Whole Fried Snapper with Cashew Nuoc Cham

Crispy snapper is paired with a roasted cashew nuoc cham dipping sauce, and served with rice paper wrappers, cucumbers, and herbs in this centerpiece-worthy dish.

Whole Fried Snapper with Cashew Nuoc Cham

Victor Protasio / Food Styling by Margaret Monroe Dickey / Prop Styling by Jillian Knox

Active Time:
1 hr 15 mins
Total Time:
1 hr 30 mins
2 to 4 servings

This whole fried snapper is a dramatic main course. Chef Diep Tran serves it with tender lettuce leaves, sliced cucumber, fresh assorted herbs like Thai basil, cilantro, rau ram, perilla, and mint, plus rice paper for each diner to use to wrap the fish and vegetables into individual rice paper rolls. Dip the rolls into Tran’s excellent nuoc cham, made with roasted cashews. To grind cashews, place them in a spice grinder, and process until they are finely ground but not paste-like, about 30 seconds.


Cashew Nuoc Cham

  • 2 fresh red Thai chiles

  • 3 tablespoons minced garlic (about 10 garlic cloves), divided

  • 1 tablespoon unsalted butter

  • 1 cup water

  • 1/4 cup granulated sugar

  • 2 tablespoons fish sauce (such as Red Boat)

  • 2 tablespoons distilled white vinegar

  • 3 tablespoons ground unsalted roasted cashews, divided (see Note)


  • 1/2 cup coarse sea salt

  • 6 tablespoons fresh lime juice (from 3 limes)

  • 1 (1-inch) piece fresh ginger, peeled and grated (about 1 teaspoon)

  • 1 (2-pound) whole snapper, cleaned

  • 3/4 teaspoon black pepper

  • 1 cup potato starch (about 6 3/4 ounces)

  • Grapeseed oil, for frying

Additional ingredients

  • 1 (3 1/2-ounce) bunch scallions

  • 1 (8-ounce) head lettuce (preferably oakleaf or Bibb)

  • 2 small (2 1/2-ounce) Persian cucumbers (unseeded), cut into 3- x 1/3- x 1/3-inch sticks

  • 3 small bunches assorted fresh herbs (such as Thai basil, cilantro, rau ram, perilla, and mint [preferably Thai mint]) 

  • 1 (8-ounce) package 6-inch round rice paper sheets


Make the cashew nuoc cham:

  1. Remove stems of chiles, and discard. Shake out seeds, and reserve in a small bowl. Finely chop remaining flesh of chiles, and set aside. Cook 2 tablespoons minced garlic and butter in a small saucepan over medium, stirring constantly, until garlic is fragrant, about 1 minute. Add 1 cup water, sugar, fish sauce, vinegar, reserved chile seeds, and 1 tablespoon ground cashews. Bring mixture to a boil over medium-high. Boil, stirring occasionally, until sugar has dissolved and mixture is well combined, about 3 minutes. Remove from heat. Carefully pour mixture into a blender. Secure lid on blender, and remove center piece to allow steam to escape. Place a clean towel over opening. Process until smooth, 30 to 45 seconds.

  2. Whisk minced chile flesh, remaining 1 tablespoon minced garlic, and remaining 2 tablespoons ground cashews into mixture in blender. Transfer cashew nuoc cham to a 16-ounce jar; seal jar, and refrigerate until ready to use. (The nuoc cham will separate as it sits, which is fine.)

Make the Snapper:

  1. Stir together salt, lime juice, and grated ginger in a small bowl; set aside.

  2. To score the snapper, lay the fish flat on a cutting board with the head facing your nondominant hand. Using your dominant hand, make vertical cuts (just until the knife hits the bone) 1 1/2 inches apart down the length of the fish. Make 1 long (1/2-inch-deep) cut down the length of the backbone, from nape to tail, cutting as close to the backbone as possible. Flip snapper over, and repeat scoring procedure.

  3. Place fish on a baking sheet. Rub salt-lime mixture all over exterior, interior, and scored cuts of fish. Refrigerate, uncovered, 20 minutes.

  4.  Meanwhile, thinly slice scallions into 3-inch-long strips. Place in a medium bowl filled with ice water; let stand until slightly curled and firm, about 30 minutes or until ready to serve.

  5. Rinse fish under cool water. Pat dry with paper towels, and place on a clean baking sheet. Sprinkle both sides of fish evenly with black pepper. Sprinkle potato starch all over fish to cover its entire surface, including the flesh between the score marks. Using your hands, press starch into flesh of fish to ensure it adheres well.

  6. Fill a Dutch oven (at least 12 inches wide) with grapeseed oil to a depth of 2 inches. Heat oil over medium-high until it reaches 375°F. Using 2 pairs of tongs, hold the head and tail of the fish so it curves slightly, and slowly and carefully lower the fish, belly first, into hot oil. Fry fish until golden, 10 to 12 minutes, using a soup ladle to continuously baste hot oil over the area of the fish that’s above the oil line. Using tongs, transfer fried fish to a wire rack fitted inside a baking sheet. Let fish drain at room temperature until ready to serve.

  7. Drain scallions. Stir cashew nuoc cham, and pour about 1/4 cup into each individual dipping bowl. (Reserve remaining cashew nuoc cham for another use.) Transfer snapper to a large platter. Place dipping bowls around snapper on platter, along with mounds of lettuce, cucumbers, scallions, and herbs. Fill a medium bowl with warm water for moistening the rice paper. Place rice paper sheets in a stack on a plate next to bowl with warm water. To serve, dip 1 rice paper sheet into warm water, and gently hold in water until just softened, 20 to 30 seconds. Spoon some of the snapper onto softened rice paper; top with lettuce, cucumbers, scallions, and herbs. Either spoon cashew nuoc cham over snapper in rice paper, or roll rice paper around fish and vegetables, and dip into cashew nuoc cham.

To Make Ahead

Cashew nuoc cham can be made up to 1 day in advance. Store in an airtight container in refrigerator; whisk well to re-combine before serving.

Suggested Pairing

Bright, light-bodied white: Ovum Big Salt Oregon White Blend

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