Thai Fish Cakes, or Tod Mun Pla, are loaded with the flavors of lemongrass, cilantro, and hot chiles. This recipe uses Thai curry paste, which provides layers of flavor without requiring a ton of ingredients.
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When I eat at Thai restaurants, I always order Thai fish cakes or tod mun pla. The savory patties are intensely flavored with all the Thai ingredients I love—lemongrass, cilantro, chiles, and fish sauce. But one order is never enough!
It turns out that Thai fish cakes are really easy to make at home and they don’t even require a lot of special ingredients. You can even shallow fry them in a regular skillet using just about ½ cup of oil rather than deep frying them.
What do Thai fish cakes taste like?
Thai fish cakes are made with mild white fish that is ground to a paste along with seasonings including Thai curry paste, cilantro, and fish sauce. They are usually also studded with thinly sliced green beans for a bit of textural contrast.
The curry paste is the strongest flavor element, giving the fish cakes complex flavor layers from spicy chiles to fruity makrut lime peel and herby lemongrass.
If you love the flavors of Thai curries, you will love this easy Thai fish cakes recipe!
What ingredients do you need?
A lot of Thai cooking requires long lists of ingredients, but not this easy recipe! Here’s what you need:
- White fish (cod, catfish, haddock, pollock, grouper, snapper, etc.)
- Thai curry paste (red or green)
- Egg white
- Makrut lime leaves (these are optional)
- Fish sauce
- Brown sugar (or palm sugar)
- Green beans (Chinese long beans or regular green beans, such as blue lake beans)
- Cooking oil
How do you make them?
These thai fish cakes are surprisingly easy to make! Here are the steps:
- In a food processor, combine the fish, cilantro, curry paste, lime leaves (optional), fish sauce, and sugar and pulse to purée the mixture into a sticky paste.
- Add a little cornstarch and pulse to incorporate.
- Stir in the sliced green beans.
- Heat about ½-inch of oil in a skillet over medium-high heat.
- Form the paste into patties about 2 ½ to 3 inches across and about ½-inch thick.
- Fry the patties for a minute or two on each side, until crisp and deep golden brown.
- Drain on a paper towel-lined plate and serve hot with Prik Nam Pla or Sweet Thai Chili Dipping Sauce.
What do you serve them with?
In restaurants, you’ll usually see Tod Mun Pla or fish cakes as an appetizer. But when I make them at home, we usually have them as an entrée for dinner.
I offer Prik Nam PLa or a Sweet Thai Chili Dipping Sauce or store-bought Sweet Chili Sauce alongside, as well as steamed rice or sticky rice and a simple vegetable. In my house, more often than not, this means steamed broccoli.
The fish cakes are so flavorful that simple sides are all you need.
About Thai curry paste
Thai curry paste is a mixture of chiles, herbs, garlic, shallots, galangal, and usually shrimp paste. You can keep curry paste in your refrigerator and always have the makings of a complexly flavored Thai meal at the ready.
There are many different types of Thai curry paste, but the ones you’ll see most often fall into the categories of red curry paste, green curry paste, and yellow curry paste. These all share some common ingredients but get their unique colors, along with different flavors and heat levels, by incorporating different ingredients.
Red curry paste, which is usually considered the hottest of the Thai curry pastes, gets its color from a base of dried red chiles. It also usually includes garlic, shallots, lemongrass, galangal, makrut lime leaves or zest, and shrimp paste.
Green curry paste gets its color from fresh green chiles and is generally milder and sweeter than red curry paste. It also usually includes garlic, galangal, lemongrass, makrut lime zest or leaves and shrimp paste. Green curry paste also usually includes cumin, coriander seed, and turmeric.
Yellow curry paste is the mildest of the three. It uses yellow chiles as well as turmeric as a primary ingredient, which gives it a bright yellow color. Other ingredients include lemongrass, galangal, shallots, makrut lime peel, and spices like coriander seeds, cumin, cinnamon, mace, and cardamom.
What are the best brands of Thai curry paste?
Mae Ploy curry pastes come in a plastic tub, making it easy to tuck what you don’t use into your refrigerator for use in other recipes.
Maesri curry pastes come in cans, so you’ll have to transfer any extra to a jar or tub that is suitable for refrigerator storing.
I personally love Mae Ploy curry pastes because I find the packaging convenient and the flavors bright, spicy, and delicious. Both Mae Ploy and Maesri are good quality products that will deliver tons of flavor to your Thai cooking.
If you don’t have an Asian market nearby, you can still likely find Thai curry paste in a regular supermarket. The Thai Kitchen brand is widely available. This brand has good flavor, though it is much less spicy than either the Mae Ploy or Maesri brands or others that you’ll find in specialty markets.
What are makrut lime leaves?
Most Thai curry pastes that you can buy have makrut lime peel (often called kaffir lime peel, see below) in them. Many Thai recipes also call for makrut lime leaves. So what are they?
Makrut limes look like very bumpy limes. They are used for their zest or peels and the leaves of the tree are used as an herb in many Southeast Asian cuisines, similar to the way bay leaves are used in other cuisines.
The distinctive flavor of both the peel and zest is a common element in many Southeast Asian dishes. The flavor is bright and citrus-y. It also has a floral element that distinguishes it from the limes and lemons we are used to in the west.
The whole leaves can be purchased fresh or frozen. They can be tough to find in US markets, though, so whenever I see them, I buy a bunch and stock up.
I store the fresh ones in resealable plastic bags in the refrigerator (they last forever) or buy them frozen and keep them in the freezer.
You can also grow makrut limes in your own garden. Here in California, citrus is easy to grow and makrut lime trees are no different. The leaves can be harvested and used year-round.
Why are they sometimes called makrut limes and sometimes called kaffir limes?
For years, most recipe developers and writers in the West referred to this fruit as “kaffir lime.” Now it is becoming more common to call it “makrut lime.” It turns out that “kaffir” is a highly offensive racial slur in some parts of the world, so it’s time to stop using it.
According to an article on slate.com, “The Arabic word kafir was originally used to refer to non-Muslims, but over the centuries it was adopted by white colonialists to describe black Africans.”
Slate goes on to say that “By the 20th century, kaffir was widely understood to be a slur, and its power to insult and offend only grew in apartheid-era South Africa.”
Some have theorized that the name was used for this “ugly” fruit as an unfavorable comparison to black people.
But there is also an ethnic group in Sri Lanka known as Kaffir. And the name was used to refer to limes found in Sri Lanka in the late 19th century.
So the question is, is the name kaffir lime derived from the racial slur, or is the fruit named after Sri Lankan Kaffirs?
We’ll probably never know the answer. But because the word “kaffir” is offensive to some, we should all simply stop using it.
In Southeast Asia, the fruit is generally known by its proper name, Makrut lime, so let’s just call it that from now on!