A Vietnam War refugee who grew up in France, chef David Thai prepares Vietnamese dishes with classic French technique at Ana Mandara, mixing in flavors from all over Asia. He spikes these crispy and incredibly light fish cakes, for instance, with Thai red curry paste, but serves them in the typical Vietnamese "table salad" style: He lets guests wrap the cakes in lettuce leaves with fresh herb sprigs, cucumbers and mung beans, and he passes a pungent dipping sauce alongside.
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2 1/2 tablespoons vegetable oil, plus more for frying
4 large eggs, lightly beaten
2 1/2 tablespoons Thai red curry paste
2 tablespoons sugar
1 1/2 tablespoons Asian fish sauce
1 large shallot, thinly sliced
7 large garlic cloves, 1 minced, 6 thinly sliced
2 pounds skinless halibut or cod fillet, finely chopped by hand (about 3 cups)
1 1/4 cups fine dry bread crumbs
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground white pepper
1 large head of green leaf lettuce, separated into leaves
1 large cucumber, peeled and thinly sliced
1 bunch of mint, separated into small sprigs and large leaves
1 bunch of basil, separated into small sprigs and large leaves
1 bunch of cilantro, separated into small sprigs and large leaves
In a food processor, combine the 2 1/2 tablespoons of vegetable oil with the eggs, red curry paste, sugar, fish sauce, shallot, the minced garlic cloves and 1/2 cup of the chopped halibut and process until a fairly smooth paste forms.
Put the remaining chopped halibut in a large bowl. Add the fish paste, 1/4 cup of the bread crumbs and the white pepper and stir to combine thoroughly. Cover the mixture and refrigerate until chilled, at least 1 hour or overnight.
In a medium saucepan, heat 1/4 inch of oil until shimmering. Add the sliced garlic cloves and cook over moderately low heat until golden brown and crisp, about 3 minutes. With a slotted spoon, transfer the garlic to a small plate.
Add enough oil to the pan to reach 2 inches up the sides and heat the oil to 300°. Meanwhile, spread the remaining 1 cup of bread crumbs in a shallow bowl. With your hands, gently form the fish mixture into 18 oval cakes. Dredge the cakes in the bread crumbs until lightly coated. Set a wire rack over a large baking sheet.
Fry 4 fish cakes at a time, turning them a few times, until browned and crisp, about 3 minutes. Adjust the heat to keep the oil at 300°. Drain the fish cakes on a wire rack set over a large baking sheet. Transfer the fish cakes to a platter and sprinkle the fried garlic chips on top.
Arrange the lettuce leaves, cucumber and herbs on a large platter. Put the bean sprouts and Nuoc Cham Sauce in separate bowls. Place a fish cake in a lettuce leaf, add a few slices of cucumber, herb sprigs and bean sprouts and roll up to make a package. Dip in the Nuoc Cham and eat.
The fish cake mixture can be refrigerated overnight.
The spicy red curry paste in these cakes needs a white wine with some heft and richness, which the French grape variety Viognier tends to take on when it's grown in California's warm climate.
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