Mok Pa – Lao Steamed Fish
Mok pa – fish steamed with herbs steamed in banana leaves. You get hints of umami with the fish sauce, earthiness from the herbs, a little brightness with the lemongrass and a little heat with the chili. The recipe is typically made with a mild white fish like tilapia, but catfish is also commonly used. But don’t let that limit you. We’ve used sturgeon, cod, salmon and everything in between. The herbs in the dish adds flavor pockets in every bite. The best part is that it’s steamed fish! No guilty feelings whatsoever. You wouldn’t believe steamed fish can taste this good.
This is another one of those dishes that reminds me of mom. It’s not a fancy dish that is served on special occasions. It’s a weeknight dinner that mom just threw together kind of dish. They freeze very well too. So mom would make a big batch and freeze some. She can quickly warm up a parcel and include it with dinner on any busy day.
I recently had a chance to use the recipe in preparation for one of the recent hurricanes. I rummaged through the freezer to see what I can use up to help clear out the freezer just in case we lose power for an extended period. I found a pound of frozen cod. Lucky me!
Here are my notes:
- The soaked uncooked sticky rice – this is the most important part in the recipe. The pounded rice cooks and absorbs the flavors and adheres to the fish. It is the flavor glue! And don’t get stingy on the rice. Mom says the rice makes the dish. Mom is always right. But on the flip side, you don’t want to go overboard and load the dish with rice either. It’s steamed fish not steamed rice. You want to be a glue not a filler.
- Water content – depending on how much water is in your ingredients, you may need to add more water. You’d want a nice wet paste because that extra moisture will help the rice cook and expand to absorb all that flavor.
- Fish fillets – this recipe calls for cubed, but you can keep the fish in fillet or steak form and that would work just fine, especially if you are looking for a nice presentation. I prefer the cubes because they create pockets of flavors throughout the parcel.
- Some people like to add salt in the mortar to help break down the aromatics when they pound it to a paste, but if you do that, don’t forget to reduce the amount of fish sauce. Otherwise, that will make for a salty dish.
- Banana leaves – if using fresh banana leaves, you may have to heat it up a little so it becomes pliable. You can easily do so by placing it on a stop top burner. But if using frozen leaves like I did, you will most likely need aluminum foil to help support the parcel as the frozen leaves typically lose their structure. Either way, don’t forget to wash and wipe down the leaves. And if you don’t have access to banana leaves just use aluminum foil.
- Lemongrass and dill – Watch out for the older greener part of the lemongrass. If you include those, they can be tough and are not good eats, but you can easily pick them out as well. As for the dill, the amount that I used in the video was a bit much. I wasn’t planning on cooking anything else with it and didn’t want to waste it. The written recipe reflects the better proportion, but if you like dill, go for it. Add more. It’s no big dill. 😊
Mok Pa (Steamed Fish)
1 lb cod or other mild white fish (cubed)
2 stalks lemongrass (sliced)
2 shallots (sliced)
3-4 kaffir lime leaves (sliced) – optional
1 ½ tablespoon fish sauce
½ teaspoon MSG (optional)
3 cloves garlic
1-2 Thai chili
½ cup dill (rough chopped with stems)
a handful of Thai basil
1/3 cup sticky rice (soaked overnight)
1-2 tablespoon water (if needed)
• In mortar, pound lemongrass, shallots, lime leaves, chilies, garlic and rice until you get a sticky paste.
• Add fish sauce and MSG (if using). If the mixture is too dry, you may need to add water to the paste.
• Toss the paste with fish, dill and basil.
• Place about half a cup of the fish mixture in an 8×8 banana leaf square. If you are using frozen banana leaves, you will need aluminum foil underneath for support. Fold banana leave into parcels.
• Steam for 25-30 minutes.