my summer cup runneth over: thai hot and sour cucumber stirfry

This is a gorgeous dish, one of my favorites from Thailand.  I mentioned it as my “meal of the week” on KLCC’s Food for Thought last Sunday.  It’s an interpretation of a hot and sour shrimp recipe by San Francisco Bay Area Thai food maven Kasma Loha-Unchit, and a great way to use up extra cucumbers and hot peppers in the garden.

Kasma was the Julia Child of Thai food for a certain group of Bayareans who came of age in the gay ’90s and noughts; she still cooks and hosts Thailand trips for students from her home in Oakland.  For those of us who had fled the stodgy food of the Midwest in the late-1980s and found our culinary footing before the days of molecular gastronomy and fusion street food, Thai food was literally the taste of freedom.  It was like Chinese food (which we knew, or thought we knew) but with vibrant, living flavors.  Fresh vegetables! Coconut milk! Seafood! Not fried! And hot! O so hot! Kaffir lime leaf! Lemongrass! Over fragrant rice that took longer than a Minute!

Everything about it was technicolor, in stereo, 3-D, digital, 3G.

And Kasma, who offered classes in actually cooking what we were sampling at restaurants, offered the same thrill,  I’d imagine, that Julia’s French cooking did for young American sophisticates in the 1960s.  As for me, I was most assuredly a not-quite-sophisticate, as I relied on my lessons from my ex-boyfriend, who would come back from class and practice his dishes on me as I served as his sous-chef.

Because that’s the beauty of cooking, right?  We learn by sharing new techniques and ingredients, and by testing variations until we’ve hit on the perfect combination (that fleeting perfection).  This joy is spread from one friend to the next through potlucks, dinner parties, and celebrations.  And with each recipe we receive, each time we cook a dish prepared by someone who wowed us on a perfect evening and share it with others who exhale “wow,” the hues of our lives deepen and take on a richer sheen.  And if you can find someone whose wow is your wow, then that, my friend, is one of the finest pleasures in the world.

But back to the fish.  I bought a pound of black cod at Newman’s, too much, but it was so pretty and I was seduced.  The dish is usually for shrimp and is called, I believe, Pad Priow Wahn, or Hot and Sour Shrimp (with vegetables).  The spicy vinegar a surprisingly natural combination for cucumbers, which we Americans never eat cooked. This stirfry just softens the cukes a bit, makes them more receptive for the sauce and seafood.

I thought the fresh peppers, cucumbers, and tomatoes would be just as good over a mild pan-fried fish as they are with shrimp, and I was right.

I served the other half of the fish in an equally gorgeous dish, also with tomatoes, but this one radically different.  It used the same sauce as my Thai salmon “burger” recipe, which is also based on Kasma’s cuisine.  Fragrant with sweet-spicy roasted chili paste, and strewn with Thai basil from the garden.  The dish is balanced by slightly bittersweet little ‘Sungold’ cherry tomatoes and yet more sunkissed peppers.

Both dishes together are the essence of summer: one hot and sultry, one fresh and breezy.  Work fast and hot.  This is not the dish to simmer.  No, work fast and hot.  Run like the last days of summer.

Hot & Sour Cucumber Stirfry with Black Cod

Recipe adapted from Kasma Loha-Unchit’s pad priow wahn recipe (undated handout)

Serves 4 with another dish.

  • 1/4 cup rice flour or cornstarch
  • 1/2 lb. black cod or other thick fillet of mild, white fish (or substitute large shrimp, peeled and deveined)
  • 2-3 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 1 tablespoon minced garlic
  • 1/2 medium white onion, sliced in half and then thinly
  • 2 long banana or wax peppers or other frying peppers if you’d like it less hot
  • 4 med. pickling cucumbers or 1-2 garden slicers, halved and sliced at angle about 1/8th-inch thick (peel slicers)
  • 2-3 tablespoons fish sauce
  • 1 tablespoon white vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • 2 plum tomatoes or slightly underripe small slicers, cut in bite-sized chunks.
  • white pepper to taste

Set up your ingredients in separate, small dishes — mince the garlic; slice the onion, peppers, and cucumbers; chunk the tomatoes. Mix together fish sauce, vinegar, and sugar in a small bowl. Marinate fish fillet in a bit of this sauce and some white pepper.  Put rice flour on salad-sized plate or in shallow bowl for dredging fish.

Heat your pan until very hot on high heat. Just before frying, dredge fish fillet in rice flour on both sides and shake off the extra.  (If you are using shrimp, skip this step.)

When pan is hot, add oil and wait a minute to pre-heat, then add fish fillet or shrimp.  Cook fish until about 2/3 done (it will be brown on bottom and white most of the way up), then flip over in pan (for shrimp, just stirfry them until they are thoroughly pink).

Add onion and garlic, which should start to brown immediately.  Slow it down by adding the hot peppers.  Remove fish and set aside in a serving dish.  Add cucumbers and fish sauce mixture, then stirfry for a minute or so.  Add tomatoes and sprinkle with white pepper to taste.  Carefully arrange vegetables and sauce around fillet, or break apart fillet into four pieces and integrate into vegetables prior to serving.  Garnish with cilantro, if you have it.