Salt-Crusted Grilled Fish with Lemongrass (Pla Pao )
It really doesn't matter what it isfrom some simple chicken satay skewers to a fancy medallion of filet mignonas long as it involves the grill, the boyfriend is up to the challenge.
So when I came across a recipe for Thai-style grilled fish (pla pao) last year, he was excited...and a little curious. You see, this style of fish doesn't call for a typical Thai marinade or even a light drizzle of oil before grilling. Instead, it calls for stuffing the whole fish with lemongrass and kaffir lime leaves and then coating it entirely with coarse salt. Upon hearing this, the boyfriend's natural reaction was, "Won't that be too salty?"
Of course he didn't remember eating grilled fish that was too salty when he was growing up in Thailand, so we decided to give it a try. And as we peeled back the heavily salted crust and took our first bite of the delightfully moist, flaky fish, we were sold. This is actually a wonderful way to grill fish!
The salt ends up forming a seal around the fish, locking in its natural moisture. Once you peel away this crust, you're left with a piece of fish that is so moist and juicy, it almost dissolves on your tongue. And amazingly enough, it's not too salty! Instead, you taste the lemongrass and kaffir lime leaves that were tucked into the body of the fish, lending it a wonderful lemony fragrance.
Preparing whole fish this way is apparently pretty common in Thailandand I can see why. It couldn't be simpler to make, and it results in a mouth-wateringly delicious seafood dish! When served with jasmine rice and a variety of dipping sauces (nam jim), this salt-crusted grilled fish makes for a simple and light, yet totally filling Thai meal.
In addition to rice and nam jim sauces, I’ve read this fish can also be served with lettuce leaves to make little lettuce wraps, which is a way I particularly like to eat it. When combined with some thin rice noodles (khanom jeen), fresh herbs like Thai basil, mint, and cilantro, and a spicy lime sauce like the one I've shared below, it transforms the fish into yet another wonderfully light and completely refreshing meal.
Really, we’ve found that any way you eat this Thai-style grilled fish, it’s pretty amazing. I’m so glad we decided to put our doubts aside and give it a try last year. Here’s hoping that you’ll do the same!
Salt-Crusted Grilled Fish with Lemongrass
Makes 2 servings
Grilled Fish Ingredients:
- One 2-pound whole white fish (such as red snapper or tilapia)
- 2 stalks lemongrass
- 4 kaffir lime leaves
- 1/2 cup coarse sea salt
Dipping Sauce Ingredients:
- 1 Tablespoon lime juice
- 1 Tablespoon fish sauce
- 1 Tablespoon sugar
- 2 Tablespoons water
- 1-2 red Thai peppers
- 1 small head of butter leaf lettuce
- 6 ounces khanom jeen (or somen) noodles
- Fresh herbs including Thai basil, mint, and/or cilantro
- Wash your dressed fish. Cut shallow diagonal lines into the flesh on each side.
- Cut the lemongrass into 3-4" long pieces and then cut each piece in half. Bruise each half with a knife. Tear the lime leaves into halves by removing the middle vein.
- Stuff the cavity of the fish with the bruised lemongrass and torn kaffir lime leaves. Seal the cavity with toothpicks, if needed.
- Completely coat the outside of the fish with sea salt. Grill over low to medium heat until the fish is cooked through but still moist.
- While the fish is grilling, prepare your accompaniments. Make the dipping sauce by mixing all of the sauce ingredients together. Boil the khanom jeen noodles for 3 minutes or according to package instructions. Wash your lettuce and fresh herbs.
- Once the fish is done, peel off the salty outer skin to reveal the moist inner flesh. Serve by placing a piece of fish on top of a lettuce leaf, adding some khanom jeen noodles and fresh herbs. Drizzle a spoonful of the dipping sauce on top, wrap, and enjoy!
Recipe inspired by Andy Ricker's Salt-Crusted Tilapia with Lemongrass.
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