Samui Wining & Dining
Something Fishy…

Pla ra is an essential ingredient in many Thai dishes. But what is it?


18Just taking the lid off a jar of pla ra in the presence of most Westerners will result in them running and gasping for air. But to a Thai person, particularly someone from the north-east of the country, it’s hard to imagine a meal that doesn’t include this pungent sauce.

      So what is pla ra exactly? Well, it’s basically a fermented fish sauce. It’s made by pickling fish, and although there are a few variations, the main ingredient is the snakehead fish. The fresh fish (yes, it actually starts off fresh) is cleaned and cut up into small pieces and then thrown into a big jar along with salt and rice bran before being covered with a wooden lid. There it lies for between three months and a year, slowly bubbling, brewing and fermenting itself into the (vile or delicious, depending on your taste) final product.

      Pla ra is commonly added to a number of preparations of Isaan dishes, the most common of which is som tam (spicy green papaya salad). It’s also used in certain types of nam phrik, as well as to some other dishes, all of them originally from the Isaan region of Thailand. Used as an ingredient to add a salty ‘smacks-of-the-sea’ flavour, it’s not too bad. But on its own, it’s pretty powerful indeed.

      In fact its powers extend beyond flavour, and a few Thai protesters have found another handy use for this potent-smelling concoction. In a recent move by police and redevelopment workers to evict vendors from a market in the Khlong Toei District in Bangkok, the local vendors barricaded themselves in to try to hang on to their turf and livelihood. During the scuffles that followed, the traders made ‘stink bombs’ with thin plastic bags filled with pla ra and hurled them at the police. This is not the only recorded instance of ‘pla ra stink bombs’. In February 2010, bags of excrement and pla ra were thrown at the Thai Prime Minister’s house.

      Afterwards, the perpetrator was arrested, confessed and claimed that he threw the stinky substance because he was fed up with police indifference to his complaints of people smoking cigarettes near his house. Whether his protest was effective or not, we don’t know. But it was enough for him to have his say.

     Those in the know say that with pla ra, it’s best not to follow your nose – kind of like durian. But apparently (we’ll take their word for it), once you acquire a taste for it, you’ll understand why it’s a local legend. You do however have to wonder who discovered pla ra and was brave enough to try it the first time!

      But pla ra lovers can now enjoy the stinky dish with pride, as the sauce, as well as som tam, have been registered as national treasures by the Culture Ministry in one of seven categories established to preserve the Kingdom of Thailand’s heritage and traditions. There are four other items in the food-related category – including green curry; general Thai curries; and various chilli sauces.

       Pla ra isn’t only made in Isaan, but sauce from this area is said to be the best, and Thai people on southbound busses and trains will often carry bottles of it for family and friends eagerly waiting for their gift from the north. Apparently, it’s an acquired taste – but that means eating it several times in order to let your taste buds get used to the fishy flavour, and your nose becomes immune to the pungent aroma. Thais could argue that blue cheese smells and tastes far worse – and they’d have a valid point. Yet for those that enjoy a strong cheese, there’s nothing nicer that some blue-vein cheese on crackers with a good glass of wine.

         When discussing the history of Thai cuisine, it’s hard to ignore pla ra. As Thailand has always had an abundant supply of fish, the earliest ways of preserving large catches was by salting, drying or fermenting. There are many ways to ‘enjoy’ pla ra, and it’s an essential condiment in Thai food, in much the same way that olive oil is to Italians. Pla ra will no doubt be at the top of the shopping list of most Thai ladies heading to the markets, and the stalls selling the fermented sauce are amongst the busiest.

         If you’ve brave enough to get past the initial shock wave of odour, you’re likely to develop a taste for this fishy delight. At least try it in a spicy bowl of som tam, where it’s somewhat toned down. Take it as a challenge or a dare, but it’s worth a try.


Rosanne Turner


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