Mastering Thai cooking with Jet Tila

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A catfish raft can be made of any freshwater or white fish. Jet Tila cheats by cooking and drying out the fish in the microwave. Photo courtesy of Page Street Publishing.

Chef Jet Tila describes the principles of yum, the balance of five flavors — hot, sour, salty, sweet, savory. How is yum achieved in Thai cooking? Fish sauce, palm sugar, an acid like rice vinegar or lime, and Thai chiles create the perfect balance. “We’re finally at this point where anyone in America can find curry paste,” says Chef Jet Tila. He suggests Mae Ploy, Maesri, or Mae Anong brands, which are widely used by Thai restaurants.

Tila also describes techniques for drying beef jerky and the dish known as a catfish raft, which he dubs “one of the most perfect Thai salad dishes.” Known as “Yum Pla Duk Foo” in Thai, the dish is translated to “fluffy catfish.” Tila’s latest cookbook is “101 Thai Dishes to Cook Before You Die.”

Crispy Catfish Raft Salad with Green Mango (Yum Pla Duk Foo)
Makes 2 servings 

I like to call this dish a catfish raft because of the airy and crispy puck of catfish that’s suspended over the spicy, sour and sweet mango sauce. It took me years to figure out how to make this, and it's one of my favorite ways to prepare fish because it looks nothing like seafood. You can substitute the catfish with any flaky white meat fish like tilapia, halibut or even mahi-mahi.


  • ¼ cup (60 ml) fish sauce
  • ¼ cup (60 ml) fresh lime juice
  • ¼ cup (55 g) palm sugar or brown sugar
  • 1 clove garlic, finely minced
  • 1–2 fresh Thai chilies, minced
  • ½ sour mango (about 4 oz[113 g]), julienned
  • ½ cup (60 g) Chinese celery or regular celery leaves, cut into 2-inch (5-cm) pieces
  • 1 cup (110 g) green apples,julienned
  • ½ cup (4 g) cilantro leaves
  • ½ cup (55 g) roasted cashews or peanuts, roughly chopped
  • 1 lb (454 g) catfish fillet
  • 2 tsp (10 g) kosher salt
  • Canola or other high-temperature cooking oil, for frying


  1. First, mix the ingredients for the yum dressing in a small bowl. Taste, and adjust any of the amounts if you’d like. 
  2. For the salad, wash and prepare the mango, celery, green apple and cilantro, and place them in a large bowl. Pour the dressing over the mango mixture and toss well to coat with the dressing. Set aside to macerate. 
  3. Season the fish with the salt and place it in a microwave-safe dish. Cover the dish with plastic wrap and microwave on high for 6 minutes. This will steam the fish. Remove the dish from the microwave and transfer the cooked fish to a clean kitchen towel, leaving the liquid in the dish. Twist the towel in opposite directions to wring out all the moisture so the fish is dry. Transfer the fish to a mortar and pound it to separate the muscle fibers. It should look like dry, fluffy threads and small bits of fish.
  4. Add enough oil to fill one quarter of a high-sided pot. Preheat the oil to 375°F (190°C). The bubbling oil will expand significantly, so be sure to only fill the pot about a quarter full, leaving several inches of room. Set out a sheet pan with a wire rack or paper towels.
  5. Divide the fish into three portions. Put the first third into a spider or a small bowl. When the oil has reached temperature, take a pot lid in one hand as a shield and use the other hand to carefully scatter the fish evenly across the hot oil. If the oil threatens to overflow the pot, pause on adding more fish until the bubbles subside a bit.
  6. With a slotted spoon or spider, gently loosen the raft from the sides of the pan so it can float freely. When it is a light golden brown, flip the raft over to crisp the bottom. When it is golden brown on both sides, remove it with the slotted spoon or spider, drain well over the pot, then transfer to the wire rack or paper towels.
  7. Let the oil come up to temperature again and repeat with the remaining fish. Serve immediately over the mango salad and garnished with the cashews.

Jet Tila’s Thai desert island dish is a Northern pork belly curry (Gaeng Hung Lay Moo), a recipe his grandmother made which is included in his latest cookbook, “101 Thai Dishes To Cook Before You Die.” Photo courtesy of Page Street Publishing.