Thai Fish Grilled in a Banana Leaf – Try This Recipe Today
If you love fish (and maybe even if you don’t), you’ll love this recipe:
What could be better than fillets of fish, coated in spices and herbs, wrapped into a banana leaf package, and grilled over hot charcoal?
In this Thai recipe, I’m going to learn (yes, this was my first time to make it), and share with you, how to make a marvelous northern Thai dish called aeb (แอ๊บ).
You can make it with catfish or tilapia, or even if you don’t prefer fish, you can substitute pork or chicken, and I’ve even had it a number of times in northern Thailand made with brains (sorry we won’t be making that today!).
This is an awesome dish, and I’m extremely excited to share this Thai fish recipe with you.
Let me start with a quick story:
On my first trip to Chiang Rai, the evening I arrived I was exploring the market, and a little grilled leaf package caught my eye, sitting on the grill.
I moved over to the stall at the market.
“It’s called aeb (แอ๊บ),” she informed me in Thai, when I asked what it was.
And she had a number of different versions, some filled with catfish, a few filled with minced pork, and the one I decided to order, filled with boneless fillets of tilapia fish.
I ordered a couple filled with tilapia (tilapia is very commonly eaten in non-seaside locations in Thailand).
The fish, mixed with ground Thai herbs and spices, was wrapped in a couple layers of banana leaves, folded into a packet, and grilled on the side of the road at the market.
I immediate opened the packet, and an eruption of spice, aromatic herb, and steam filled my nostrils.
I’ll never forget my first moment eating aeb (แอ๊บ), it was sensationally delicious – I loved how the fish was moist and oily, yet is still had the smoky flavor of being grilled.
It was yet another food in Thailand that blew me away with both its flavor, use of ingredients, and method of cooking.
But here’s the problem…
While different versions of things cooked in banana leaves are available throughout Thailand, aeb (แอ๊บ) is extremely hard to find in Bangkok. So every time I’m in northern Thailand, usually the first thing I eat when I arrive, is aeb (แอ๊บ).
But instead of waiting to go to northern Thailand every time I want to eat aeb (แอ๊บ), I decided to make a recipe for it.
I cooked this recipe at my house in Bangkok, but at an Asian supermarket in the US, I’ve seen all the ingredients available – including the banana leaves.
Aeb (แอ๊บ) is not only a delicious mixture of ingredients, but it’s also a pretty healthy dish, and I think grilling things in a packet of banana leaves is awesome too.
This recipe might not be extremely easy to make (it’s not difficult, it just takes some time and planning), but I can guarantee you it’s a lot of fun to make, it tastes delicious, and it’s something unique you can cook.
Note: If you want to go straight to the recipe, scroll down to the recipe box below (you’ll see the video too). But keep reading and following the photos below for a more in-depth journey into aeb (แอ๊บ) and many more details about the process of cooking it.
Ingredients you’ll need
- Tilapia from 2 medium fish, each about 700 grams. But once boneless, I think it was about 500 – 600 grams of fish (pla nin ปลานิล)
- Fresh banana leaves for wrapping (substitute foil if you need to ใบตอง) – I’ve often seen banana leaves at Asian supermarkets around the world.
- Toothpicks or kebab sticks for fastening (fastening stick ไม้กลัด)
To grind into the spice paste:
- 2 lemongrass stalks (takrai ตะไคร้)
- 1 head garlic (kratiem กระเทียม)
- 5 shallots (hom daeng หอมแดง)
- 10 – 20 dry Thai chilies (prik haeng พริกแห้ง)
- 3 – 5 fresh Thai bird chilies (prik kee noo พริกขี้หนู)
- ½ kaffir lime peel (pew makrut ผิวมะกรูด)
- ½ finger size of turmeric (kamin ขมิ้น)
- 1/2 tsp salt (kleua เกลือ)
Mix in with fish:
- 1.5 tsp salt (kleua เกลือ)
To add to each packet:
- kaffir lime leaves (bai makrut ใบมะกรูด)
- sweet basil leaves (bai horapa ใบโหระพา)
- lemon basil leaves (bai mengrak ใบแมงลัก)
Again, I wanted to mention that I’ll be using fresh tilapia fish for this Thai recipe, the same fish you can also use to make salt crusted Thai fish as well.
I used whole fish – mostly because that’s the way they come in Thailand – but you could alternatively use a different type of fish, or pre-filleted fish as well.
Or you could go a completely different route and make it with minced pork or even chicken.
I had to fillet the fish myself, which was a bit of an adventure (as you’ll see in the video), but it did work out alright. I could for sure use some practice filleting fish.
Do you have any tips?
Once you have the boneless fillets of fish, cut them into pieces, about the size of 3 – 4 bites or so, about 1/2 the size of a deck of cards.
You could either choose to use a food processor or a stone mortar and pestle, but for the best taste, so that you slowly release all the oils from the ingredients, it’s best to use the latter.
Peel the garlic, shallots, and shave the lime peel, then cut all the ingredients into small pieces to make them easier to pound.
Begin with 1/2 tsp of salt in the mortar and first pound the dry Thai chilies. Once they become flakes, add the fresh chilies, and then proceed to pound and grind the res of the ingredients in any order as long as you add everything.
Note: Turmeric is sometimes included in aeb recipes (วิธีทำ แอ๊บปลานิล), and other times it’s not – I’ve seen it both ways. But I’m a huge lover of turmeric, and since it’s so incredibly healthy, I included it in my recipe. That being said, I used an entire finger sized piece in the video, but I think it was a little too strong, so in the written recipe here, I’ve only included 1/2 a finger.
You don’t really need a fine paste, like you would for a Thai curry paste, instead you’re just looking for a coarse pounded mixture of spices and herbs.
This texture only took me about 15 minutes to pound, and like you can see, it’s not buttery at all, but all the ingredients are pretty well minced, and the mixture is even throughout, and a little oily.
Once your paste is like this, you can proceed on to the next step.
The next step in this Thai street food recipe is to take a mixing bowl, toss in the pieces of fish, then add the spicy chili paste mixture, and season with salt.
Go in with your hands, and fully mix everything together, making sure each piece of fish is fully coated in the spices.
Note: If you mix with your hands like I did in the video, be sure to wash your hands immediately so the chilies don’t burn.
What’s one reason aeb (แอ๊บ) is such a fantastic thing to cook and eat:
The banana leaves.
Around the world, there are many uses for banana leaves, and whenever I travel, anything cooked or served in leaves, is something I’m immediately interested in learning about.
The good news is, banana leaves are used for cooking and serving food frequently throughout Southeast Asian and the Indian subcontinent, and so I have seen green banana leaves available at Asian supermarkets throughout the US.
Before you give up on finding the banana leaves, make sure you check an Asian supermarket if you have access to one.
Note: If you really can’t find banana leaves, you can alternatively wrap your packets in foil.
Banana leaf wrapping
Let’s quickly go over the anatomy of a banana leaf:
Don’t worry, we’re only going over leaf botany so it’s easier to explain how to wrap these packets.
Like most leaves, a banana leaf has a petiole, the middle stalk of the leaf that holds the leaf blades together. We’ve all ripped apart a leaf, right?
When you buy banana leaves at a supermarket, or even at a fresh market in Thailand, they will often strip the leaf blades off the petiole to make them easier to sell and transport. Also we’ll only be using the blades to make this recipe.
What you want to first do carefully is cut the banana leaves into about 30 – 40 cm (1 foot or a bit more) pieces.
On the side of the banana leaf blade that was attached to the petiole, it has a hard stronger outer edge, whereas on the other edge of the leaf blade, the banana leaf is pretty fragile and can be torn easily.
Keeping the shiny green side down, the white side up, take two banana leaf pieces, place them on top of each other, alternating the hard edge and fragile edge, so there’s one hard edge on either side, and one fragile edge on either side.
Make sure you also wipe down the banana leaf with a wet towel so there’s no dust on it.
It’s really not all that difficult, it’s much harder to explain in words than it is to just do it.
With your banana leaf in place, first add a handful, no need to measure, just a nice big handful, of lemon basil and Thai sweet basil to the base.
Top it with a few pieces of the fish, making sure it’s nice and coated with the spice mixture.
Next, and I actually forgot to add them on my first packet, is to take a kaffir lime leaf, tear it in half, and stick it on top of the fish before you wrap it.
Wrap it into a packet
Throughout northern Thailand, and even throughout other part of the country, banana leaf packets are wrapped in a multitude of different methods, shapes, and sizes.
For aeb (แอ๊บ), it’s usually wrapped in a very easy way, by just grabbing each side, folding them over to meet in the middle, then folding in the other two edges and fastening them together.
Many street food cooks in Thailand actually use toothpicks, or you could use kebab sticks that you shave down to about toothpick size.
Take a toothpick and fasten the banana leaf together, like a sewing stitch, in then out, making sure you poke through both sides of the banana leaf.
Out of this amount of ingredients, I was able to get 6 packets of aeb pla nin (แอ๊บปลานิล), which should give you a range of about how much of the ingredients I used per packet.
If you think about it, and if you’re grilling with charcoal, you should probably light it before you start wrapping, that way as soon as you’re done wrapping the packets, you can start grilling.
Here’s just one more photo I wanted to show, so you can see how aeb (แอ๊บ) is typically wrapped.
For the grilling, you want about a medium heat. No flames, but pretty hot coals. For a gas grill, I’d say medium high would work best.
Grill the aeb pla nin (แอ๊บปลานิล) packets for a couple of minutes on the first side, and then flip them over. The outer banana leaf should start roasting, and it will probably blister up and begin to blacken.
But don’t worry if the outer banana leaf gets burned, because the inner fish will be protected, and all that smoky roasted flavor will transfer to the fish, without the char.
Keep on roasting and flipping the Thai grilled tilapia fish packages.
I’m not sure exactly how to say when they are finished cooking, but for myself it took about 15 minutes.
I took one off too early, checked it, and it was a little undercooked, so I put it on for a few more minutes – I think about 15 minutes is around the time you should grill them.
Once you’re done grilling, you’ll have some awesome packages of delight, that should look similar to what you see above.
One of the beauties of this northern Thai recipe is that it’s both grilled and kind of baked at the same time.
Get ready for an aroma explosion.
The grilling gives the fish a beautiful smoky flavor, and the packet of banana leaves not only hold in all the juices and oils of the fish, but it also provides a unique herbaceous flavor.
How to eat aeb (แอ๊บปลา)
The best time to eat aeb pla nin (แอ๊บปลานิล) is just a few minutes after they are finished grilling, so they are piping hot, and still full of the delicious fish oil.
Be careful opening the banana leaf as it will be very hot inside, but what you smell and see will put a smile on your face immediately.
In northern Thailand, aeb pla nin (แอ๊บปลานิล) can either be a snack or a full meal, eaten along with sticky rice.
If you have sticky rice (recipe here), take a bite sized ball with your fingers, place it on top of the fish, and break off a piece.
The fish, herbs, and spices, should flake off easily, and it should be oozing with juices and flavors.
Eat aeb pla nin (แอ๊บปลานิล) along with sticky rice, then repeat, and repeat again.
The fish will be moist and oily, the spices will give your tongue a blast of flavor, and finally you’ll enjoy that extra fresh dimension of taste from the banana leaf embedded into the fish, plus the basil, and finally the zesty flavor of the kaffir lime leaves.
Alternatively, aeb pla nin (แอ๊บปลานิล) also tastes fantastic with a plate of regular steamed rice.
Click below to watch the video now:
(If you can’t see the video, watch it here)
Aeb pla nin recipe (วิธีทำ แอ๊บปลานิล)
Total time: About 1.5 hours – 2 hours
Recipe size: The amount of ingredients I used made 6 individual packets; I ate three immediately.
Cooking utensils: Grill
Flavors: Spicy, herbs, salty
Eat it with: Most of the time in northern Thailand it’s eaten along with sticky rice, but with regular steamed rice it’s excellent too, or even just plain with no rice
- 500 - 600 grams of boneless filleted tilapia fish (I filleted 2 fish, but you could also buy pre-filleted)
- Banana leaves for wrapping (substitute foil)
- Toothpicks for fastening
- 2 lemongrass stalks
- 1 head garlic
- 5 Thai shallots
- 10 - 20 dry Thai chilies
- 3 - 5 fresh Thai bird eye chilies
- ½ of the peel of a kaffir lime
- ½ finger of turmeric (in the video I added a full finger, but it was too much)
- ½ tsp salt
- All the chili paste
- 1.5 tsp salt
- sweet basil
- lemon basil
- kaffir lime leaves
- Begin preparing the chili paste. Peel the garlic and shallots, and slice off the skin of the kaffir lime. Cut all the chili paste ingredients into small pieces, to make them easier to grind in a stone mortar and pestle.
- In a stone mortar, first add ½ tsp of salt, then begin pounding the Thai dry chilies until you have chili flakes. Then add the fresh chilies, and keep on pounding. Next add the rest of the ingredients and keep pounding for about 15 minutes. You don't need it to be smooth like a Thai curry paste, but you're just looking for a coarse chunky chili paste. You could alternatively use a food processor or blender.
- If you use whole fish, like I did, fillet the fish by slicing the meat off both sides. Then cut the fish into medium sized pieces, about ½ the size of a deck of cards.
- In a mixing bowl, add the boneless fish (skin still on is best), add the pounded chili paste, and season with salt. Mix thoroughly so all the fish is coated with chili paste.
- Tear or cut the banana leaf into 30 - 40 cm (1 foot or a little more) pieces. Prepare about 12 pieces.
- Banana leaves have a strong side and a fragile side - keep this in mind. Take two of the banana leaf pieces, with the white dull side up (green shiny side down), and give the leaves a quick wipe with a wet cloth. Place one leaf down, then layer another on top of it, but turn it 180 degrees. So there should be a strong edge on one side, and a fragile edge on one side, but two leaves opposite of each other - one strong and one fragile side together.
- Place a handful of fresh lemon basil and Thai sweet basil in the center of the leaf, then top with a couple pieces of fish and chili paste. Then tear a couple of kaffir lime leaves, and add them to the top of the fish.
- To wrap it up, fold in one side, then the other side, then pull in the long ends, and fasten them at the top of the packet with a toothpick. It should be square or rectangular package.
- On medium heat, grill each packet of aeb pla nin (แอ๊บปลานิล) for about 15 minutes, flipping occasionally. The outside banana leaf wrapper will blister and blacken, but the fish inside will remain protected and absolutely delicious.
Hope you enjoyed this recipe. Check out the full recipe here and watch the video here.
In northern Thailand, common as a street food and at markets, there’s a dish called aeb (แอ๊บ), a packet of fish or meat, mixed with chili paste and herbs, wrapped in a banana leaf package, and grilled over charcoal.
Although you could use a choice of meat or fish to make aeb (แอ๊บ), one of my favorite versions is aeb pla nin (แอ๊บปลานิล), made with tilapia fish.
This style of cooking, grilling in a banana leaf, is not only a lot of fun to do, but it also preserves all the delicious juices and flavors of the fish and spices – it’s like baking and grilling and mingling spices all together in a single package of delight.
Are you going to try making this aeb pla nin recipe (วิธีทำ แอ๊บปลานิล)?
Leave a comment below, and if you liked this recipes, please share it with a friend (by e-mail, twitter, or facebook) – thank you in advance.
And for more Thai authentic recipes, go here.