Fishy business at Paknam Market

ตลาดปากน้ำที่สมุทรปราการ | Paknam Market, Samut PrakanIn our quest to acquire good-quality dried squid for Mae, we decided to check out Paknam Market (ตลาดปากน้ำ) in Samut Prakan, just a 30-minute drive from our place and where the Chao Phraya River meets the Gulf of Thailand. Although we arrived quite late (around 10am) and activities were already winding down, hordes of workers were still hard at work at the unloading area; some workers were selecting and picking fish into baskets as fast as the catch was transferred to land, while a couple others were mending fishing nets.

We then popped over to the fresh market and I became more excited with each step I took. Outside, cars, pick-ups, taxis and the occasional tuk-tuk thronged the narrow one-way street, while inside the entire market was abuzz with sellers and buyers, and trucks and trolleys piled high with styrofoam boxes constantly barreled down the wet corridors (note: non-slip shoes are a must here). Much bigger than the usual fresh markets in Bangkok, the vast market was filled with an extraordinary array of fresh produce and seafood. Sellers were all smiles and quick to sing praises of their produce whenever we stopped to peruse the items on sale or take photos with our mobile phones.

Among the warrens of stores, there were fist-sized promfret lookalikes, which a vendor insisted make yummy dishes when deep-fried; crystalline crayfish lined up in neat rows; gleaming fish roes, a stall that sells only squid and octopuses, and even stingrays made an appearance here. I also learned more specific names of the various seafood types on display—whisker squid anyone? Furthermore, prices were clearly displayed and cheaper than the fresh markets I usually frequent, so I foresee we will be making more trips to Paknam Market to stock up our fridge in future. Meanwhile, I’m already dreaming of seafood grilling sessions in the great outdoors!

ตลาดปากน้ำที่สมุทรปราการ | Paknam Market, Samut Prakan

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Just as happy as a clam on a bed of spaghetti

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Hoi laai phat naam phrik phao (หอยลายผัดน้ำพริกเผา), or stir-fried clams with Thai roasted chilli paste, is a very common dish at khaao kaeng (mixed dishes) stalls in Thailand, but the serving size is typically quite small for my liking. When a seller scoops up a serving of the stir-fried clams onto a plate of rice, more often than not there will be at least one empty shell lurking among them, so actually you’re just getting more shell than meat. But of course, the essence of this dish also lies in its flavourful sauce; some people like to spoon steamed rice mixed with the briny juices.

Mr. P and I think that eating this dish particular outside home offers less value for money as compared with other dishes, but things are very different if you buy fresh baby clams and cook them on your own though. One kilogram of baby clams—it cost us about 70 baht from the fresh market—is more than enough to satiate two gluttons like us.

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I love looking at these lovely clams. It looks like Mother Nature has taken the time to paint criss-crossing lines on each single shell, so much so that in Thai they are known as hoi laai, or patterned shells. While cooking this dish requires very simple steps, preparation needs to start a bit earlier. Being the seabed-dwelling creatures they once were, these clams carry with them more than just a whiff of the ocean, so I usually soak the mollusc in water for at least an hour before cooking to ‘force’ them to spit out sand and gritty bits.

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Besides baby clams, to cook this Thai dish, other must-haves are roasted chilli paste (naam phrik phao) and sweet basil leaves (bai horapa). Together, these holy trio makes the most alluring combination—now who says three’s a company?—that my favourite naam phrik phao brand, Aroi-D, features the dish on its packaging (see above).

Once the stove is heated up, I look forward to stirring the clams in the skillet. As they bump into one another in the pan, they give out ‘kraek kraek’ sounds, and that’s when I’d conjure up images of a future pet dog at my feet, equally stirred by the smells and sounds from the wok. After a few minutes, the heat would have left its mark on the ingredients: not only would the basil leaves have released their fragrance, the clams would have opened up to reveal their inner goodness while their previously grey colouration with tinges of blue and greens would have given way to an irresistible shade of orange.

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Interestingly, this Thai dish also makes good company with spaghetti, giving me one more way to cook pasta. I got the inspiration when I visited a local Italian-Thai restaurant serving fusion food, with spaghetti stir-fried with clams as one of its signature dishes. Simply prepare spaghetti as per your usual method before topping the plate with the stir-fried shells. To me, the sauces seeping through the spaghetti strands, juices sitting on the opened shells, garlic bits and stir-fried basil leaves all come together to make a very pleasing and appetising sight.

Many empty shells later, we were as happy as a clam. Burp. 😉

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Hoi laai phat naam phrik phao | หอยลายผัดน้ำพริกเผา

Ingredients (serves 2)

500g baby clams (Manila clams work fine too)
1 cup horapa basil leaves, plucked
2-3 tbsp Thai roasted chilli paste
3-4 cloves of garlic, chopped
2-3 chillies, sliced
2 tbsp oil
1 tbsp fish sauce (optional)

Method
1. Soak the clams in water for at least 30 minutes, then wash the shells under running water, giving them a quick rub at the same time and discarding any with mud inside. Pluck the basil leaves off the stems, rinse them and set aside.
2. Pour oil onto a heated wok or skillet before adding the garlic. Fry the garlic until it turns a light golden. Add in the clams and stir-fry them for a few minutes. Once the clams start to open up, add Thai chilli paste and chillies, making sure the paste is evenly coated throughout the mixture. Give the sauce a quick taste, adding fish sauce if needed.
3. Finally, add in the basil leaves and stir-fry the mixture for about a minute of so. Turn off the heat.
4. Discard any unopened shell. Spoon the mixture onto steamed rice or cooked spaghetti. Serve.

Thai pineapple and mussel curry (แกงคั่วสับปะรดหอยแมลงภู่)

“The only time pineapples are acceptable in Thai food is in pineapple mussel curry (แกงคั่วสับปะรดหอยแมลงภู่; kaeng sapparot hoi malaeng phuu) or sweet and sour dish (ผัดเปรี้ยวหวาน; phat priaow waan),” said Mr. P insisted, who is adamant that fried rice and pineapples are a mismatch. “Pineapple fried rice are only seen on menus in MBK and places with lots of tourists. Have you seen your Thai gal friends ordering this dish before?”

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Of whales and pomfrets

The flood alarm has been sounded for Bangkok for close to a month already. We were initially rather frugal with our meals, trying our best not to use too many ingredients lest we were struck by the rising waters. But three weeks of waiting for the ‘giant whales’ to descend upon our neighborhood (still a if and when at point of writing) have taken its toll on us; we were getting restless at home so we decided to make better use of our weekends at home by attempting to cook new dishes. Mr. P had been craving for fish for several days so we made a trip to the nearby Udomsuk fresh market, zeroed in on our favorite seafood stall and chose one fortunate pomfret to be our guest at home. (Side note: We were pleasantly surprised that fresh produce were still in abundance. A fruit vendor in the neighbourhood told us the week before that his supplies were running low as it was becoming harder to secure fruits from the Rangsit wholesale market—the area is currently flooded.)

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Stir-fried Squid with Salted Eggs (ปลาหมึกผัดไข่เค็ม)

It’s always hard to resist the fresh, lovely squids on offer at the Udomsuk market near home. There are squids of varying sizes and hues, nestling amongst baskets of crushed ice. With prices averaging around 180 baht per kilogram, squids—and other seafood—at this market are quite a good deal. Mr. P and I usually walk one round around the market to inspect the day’s offers before deciding on which stall to make purchases from.

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The Omnipresent Thai Sauce: Naam Phrik Phao

I’m starting to discover the wonders of naam phrik phao (นำ้พริกเผา), a type of Thai chilli paste made by dry-roasting and pounding dried chillies with shrimp paste, dried shrimps, palm sugar and fish sauce. A very versatile sauce in Thai cooking, its uses range from flavouring soups to complementing omelettes to being a jam spread on toast (never tried that!).

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