KUALA LUMPUR, Feb 4 — Every January or February, when Chinese New Year beckons, I’d crack my head to figure out a new dish for the annual celebration. Not that there’s anything wrong with the classics — I love my yee sang (raw fish salad) and my nin gou (sweet glutinous rice cake) as much as everyone else — but it’s fun coming up with something new for the reunion dinner table.
Colour helps, of course. And red is huge during Chinese New Year as it symbolises prosperity. Who wouldn’t appreciate connotations of wealth and good luck for this coming Year of the Earth Dog?
Sweet, red watermelon comes to mind, and with that, one of the most delectable salads I’ve had anywhere in the world.
I first encountered this dish at Paste, a Michelin 1-star restaurant in Bangkok. Taking inspiration from traditional Thai family recipes of yesteryear, they serve a light but flavourful salad called pla salmon taengmo.
A mélange of watermelon, ground salmon with fried shallots and roasted galangal powder: their creative twist on a dish first served at the inauguration of the temple of the Emerald Buddha in the year 1809 of the reign of King Rama I.
Such simple ingredients but oh so flavourful!
You’d think such a dish would be as well known as pad Thai or mango sticky rice, yet many Thais I’ve spoken with had never tasted this dish before, especially the younger generation.
Typically called pla haeng taengmo, the original version is basically a mix of watermelon, dried fish floss and fried shallots.
Traditionally the fish used for the floss is snakehead fish (pla chado) — though obviously different types of fish can be used, just as how the chefs at Paste employed salmon.
The fish is dried and then has its bones and skin removed. Next it is crumbled and fried with sugar (and sometimes chilli paste) until the floss we are familiar with appears.
Sprinkled on top of slices or cubes of chilled watermelon, and you have an entrée or salad that is at once sweet, salty, aromatic, possibly spicy, juicy and absolutely refreshing. A feast for the tastebuds and a feast of good fortune for a prosperous new year!
THAI-STYLE PROSPERITY SALAD
While the Paste version uses roasted galangal powder, I’ve omitted that as it can be hard to find. The fewer the ingredients, the more the remaining ingredients get to shine. Fresh lime juice and nam pla (fish sauce) brings out a layer of umami in the watermelon.
For a bit of heat, some cut cili padi (bird’s eye chillies) can be added, but I’ve opted for the spicy version of the dried fish floss — one less ingredient to deal with, this way! To balance the extra heat, some fresh mint leaves helps cool things a little.
While dried fish floss is the traditional ingredient, I find adding some dried pork floss gives the dish a bit more substance and texture. An alternative is to add ground roast peanuts for some extra nuttiness, but it could well be gilding the lily at this point.
Half a medium-sized watermelon
Juice of 1 lime
1 teaspoon of fish sauce
A small bunch of mint leaves
Dried spicy fish floss; use to taste
Dried pork floss; use to taste
Fried shallots; use to taste
Slice the watermelon into bite-sized cubes. Toss the watermelon cubes well in a large mixing bowl with the lime juice and fish sauce. Set aside in the refrigerator for 5-10 minutes to allow the flavours marinate lightly.
For a more refined plating, place cubes of marinated watermelon on a large flat plate. Do not crowd the cubes. You may use several plates to use up the watermelon or simply use less than you’ve prepared (use the remainder in the salad bowl style described below). Place a single mint leaf on each of the watermelon cube. You may skip a few cubes so the plating is more assymetrical. Top each cube with some dried spicy fish floss and dried pork floss. Garnish the finished dish with fried shallots.
For a salad bowl style of serving, simply toss the marinated watermelon cubes in a large bowl with the mint leaves, dried spicy fish floss and dried pork floss. Garnish with fried shallots.
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