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Pla Som Recipe (Thai Sour Fish)

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This pla som recipe makes a delicious salted Thai sour fish, a staple in northeastern Thailand that pairs wonderfully with rice. It’s perfect for anyone wanting to enjoy an authentic Thai dish for dinner, complete with traditional flavors and ingredients.

Pla som, a Thai sour fish, with a garnish of shallots, chilies, and coriander.

On this food blog, you’ll discover some of the best Thai fish recipes. When my family gets together, we often purchase some tilapia, a budget-friendly fish, and whip up a feast with pla pao and Thai crispy fish with tamarind sauce. So delicious!

For a bit more background on how to make fermented fish, keep reading here. If you’re ready to dive right into the instructions, feel free to skip ahead.

What is pla som

Pla som is a traditional Thai fermented fish dish with a tangy and salty flavor. It’s especially popular in northeastern Thailand and involves fermenting fish with salt, garlic, and cooked rice for several days.


The process of salting fish, combining it with cooked sticky rice, and letting it sit in a container for a few days is the fermentation process that gives pla som its unique sour taste.

Pla som, a Thai sour fish, showcasing the fried exterior and fish flesh.

Thai sour fish recipe

The first thing you need for making this preserved salted fish recipe is good fish. I usually go with tilapia or java barb because it’s easy to find in rural Thailand and works great. Just make sure you pick a fresh fish, preferably from a food market.

We’ll start by gilling and cleaning the fish around the head area, and gut it to remove the innards. It’s important to do the cleaning process thoroughly to prevent any chance of the fish spoiling!

Next is scoring, a few swift cuts on each side will suffice.

Pla som, a Thai sour fish, highlighting the fried fish and soft flesh.

After our fish is clean and scored, we’ll rinse it off well to wash away any remaining impurities. Before the curing happens, it’s important to ensure the fish is dry. That’s when we give it a good rub with salt – this isn’t just seasoning; it’s the beginning of the curing process, which is super important for pla som’s sour taste.

Som pla is popular in Isan cuisine, the rural region of Thailand. Another popular fermented Thai dish is sai krok Isan, which is a staple at street food markets in northeastern Thailand.


Then, we’re on to the fermenting stage. Season the fish, mix in some cooked sticky rice for that tangy kick, and pack it in an airtight container. Give it a few days to do its thing, and you’ve got a fermented sour fish that’s totally worth the wait!

Once your fish has spent a few days becoming fermented, it’s time to fry it. Fry the fish golden brown with a crunchy crust and serve your fried fish with your favorite sides.

Ingredients

Ingredients can be sourced at Asian grocery stores and Asian markets.
The exact measurements are in the recipe card at the end of this post.


Pla som ingredients labeled: glutinous rice in water, salt, MSG, white sugar, garlic, and fresh fish.

For fermenting fish

  • Fish – In my village in Isan, we typically make som pla with java barb because it has soft fish bones. You can also use other white flesh fish, like tilapia and halibut, which have a mild flavor and firm texture ideal for fermentation.
  • Salt – Salt is essential for curing and preserving the fish, plus it draws out moisture and enhances the natural flavors.
  • Garlic – Garlic infuses the salted fish with a pungent and slightly spicy flavor.
  • MSGMSG is a flavor enhancer that’s popular in Thai cuisine for enhancing the umami and savory notes of dishes.
  • White sugar – Balances the saltiness and acidity in the dish.
  • White glutinous riceThai sticky rice helps ferment the fish, breaking down the proteins and adding flavor.
  • Water
  • Rice water – Save the leftover water from soaking your sticky rice — we’ll use it in this recipe, so make sure not to toss it out!

For frying

Ingredients for frying fermented fish labeled: tempura flour, eggs, fermented fish.
  • Tempura flour – For creating a crispy layer.
  • Eggs
  • Oil – For frying the fish, use a neutral oil with high smoke point, like canola oil or vegetable oil.

How to make salted fish

Step 1: Making sticky rice

Sequential steps of steaming Thai sticky rice using a conventional steamer and cheesecloth, from soaking to ready-to-serve.

Start by rinsing your glutinous rice, then soak it in water for at least 4 hours. After soaking, steam the rice until tender. Remember to save the soaking water – you’ll need this ‘sticky rice water’ later. For more details, check out my full Thai sticky rice recipe.

Step 2: Cleaning fish

Step-by-step instructions for cleaning a fresh fish, showing scaling, gutting, and rinsing processes.

Use a dull knife to scrape off the scales from tail to head. Next, make a shallow cut along the belly from under the head to the tail, remove the innards, and thoroughly rinse the cavity under cold water. Finally, pat the fish dry inside and out.

Step 3: Curing fish

Step-by-step process of curing fish, showing scoring, salting, and soaking stages.

Start by scoring cuts on both sides of the fish, then rub salt generously into the cuts and over the entire surface to season and draw out moisture. Allow it to rest for 2 hours. After resting, wash the fish thoroughly to remove all salt. Finally, immerse the fish in the preserved ‘sticky rice water’ for 1 hour to enhance its flavor.

Step 4: Fermenting fish

Steps for preparing fermented fish with garlic paste.

Crush garlic with a mortar and pestle until finely crushed. Next, mix the garlic with your cooked sticky rice, white sugar, MSG, and salt in a bowl. Apply this mixture liberally over the previously cured fish, ensuring it fills the cuts and covers the surface. Place the fish in a container, cover, and set aside for 3 days at room temperature.

Step 5: Frying fermented fish

Sequential preparation of frying fermented fish: coating in flour, dipping in egg, and frying to golden crispiness.

For frying the fermented fish, start by coating the fish evenly with tempura flour, ensuring both sides are well covered. Next, dip the floured fish into beaten eggs until it is fully coated. Heat oil in a frying pan over medium heat. Once hot, gently place the egg-coated fish in the oil and fry until it’s golden brown and crispy on both sides. Serve immediately with rice. Enjoy!

Kitchenware

  1. Measuring spoons and cups
  2. Cutting board and a sharp knife (for gilling, gutting, and scoring the fish)
  3. Large mixing bowl
  4. Clean container with a lid (for fermenting the fish)

How to serve som pla

Som pla is best served with a side of sticky rice or jasmine rice. Add some fresh vegetables like yardlong beans, cucumber slices, and fresh herbs. Thai fish is typically enjoyed as a communal dish, so place it in the center of the table and let everyone dig in – Thai-style!

Some recommended side dishes for this pla som recipe are minced pork omelette and nam prik kapi, a shrimp paste dipping sauce.

Storing and reheating

Storing: Put any leftover som pla in an airtight container after it has cooled to room temperature and store it in the refrigerator. It will stay fresh for up to three days.

Reheating: To reheat, simply place the fish in a skillet over medium heat until it’s warmed through and crispy again. You can also use the oven by heating it at 350°F until hot. Avoid using the microwave to keep the fish from getting too soggy.

Authentic Thai fish recipes

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Pla Som Recipe (Thai Sour Fish)

Pla som, a Thai sour fish, with a garnish of shallots, chilies, and coriander.
Make a tasty Thai sour fish with this authentic pla som recipe. Learn how to ferment and deep-fry fish to perfection.
Praew
Prep Time 20 minutes
Cook Time 20 minutes
Total Time 40 minutes
Cuisine Thai
Course Main Course
Serving Size 4 people

Ingredients

  • 500 g fish x2 (see notes)
  • 5 tbsps salt for cleaning
  • 2 heads of garlic
  • 1 tsp MSG
  • 0.5 tbsp white sugar
  • 0.5 tbsp salt
  • 1 cup glutinous rice
  • 3 cups water
  • leftover rice water
  • oil (for frying)
  • 2 eggs
  • 1/2 cup tempura flour

Instructions

Making sticky rice

  • Start by rinsing your glutinous rice, then soak it in water for at least 4 hours. After soaking, steam the rice until tender. Remember to save the soaking water – you’ll need this ‘sticky rice water’ later. For more details, check out my full Thai sticky rice recipe.
    1 cup glutinous rice, 3 cups water

Cleaning fish

  • Use a dull knife to scrape off the scales from tail to head. Next, make a shallow cut along the belly from under the head to the tail, remove the innards, and thoroughly rinse the cavity under cold water. Finally, pat the fish dry inside and out.
    500 g fish

Curing fish

  • Start by scoring cuts on both sides of the fish, then rub salt generously into the cuts and over the entire surface to season and draw out moisture. Allow it to rest for 2 hours. After resting, wash the fish thoroughly to remove all salt. Finally, immerse the fish in the preserved ‘sticky rice water’ for 1 hour to enhance its flavor.
    5 tbsps salt, leftover rice water

Fermenting fish

  • Crush garlic with a mortar and pestle until finely crushed. Next, mix the garlic with your cooked sticky rice, white sugar, MSG, and salt in a bowl. Apply this mixture liberally over the previously cured fish, ensuring it fills the cuts and covers the surface. Place the fish in a container, cover, and set aside for 3 days at room temperature.
    2 heads of garlic, 1 tsp MSG, 0.5 tbsp white sugar, 0.5 tbsp salt

Frying fermented fish

  • For frying the fermented fish, start by coating the fish evenly with tempura flour, ensuring both sides are well covered. Next, dip the floured fish into beaten eggs until it is fully coated. Heat oil in a frying pan over medium heat. Once hot, gently place the egg-coated fish in the oil and fry until it’s golden brown and crispy on both sides. Serve immediately with rice. Enjoy!
    oil, 2 eggs, 1/2 cup tempura flour

Notes

  • Use the nutrition card in this recipe as a guideline.
  • Fish – In my village in Isan, we typically make som pla with java barb because it has soft fish bones. You can also use other white flesh fish, like tilapia and halibut, which have a mild flavor and firm texture ideal for fermentation.

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