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Spice It Up | Jacky’s Kitchen

As summer approaches, we want food that is lighter, although still healthy and sustaining. I lived for many years in south-east Asia and discovered that all those amazing Thai and Vietnamese dishes that we find in restaurants are often easier to make than we might think. By making them at home, we can also control the amount of heat in a dish- something that anyone who has eaten Thai food in Thailand will understand the importance of!

This month I’m giving you three of my favourite dishes that you can make easily at home to woo your family and guests. Asian meals tend not to be divided into courses, like European meals, but are composed of an array of smaller shared dishes designed to provide a range of tastes and textures- for example, a soup/stew/curry, a crisp, crunchy salad, a pickle, a fried dish, a steamed dish – usually accompanied by rice. Last Christmas, I was the guest of a family in Cape Town, and during my stay I offered to make some Asian dishes for my hosts. First I went shopping to make sure that I could get all the necessary ingredients; then I made the dishes I am presenting here, and which proved extremely popular with my friends.

Two of these dishes are from Thailand, and one from Vietnam. The main difference between Thai and Vietnamese cuisine lies in the amount of chilli used- Thais use a lot, Vietnamese less so, and prefer to add it separately, according to individual taste. The very specific Thai ‘taste’ comes from the flavours of lemongrass, makrut lime leaves, and galangal (a root of the ginger family), usually together in a spice blend with chilli, garlic, fish sauce and sugar. Coconut milk is used much more lavishly in Thailand than in Vietnam, too. While Vietnam also uses the same ingredients, it blends them differently and adds a lot of fresh herbs – as in Thailand it makes use of coriander, holy basil (a smaller -leafed, more aromatic herb than western basil) and mint, but adds others specific to the area.

The three dishes here are all authentic, easily recognised dishes for anyone who has visited Thailand or Vietnam or eaten in Thai or Vietnamese restaurants. The first, Thai fish cakes, or Tod Mun Pla, is a much-loved street food and restaurant staple of chewy fish patties with aromatic herbs and spices, dipped in a sweet, spicy sauce. The main course is also Thai- I’ve gone for a classic Thai green curry and jasmine rice, and I’ll show you how to make it look and taste authentic.

Finally, our third dish is a Vietnam classic- Bún Bò Xao, or “Bun Bo” salad.

Thai Fish Cakes

  • Prep: 30 minutes
  • Cook: 15 minutes
  • Serves 3-4 as a side dish/starter

For guidance, I like the You Tube Channel called Hot Thai Kitchen. If you would like to see a video of this being made, the link is here.


  • 350 g white sea fish (see note*)
  • 2-3 Tbsp red curry paste*
  • 1 egg yolk
  • 1 tsp sugar
  • ½ cup/100g long beans or French beans, very finely sliced
  • Handful basil leaves, sliced into ribbons if large
  • 5 makrut lime leaves*, finely julienned
  • Fish sauce*, as needed (taste mixture before adding!)
  • Coconut, sunflower or peanut oil for frying


  1. Any firm white fish fillets (no bones) will work. We used hake, which is probably the most abundant, reasonably priced fish. In Asia I would use Pangasius or Tilapia, but it depends on what you can get. If your fish is frozen, you need to thaw then dry it thoroughly before working with it.
  2. You can buy Thai red curry paste in supermarkets in SA. Try to get an authentic Thai brand like Mae Ploy or Aroy-D or a good quality supermarket own brand as a last resort. If red is not available, you can also use green curry paste.
  3. Makrut lime leaves are the leaves of a knobbly Asian lime fruit. They have a very distinctive, aromatic smell and taste. Frozen are best but if you can’t find those, dried can be substituted. Soften dried ones in a little water before chopping. If you can’t find them, try using the grated zest of 2 limes.
  4. Fish sauce is a common Asian ingredient. It is made from distilled anchovies with salt added. The best comes from Vietnam and should not contain sugar, but as this is difficult to find, there are more commonly exported sauces from Thailand such as Squid brand or Blue Dragon. These contain a miniscule amount of sugar but nothing else apart from anchovies, salt and water. Fish sauce smells very powerful but when added in small quantities to Asian dishes, it imparts a distinctive flavour that blends happily with other ingredients.

Sweet Chilli Dipping Sauce

(your own will always be better, but commercial bottled sauces are easily available).

  • 3 cloves garlic
  • 1 long chilli or another type of big red chili pepper that’s not too spicy
  • Thai birds-eye chilies to taste, optional
  • ½ cup/100g sugar
  • ½ tsp salt
  • ⅓ cup/75ml white vinegar, cane vinegar or rice vinegar
  • 3 Tbsp water
  • Cucumber slices for serving
  • Optional add-ins for the dipping sauce: roasted crushed peanuts, sliced shallots, toasted sesame seeds.

Let’s start with the dipping sauce:

  1. Place both chilies, garlic, vinegar, water, sugar and salt in a blender and blend until almost smooth. Use a low speed to blend so you still have chili seeds and chili pieces for a nicer visual.
  2. Pour the blended chilies into a small pot and bring to a simmer, then simmer for about 3-5 minutes or until it has the consistency of a thin syrup. The sauce will thicken as it cools, so if it is too thick once it is cool, you can add more water.
  3. Set aside until ready to use.

Tip: The dipping sauce, without the cucumber/shallots/peanuts, will last you months when kept sealed in the fridge, so only add the extras to as much of the dipping sauce as you will need for serving.

For the fish cakes:

  1. Combine the fish, curry paste, egg yolk and sugar in a food processor. Process until fine, scraping the sides as needed. Then keep processing for a few minutes longer until the fish is firm enough that it holds its shape well when spooned (see video). 

(If this is your first time, cook up a bit of the mixture to taste for salt and spiciness. If you want a stronger curry flavour or more spiciness, add more curry paste, keeping in mind that that also adds more saltiness. If you just want more saltiness, add a little fish sauce).

  1. Transfer the fish paste into a mixing bowl and add chopped green beans, basil and makrut lime leaves; stir until well combined.
  2. Get your station ready by having a bowl of cold water and some paper towel (for your hands) by the stove. Heat a skillet over medium heat until hot, then add just enough oil to coat the bottom of the skillet. Wet your hands and a tablespoon in the cold water, then scoop a heaping tablespoon of fish paste with the wet spoon and place in your hands. Gently pat the fish cakes to form into patties and place in a preheated skillet. Fry until browned on both sides, about 2 minutes per side. You may need to add more oil as you go.

Tip: it’s easier to form the cakes as you fry them, as opposed to pre-forming them all, because the mixture is quite soft and it’s hard to pick up a pre-formed cake. 

  1. To serve, stir cucumber slices, peanuts and shallots into the dipping sauce and serve with the fish cakes. You can also serve extra cucumber on the side as it goes so well with fresh cucumber. We served them on a bed of fresh herbs, but it’s your choice how to present them!

Thai Green Curry with Jasmine Rice

  • Prep: 10 minutes
  • Cook: 15 minutes approx (depending on protein used)
  • Serves: 2-3

Continuing the Thai theme, a green curry is a classic dish, but one which so often disappoints outside Thailand. To make it at home is not difficult, even if all the traditional ingredients cannot be found.

The key ingredients are:

  • 250g chicken breast/thigh, or prawns or tofu
  • 2-3 tbsps green curry paste (about 50g)
  • 1 tbsp coconut, peanut or sunflower oil
  • 400ml can of coconut milk (use light coconut milk for a lower calorie meal)
  • 1 aubergine/eggplant, cut into small cubes
  • 5 makrut lime leaves
  • Fish sauce
  • Handful of fresh basil leaves


  • 1 or 2 sticks lemongrass if you can find fresh, jarred or frozen (but not dry)
  • handful of green peppercorns
  • fresh birds-eye chillis to taste

Vegetarian version: use tofu as the main protein, and an optional addition would be some baby corn cobs, sliced diagonally lengthwise and/or a couple of handfuls of frozen peas or chopped fresh green beans.


Cut the chicken or tofu into bite-size chunks or peel and devein the prawns. Leave aside. On a separate board, cut the aubergine/eggplant into chunks, wash the basil and slice the lime leaves into strips by rolling them up into a cigar shape and cutting them across. Cut the lemongrass sticks in 2 and cut a slit in the bulb to release the flavour. Carefully shake the can of coconut milk then open it.

Start with the rice: measure out 80-100g dry rice per person and put in a saucepan. If you use a cup or measuring jug, add the same quantity of cold water. Bring to the boil for 2 minutes then turn the heat down low and cover.

Now put the oil in a wok or saucepan and when hot, add the curry paste. Don’t be tempted to put more than the stated amount of paste at this stage, as you can add heat later. On a medium heat, stir the paste into the oil for a minute, then add a third of the can of coconut milk. Keep stirring to blend until you get a smooth, pale green sauce, then add another third of a can of coconut milk. Now add your chicken or prawns and lemongrass (if used). Cook on a medium heat for 5-7 mins for chicken and 3 minutes for prawns, then add the rest of the coconut milk, the lime leaves, peppercorns and aubergine. Bring to a boil then reduce the heat to medium and cook for a further 5 minutes or until the chicken is cooked. The trick is to not to add the aubergine until the chicken/prawns are almost cooked, to avoid it going soggy. You want a good quantity of sauce, so if it seems too little, if it has been boiled for too long and liquid has evaporated, add a little water from a hot kettle.

(If using tofu, add this and all the vegetables together with the rest of the coconut milk, lime leaves and peppercorns for a shorter cooking time-5-7 mins max from the time it boils and you reduce the heat).

Test your rice, if the grains are al dente and the water has evaporated, it is ready. Turn off the heat and leave to stand for a few minutes.

Before serving, taste the curry sauce, add fish sauce and chillis to taste and serve over rice with chopped basil leaves scattered over.

NB: remove the lemongrass sticks before serving

Bun Bo Salad

  • Prep: 15 minutes
  • Cook: 5 minutes
  • Serves 3-4

This is a light, fresh dish with a great combination of flavours. The recipe calls for sirloin steak, but any cut that is tender enough for flash frying will do. In Vietnam it is usually made with pickled carrot and radish, and you can do this (chop carrots and radishes and steep in rice vinegar for at least 30 minutes) but fresh, crunchy (not jarred) bean sprouts and raw carrot spirals also work well. I also prefer a dressing of lime juice, fish sauce, sugar, garlic and chilli rather than the more fish sauce -flavoured “nước mắm pha” used in Vietnam.


  • 8 oz (about 250 grams) beef sirloin
  • 1 tbsp fish sauce
  • 1 clove of garlic, crushed
  • 1 tablespoon finely sliced fresh or frozen lemongrass (use only the tender centre of the white portion of the stalks)
  • 8 ounces (250 grams) rice vermicelli noodles, prepared according to package directions, then drained under cold water and cooled
  • 1/3 cup (80g) julienned cucumber
  • 1/3 cup (80g) julienned carrot (or put through a spiralizer to get thin strips)
  • ¾ cup (150g) fresh beans sprouts, washed and drained
  • 1 tablespoon peanut, coconut or sunflower oil
  • 2 cups fresh herbs, such as coriander, basil, mint, flat-leafed parsley or a combination of 2 or more
  • 1 tablespoon crushed roasted peanuts
  • Optional: 2 tablespoons fried crisp shallots (available in Asian stores)


  • Juice of one lime
  • ½ tsp sugar
  • 1 tbsp fish sauce (for the dressing)
  • 1 long red chilli (or 2 Thai birds-eye chillies), thinly sliced
  • 1 clove of garlic, finely chopped


  1. Cut the sirloin against the grain into slices a little less than a quarter of an inch thick. Then, cut each slice into chunks about 1/2-inch wide. Place into a medium bowl.
  2. Mix the beef chunks with the fish sauce, garlic, and lemongrass.
  3. Heat the oil to smoking point and stir-fry the beef for 2-3 minutes until seared but still pink inside (or longer according to preference). Remove from the heat and leave to cool.
  4. On a large serving dish arrange the rice noodles spread out to form a layer.
  5. Top with the cucumber, carrot and bean sprouts, distributing the ingredients evenly across the noodle layer.
  6. Add the beef chunks and spread out.
  7. Now top with the herbs, crushed peanut and fried shallots/onions.
  8. Mix together the lime juice, fish sauce, sugar, garlic and chilli and pour carefully over the salad to ensure even distribution. If it seems not enough, add a little more lime juice and fish sauce for a stronger flavour, or a little water to keep it milder.

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