An Important Seasoning of Isaan
Plara (or in the Isaan language, pla-daek or pla-noi) is a food local to Laos, parts of Vietnam, and the northeast region of Thailand (also called Isaan). It is usually made from small freshwater fish such as the Siamese mud carp or gourami, which, have been mixed with rice bran and salt and then packaged in jars to ferment for around 7-8. Some locals even prefer to ferment the fish till worms grow inside so as to enhance the flavor!
Plara or pla-daek is a staple food and the most important seasoning in Isaan culture. 50 years ago, every family of farmers made their own plara. Whether they made a lot or a little depended on the amount of rain and the bounty of fish. Making plara was a way to conserve fish by fermenting it for consumption during the off-season.
Original style plara from Isaanincludes two types:plarakhao-khuaand plara ram. Plarakhao-khua (khao-khua means roasted rice) is made from fish fermented with salt and roasted rice, creating a slushy product with tender meat, rich yellow color and a fragrant aroma. Types of fresh fish popularly used to make plarakhao-khuainclude medium or large-sized fish such as gourami, snakeskin gourami, tilapia, and catfish.
Plara ram is made from fish fermented with salt and rice bran, or rice bran mixed with roasted rice. It is dark in color. The flesh of the fish isn’t overly tender. It smells stronger than plarakhao-khua. Usually small fish are used, such as Siamese mud carp, minnows, or small gourami.Plara ram is the kind of plara most commonly consumed by Isaan people.
Plaracan be used to season many kinds of food, from chili sauces to stews; it can be fried, steamed, or roasted; depending on the size of the fish, it can be boiled with water then strained to make plara sauce, an important seasoning in Isaan cooking. One foodcommonly cooked with plaraissom-tam (papaya salad). Som-tam with plara is called som-tam lao (Laotian style papaya salad) or simply som-tam plara, which is contrast to the traditional Thai style som-tam, which has dried shrimp and is som-tam thai.
Indications of plaraquality include its nutritional value, flavor, aroma, and color. Nutritionists agree that when compared with other types of fermented foods such aspla-jom(pickled fish), pla-som-fak(fish chopped with rice then pickled), or ga-bi (shrimp paste), plara is relatively high in nutritional value in respect to protein, fat, and minerals. This is especially true with plara made fromsnake-head fish. As for taste, aroma, and color, these depend on the proportions of fish and salt, as well as the temperature at which the plara is fermented. If salt is portioned correctly, the fish won’t spoil. If rock salt is used, the fish will be firm and red. To give it a good aroma and to prevent over-saltiness, fresh, high quality roasted rice or rice bran should be used. Isaan people will label the plara differently depending on the quality of its flavor and smell. For example: pla-daek-hom for fragrant plara made from large fish, pla-daek-nuaor pla-daek-tuang for savory plara made from medium size fish, and pla-daeknongfor plara with a rank smell made from small fish.
Plara fermented longer than three months will have a good flavor. If a large striped snake-head fish is used, it can take up to one year. Consumers don’t have to worry about food poisoning though because nutritionists believe that the amount of salt used is more than enough to prevent the growth of microorganisms which would spoil the food. So if made from clean, fresh fish, good rock salt, and in the proper container,plara will be safe. Research has shown thatplarawhich has fermented more than three months, will be free of parasites and safe for consumption, regardless of whether the plara is eaten raw or cooked.