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By May 30, 2015 , ,

Australia has a love affair with Thailand, and who doesn't? From affordable holidays, beautiful beaches, rich culture to some of the most amazing food ever, Thailand leaves us wanting more. For those of us currently stuck in the depths of winter, we are just craving for a taste of tropical, perhaps delivered through some spicy and aromatic Thai dish. Luckily, there are various places in Melbourne offering up some of the best Thai dishes I've ever had. From the authentic to fusion dishes dreamed up by the culinary geniuses, choices are aplenty. Yet, none of them beats Chin Chin at its game. The famous restaurant and bar in Flinders Lane have achieved some sort of cult status among foodies. It is well-known for not taking reservations, which means that on Friday nights and weekends, you can expect to wait up to 2.5 hours for a table. If you've haven't been there, it is worth the wait. However, standing in the cold outside the restaurant after a particularly long week did not appeal to me on this Friday night. So, what's a girl got to do when she's got that Chin Chin craving?

Recreate its signature dish!

Luckily for me, the dish that I craved for happens to be salmon wrapped in banana leaf, which is simpler than most on the menu. In my younger days in Malaysia, I've had similar dishes, mostly stingray fillet or shark. Salmon is expensive in Malaysia. On the contrary, I believe school sharks and stingray is expensive in Australia.

A quick search on the internet revealed the recipe, published on The Age's Good Food website. Praise for the internet! It turns out I'm already well-stocked on most of the sauces needed for the dish, except for banana leaves. Oh, it is times like this that I wish I am back in Malaysia again, where I can just trot down to my next door *mak cik's house and grab a few bunches of the leaves - Banana trees are the equivalent of a herb garden there. Again, I am so thankful to be living in such a multi-cultural city, and happen to be living in the suburb with highest concentration of South East Asians. So, a trip to the Asian grocer and I got my banana leaves.

*Translate: Mak Cik = A term for an elderly Malay woman, in a respectful manner.

While technically I didn't have to jump through hoops to get the banana leaves, I was so happy to find them...because the dish will not be the same if it is wrapped in aluminium foil or baking paper. When grilled, the banana leaf also gives a nice flavour to whatever you are cooking. In this case, salmon.

Preparing the red curry topping was relatively easy. While the recipe provided detailed instructions for homemade red curry sauce and chilli jam, I went the convenient route of purchasing red curry paste and whatever Thai chilli jam I have at home. The first step is to stir-fry the red curry paste: Add some coconut cream, a dash of fish sauce, kaffir lime leaves for aroma, and then place the curry/chilli sauce on the banana leaves. Save some to place on top of your salmon fillet, then it's time to wrap the fish in banana leaves to form a parcel...something which I failed spectacularly. Well, it did sort of stay together, but it wasn't visually appealing and the toothpicks were all wonky. So, here's a picture before all the wrapping situation happened instead:

Maybe you guys have some pointers for banana leaf wrapping? Maybe I need to do an internship with the makcik at the Ramadan market.

So, the recipe says to marinade the fish in the banana leaf package overnight or for a few hours, but I have never been a patient person. That, and **Steve was about to come home and be like: "me want dinner!" cave man style... so in the oven my little banana leaf packages went. If you have a grill, these packages will cook beautifully on it while the beautiful aroma of banana leaf and all the spicy, fragrant herbs fill up your backyard. Beware though, you're technically burning leaves here so expect lots of smoke. But I don't have a grill, so I just cranked up the oven to 250C on grill mode and hoped for the best.

While the fish was cooking, I realised I only had 15 minutes maximum to cook the rice because the fish would be cooked through by then. So I quickly made some rice over the stovetop, because our home brand rice cooker broke and we never replaced it.

While the rice was bubbling away, I started thinking about how to plate up my dish. It's crunch time! Round plates, square plates? What about the rice? I need a mould to make that perfect half-circle rice! Oh god the fish is almost ready. Oh no Steve is back! "Hey baby! Don't talk to me now I'm busy!" "Me want food.." The rice is going to burn if I don't take it off the stovetop now. The fish needs to come out of the oven now. NOW!

Yea I will never survive in the Masterchef kitchen, or any other commercial kitchen for that matter. But I do love the adrenaline and the anticipation of what I've created.

It's worth it.

Chin Chin's version comes with rich coconut cream slathered over the top of the fish to take the sting out of the chilli. But for some reason my $1 canned coconut cream is separated - It had a watery layer and a solid layer, kind of like yoghurt gone bad, so I used coconut milk instead. But the damned coconut milk didn't stay on top and drip all the way down instead. Otherwise, it tasted pretty similar to Chin Chin's version - spicy but slightly sweet and very aromatic. It would've tasted even better if I marinade it overnight. But, priorities.

I love how rustic it looks. Perhaps this will be the way I serve up all my food from now on. Please don't let my rumblings scare you off from making this dish. It only took me 1 hour at most from prepping the ingredient to serving up. That's quicker than making the trip to Chin Chin...and you can't watch Shrek 2 if you are at Chin Chin. But don't let the wait stop you though. There are many other dishes worth trying...then recreate it at home.

**Steve doesn't really do that. He always offer...to get takeaways.

Salmon Wrapped in Banana Leaves - for 2 pax

(Adapted from Chin Chin's recipe on the Good Food website)
Note: The recipe provided is detailed. But I just used the age-old agak-agak method passed down from my grandmother and my mother. This means exercise your own judgment and instinct on how much ingredient to use. In my case, I used much less oil, sugar and oyster sauce.

Some vegetable oil
1/3 cup red curry paste (I used store-bought red curry paste)
2 kaffir lime leaves, julienned
20g palm sugar (I used brown sugar)
1/4 cup shredded coconut (check the health food or baking section of Woolies or Coles)
3 tbsp chilli jam (I used store-bought nam prik pao)
1/2 cup coconut cream
1/2 tbsp fish sauce
1/2 tbsp oyster sauce
2 sprigs Thai basil, leaves picked
Enough banana leaves to wrap the salmon, wiped clean and cut into 2 rectangles.
2x salmon fillets

If you want to make your own chilli jam and curry paste, here is the recipe.


1. Heat the oil in a heavy-based pot, add the curry paste and three-quarters of the lime leaves and cook, stirring, until fragrant. Add the brown sugar and cook until caramelised. Add the coconut, chilli jam and the coconut cream. Stir to combine.

2. Bring to boil then add the fish sauce and oyster sauce gradually, tasting for seasoning. Add basil and continue to cook until the paste becomes quite dry and dense, almost like mashed potato. Be careful it doesn't become too dry or it will burn when you barbecue the salmon.

3. Lay the banana leaves on the bench, shiny-side down. Divide half the curry paste among the rectangles and spread it out evenly as a base for the fish. Place the salmon on top, then spoon over the remaining curry paste. Fold the banana leaf over the top, then fold in the ends and sides to form a parcel. Secure with toothpicks. Repeat with the other parcel.

4. Leave it in the fridge for a few hours or overnight to marinade... or not, up to you.

5. To cook, remove the parcels from the fridge and allow them to warm slight to room temperature. Place parcels on a grill on medium heat, cover then cook for 10-15 minutes until the salmon is done. Option: You could also cook it in a 250C oven for the same amount of time.

6. Remove from heat and open the parcels. Garnish with remaining coconut cream  and lime leaf.

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