Warm up cold, rainy nights with this turmeric fried halibut and Thai-style dipping sauce

This turmeric pan fried halibut will warm you and whet your appetite on rainy evenings. — Pictures by CK Lim
This turmeric pan fried halibut will warm you and whet your appetite on rainy evenings. — Pictures by CK Lim

KUALA LUMPUR, Nov 21 — I have to admit I’ve been hankering for Thai food. Not being able to travel, for one, but likely also due to our weather of late.

Perhaps it’s the swelteringly hot afternoons that reminds me of Songkran in Bangkok, when the heat is so overpowering you sweat even indoors with the air conditioning on.

That’s when an icy blue pea flower cooler would work a treat, its sapphire liquids tinged with the tang of fresh lime juice.

Perhaps it’s because of the incessant rain every evening, a cool splash of water to contrast with the sunny, fiery daytime. This makes for cold nights and thus we crave for something with a little bit of spice to warm our bodies.

Fortunately, we are inspired easily, even when we stay at home and rarely venture out other than for groceries. Making some stir fried cabbage with Thai fish sauce last weekend, I decided I ought to use the pungent and umami-rich nam pla in more dishes.

Many of us are working from home and therefore cooking at home. All the more reason to dabble with new recipes and make use of what’s already well stocked in our pantries, no?

Ground turmeric offers some earthy notes without being too spicy.
Ground turmeric offers some earthy notes without being too spicy.

My mind races back to meals I’ve had in Thailand; how did the local cooks utilise the versatile nam pla? As a marinade or an ingredient in a marinade, for sure. To douse on fish before steaming, to add a subtle depth to soups and curries, that too.

But I had also observed how no dining table is complete without a quartet of condiments, usually contained in tiny, clear glass vessels: sugar, dried chilli flakes, crushed peanuts and sliced fresh chillies floating in plenty of nam pla.

So why not a dipping sauce?

A coat of gold: once the halibut is dusted with turmeric powder.
A coat of gold: once the halibut is dusted with turmeric powder.

Perhaps the most famous of Thai dipping sauces is the prik nam pla — essentially a trinity of fish sauce, fresh lime juice and sliced chillies. Garlic would be nice. Some sugar, if you like. Easy enough to recreate but I can’t help but tweak it further.

I raid my pantry, trying one spice after another. This sauce, that sauce. An assortment of oils. Everything seems to overpower the perfection of chillies, limes and fish sauce. Whatever could make it even more balanced?

That missing piece of the puzzle turns out to be a dash of something quintessentially Chinese — aromatic sesame seed oil. The nutty notes make the prik nam pla more well rounded; the oily slick just enough to make this more akin to a vinaigrette than a mere dipping sauce.

This Oriental style prik nam pla would go well with any meat or seafood, I am sure, but the Cantonese in my blood insists on some fish. Steamed fish would be the obvious choice but that veers too Chinese and not Thai enough.

Fresh limes and pungent garlic add layers of flavour to the dipping sauce.
Fresh limes and pungent garlic add layers of flavour to the dipping sauce.

In the end I decide to smear a lovely piece of halibut with a generous amount of turmeric powder. A coat of gold. More earthy than piquant, the turmeric also helps the fish skin crisp up nicely in the hot oil.

A simple pan fry is all we need and then to savour every morsel with our Thai style (but yes, not quite Thai) dipping sauce.

The taste brings me back to Thailand — tangy and fiery, salty and sweet, a mildly bitter and creamy nuttiness from the sesame oil binding it all together — and assures me that one day I shall return to the Land of Smiles.

TURMERIC HALIBUT WITH THAI-STYLE DIPPING SAUCE

I have used halibut here but any fish with its skin on would work. As we are pan frying, a fish fillet is preferred, rather than a whole fish; that would benefit from a deep frying or steaming.

The dipping sauce would be sublime whichever way you choose to cook your fish, so why not experiment depending on how you like to cook your fish?

A Thai-style dipping sauce, inspired by 'prik nam pla'.
A Thai-style dipping sauce, inspired by 'prik nam pla'.

A traditional prik nam pla only needs the fish sauce, freshly squeezed lime juice and sliced chillies. Here, on top of the sesame seed oil and garlic, I have added a smidgen of sugar to balance out all the flavours.

The turmeric rub for the fish is literally just turmeric powder, whilst the fish is seasoned on both sides with salt and pepper.

So we do need to get our sweetness from somewhere. Our Thai friends have made it easy and simple for us: just add sugar.

Ingredients for the dipping sauce

6 tablespoons of nam pla (Thai fish sauce)
Juice of 3-4 limes
4 cili padi, sliced
1 tablespoon sesame seed oil
4 garlic cloves, crushed
1 tablespoon of caster sugar

Ingredients for the fish

2 fillets of halibut, skin on
Salt and ground black pepper to taste
Turmeric powder
Vegetable oil (or any neutral cooking oil)

Method

To make the dipping sauce, mix the ingredients together in a large bowl. Keep stirring until all the sugar has dissolved. Set aside; you may pour them into smaller saucers when serving.

Before frying the halibut, make sure you pat the fillets dry with paper towels. Excess moisture will make the oil pop out of the pan when frying.

Season the fillets on both sides with salt and ground black pepper. Using as much turmeric powder as needed, cover the skin side of the fillets until completely smeared with turmeric.

The crispy, turmeric-flavoured skin is the best part of the fish.
The crispy, turmeric-flavoured skin is the best part of the fish.

Heat a large nonstick pan over high heat. Add just enough vegetable oil to coat the bottom of the pan. Once the oil is simmering (but not smoking), place the fillets in the pan, skin side down.

Reduce the heat to medium-low and allow the fillets to fry without moving them, for about 3 minutes or until the skin is golden brown.

Using a fish spatula (or any longer spatula with slots to allow the oil to drain away), carefully flip the fillets. Allow to continue cooking for another minute or until the fish is cooked through.

Transfer to plates and serve immediately with saucers of dipping sauce on the side and plenty of hot steamed rice.

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