In my opinion, the Thai way of grilling a whole fish, is one of the best methods I’ve seen anywhere.
A thick layer of salt crust covers the whole fish so the flesh inside keeps moist and succulent throughout the grilling process.
And along, when eaten along with a garlic chili seafood dipping sauce, a Thai grilled fish (pla pao ปลาเผา) makes for an amazing meal!
For this recipe (and especially in the video) I’ll be grilling two different kinds of popular Thai street food fish, a red hybrid tilapia known as a pla tabtim (ปลาทับทิม), and a snakehead fish known as a pla chon (ปลาช่อน). Both are good, but overall, I prefer the pla tabtim (ปลาทับทิม).
You could also make this Thai grilled fish recipe with a different kind of whole firm-ish kind of fish.
Before getting started preparing the fish, I like to first get the charcoal lit. That way there’s a nice bed of hot charcoal as soon as the fish is dressed and ready to go.
Later on, when you’re ready to grill the fish, you want to make sure you have a nice bed of charcoal, but you don’t want the heat to be too strong – which might burn the fish. Before grilling, spread out the coals, and if you have some leftover previous charcoal ashes, it’s a good idea to tone down the fire a bit with a layer of ash.
You want a nice low, but even, heat for grilling.
There are two main parts that make up any Thai grilled fish recipe (pla pao ปลาเผา), the whole grilled fish, and the accompanying sauce, known in Thai as sauce seafood (or nam jim seafood น้ำจิ้มซีฟู้ด).
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The first step to is stuff the lemongrass stalks and kaffir lime leaves into the fish.
(But be sure to see the recipe below for all the details)
The fish fully loaded with lemongrass sticking out the mouth, you then coat the skin with a thick layer of salt mixed with a spoon of flour and water.
It’s almost like putting plaster over the fish.
Once you’ve got the fish nicely coated in a bath of salt crust, hopefully your fire is ready, and that’s when you start the grilling process.
For this recipe, I grilled the fish for about 20 minutes on each side, for a total of about 40 minutes – but this is all dependent upon how big your fish is and how hot your fire is. Aim for a low heat to cook slowly.
As soon as the fish is on the grill, you can begin to work on the Thai seafood sauce.
It’s such a simple sauce, yet it’s also one of my all-time favorite Thai sauces.
I can literally drench my food in this stuff, or even drink it, it’s that good.
For Thai seafood sauce, you can use normal Thai bird chilies, but I like it better with prik kee noo suan (พริกขี้หนูสวน), as they have a bit more of a sour fragrant flavor to them – these are especially commonly found in the south of Thailand.
The Thai sauce seafood (nam jim seafood น้ำจิ้มซีฟู้ด) is made from a combination of pounded garlic and Thai bird chilies (prik kee noo suan) mixed with fish sauce, lime juice, and sugar.
It’s incredibly garlicky, spicy, salty and sour.
Keep an eye on the fish, make sure they don’t burn!
Once you take your fish off the grill, all you have to do is make an incision across the top, and then the skin should just slide right off the side of the fish, leaving you with a moist and beautiful fillet.
(If you can’t see the video, watch it on YouTube here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TuZ_0A97xRU)
Thai grilled fish recipe (pla pao ปลาเผา)
Time: About 1.5 hours
Recipe size: 2 whole fish – both of the fish I cooked in this recipe were about 2 kilos each
Flavors: Salty, smokey
Eat it with: Pla pao (ปลาเผา) is very common to eat in Thailand along with Isaan food – that means it’s often accompanied by side dishes of som tam, larb moo, and usually Thai sticky rice. That being said, plenty of people, including myself, prefer pla pao (ปลาเผา) just with regular steamed rice.
For more of our authentic Thai recipes, be sure to click here.
- 2 whole fish (also 1 fish works fine, just reduce ingredients)
- ½ kilo of salt (big grain if possible)
- 2 tablespoons of all purpose flour
- About 1 tablespoon of water
- 4 - 6 stalks lemongrass
- small handful of kaffir lime leaves
- 6 tablespoons fresh lime juice
- 3 tablespoons water
- 2 tablespoons fish sauce
- 1 tablespoon sugar
- ½ teaspoon of salt
- 15 cloves of garlic
- 20 Thai bird chilies (prik kee noo suan พริกขี้หนูสวน)
- When you buy your whole fish, ask the vendor (or yourself) to do two things: One, try to remove the guts from the gills of the fish, without slicing the fish open on the belly, and two, leave the scales on the fish (if you have the choice).
- Probably the first thing you want to do (if you’re using charcoal, which I would recommend), is to get the charcoal going first, so it's ready when the fish is prepared.
- Make sure you rinse your fish with water and then pat them dry with a paper towel.
- Take your lemongrass stalks and beat and bruise them with something hard, like a mortar, or a rolling pin or something like that. This is going to bring out the lovely flavor of the lemongrass. Also prepare a small handful of kaffir lime leaves.
- Fold the lemongrass in half and begin to stuff the fish with a stalk of lemongrass and about 10 kaffir lime leaves. Depending on how big your fish is will determine how many stalks of lemongrass you can fit. I put 2 - 3 lemongrass stalks in each fish in the video. Make sure it’s tight, but also make sure not to push so hard that you break the flesh of the fish.
- In a large mixing bowl or pan add ½ kilo bag of salt, sprinkle in 2 tablespoons of all purpose flour, and add about 1 tablespoon of water. Mix it up thoroughly, massaging the mixture with your hand, until it’s fully mixed. You want the salt to be a little moist so it sticks to the fish easily.
- Add the fish to the pan and start plastering it with the salt mixture. Pat and rub the fish with the salt, making sure to cover the entire fish, and all over the head and tail. Do the same to both fish.
- For grilling the fish, you want to have a steady, yet quite low heat. Make sure you have a bed of coals, and if they are too hot you can either tone them down with a scoop of ashes, or push the really hot coals to one side of the grill and put the fish on the other side (using a little indirect heat). You can also add more coals as you keep on cooking. You want to slow cook the fish without them burning on the outside. My fish took almost 1 hour to grill. So aim for low heat for slow cooking.
- Once your fish is on the grill, it’s time to get started on the seafood sauce (below).
- Try to wait for about 15 minutes before you flip the fish. If you flip it too early, when the salt hasn’t dried out completely yet, the fish skin might get stuck onto the griddle. Flip the fish as little as possible.
- Keep roasting until the fish feels firm and the white salted skin has turned crusty and golden. It should take about 45 minutes to 1 hour.
- Take the fish off the grill, and set it on a platter.
- To eat the fish, you can either use a knife or scissors, and from the top of the fish, cut through the skin. The skin should cleanly lift off the fish revealing moist and beautiful meat.
- Thai grille fish (pla pao) is delicious with both sticky rice and white rice, and lots of seafood sauce!
- Peel about 15 cloves of garlic and grab about 20 Thai bird chilies (prik kee noo suan พริกขี้หนูสวน). Normal Thai chilies will work too. Pound ½ teaspoon of salt, the garlic, and chilies using a mortar and pestle. Doesn’t need to be super fine, but make sure there are no big chunks.
- In a bowl, add the pounded garlic and chilies, 6 tablespoons of fresh squeezed lime juice, 3 tablespoons of water, 2.5 tablespoons of fish sauce, and 1 tablespoon of sugar. Mix everything together until the sugar is dissolved.
- Taste the seafood sauce. Really, it’s up to you how it tastes, but you want it to be slightly salty, sour, and slightly sweet.
- If you need to add a little more of anything, go for it!
A nicely cooked juicy Thai grilled fish (pla pao ปลาเผา), with a pungent garlic and chili dipping sauce, is one of my all-time favorite meals to eat on the streets of Thailand!
If you love fish, you should not wait any longer before trying out this Thai grilled fish recipe (pla pao ปลาเผา).