants deeply into quarters without cutting through. Slice the long eggplant at a sharp angle into 1/4-inch ovals. Leave okra whole.

    Bring 1 1/2 quarts water to a boil in a medium saucepan. Add 2 teaspoons sea salt. One vegetable at a time, blanch green or long beans, morning glory, bitter melon, and okra until they are vibrant green and lightly cooked. Remove with a slotted spoon and drain. Leave Thai eggplants raw. Dip oval eggplant pieces in beaten egg one piece at a time, and pan-fry in a small amount of oil in a flat skillet until browned on both sides and softened. Arrange vegetables in separate piles on a serving platter.

    Heat oil in a wok or skillet over high heat until it begins to smoke. Swirl to coat wok surface. Pat mackerel dry all over, including the body cavity, and dust lightly with tapioca starch. Fry in the hot oil for 3 to 5 minutes on each side (depending on size of fish), or until they are browned and cooked through. Transfer to a serving plate.

    Serve the lightly cooked and raw vegetables and pan-fried fish with the fermented shrimp dipping sauce and plenty of plain, steamed rice.

    Notes and Pointers:

    If there is such a thing as a national dish in a country with such an overwhelming abundance of extraordinary foods, this combination of Thailand's favorite marine fish, bplah too (a small, short-bodied mackerel) and favorite nahm prik (pungent chilli dipping sauce) would have to be it. Despite its humble, peasant origins, this fish and dip is very popular among both poor and rich, though some of the more class conscious might limit their indulgence to the privacy of their home.

    The very pungent shrimpy sauce may be an acquired taste to newcomers to the cuisine, but hard-core spicy food lovers who delight in strong, exotic flavors should have no trouble developing a taste for this treasured Thai combination. Of course, the key to a first-rate sauce lies in the quality of the shrimp paste which, after all, is the primary ingredient. Don't settle for just any gkabpi to make this sauce, but search for one with a fine, roasted aroma and not a strong, rotten stench. Among brands I've seen in America's Asian markets, Pantainorasingh and Tra Chang are among the best.

    Imported, frozen, steamed bplah too in round, woven bamboo trays wrapped in plastic are available from some Southeast Asian markets, usually labeled scomber. The full-grown size of this mackerel native to the gulf of Thailand is no longer than ten inches. The precooked fish have usually been salted, so you need not salt or dust them with flour before pan-frying, should you find them to use for this recipe. Choose only plump ones with a silvery gray color. Since they're already cooked, fry only enough to brown and warm through. Even in Thailand, bplah too is most often sold precooked, to keep this perishable fish fresh tasting. Since the skin of fresh mackerel is fragile and has the tendency to stick, steaming ahead of time also firms the skin, making it less likely to peel off during frying.

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