Many of the recipes I develop for The Takeout come from the the dark, terrifying recesses of my own brain, plucked from the nooks and crannies that exist between things like commercial jingles from the 1980s and the important dates I was forced to memorize in high school history class. But sometimes I get a chance to use my culinary skills to make someone’s dreams come true, and in this case, those dreams belong to Marnie, The Takeout’s intrepid editor in chief. During one of our meetings, she began waxing poetic about a fish dish at Chicago’s In-On Thai that she couldn’t stop dreaming of. And what is my job if not to make people’s wildest, fishiest dreams come true?
This dish is called Fish with Three Flavors Spicy Sauce, and after making a version of it myself, I can completely understand Marnie’s obsession. It’s so simple to make, yet with a flavor so big and boisterous you can barely believe the ease of preparation. I made this using frozen cod, but it’s just as good with shrimp, chicken, tofu, or any vegetables you have on hand.
While futzing around during the recipe testing process, I stumbled upon a nifty new trick I’m going to be utilizing a lot more in my kitchen. As I’ve mentioned recently, I’m kinda in love with my new air fryer, and have been experimenting with it like mad. I had bought Thai basil to use in this recipe, and once I’d used the few leaves I needed in the sauce, I was left with a big bunch of basil that was going to go bad in days and no way to use it. So, I decided to throw it all in the air fryer—since air fryers are just tiny convection ovens, I figured this would be a nice shortcut to making potent dried herbs to keep in my pantry. Exciting discovery number one: With an air fryer, you can dry out a large amount of basil in less than two minutes. Exciting discovery number two: Not only is the resulting dried basil ultra flavorful (seriously, store bought has nothing on the D.I.Y. version), but by leaving the leaves whole, you can scatter them over your fish and get a much more pleasant textural experience than if you were using raw basil leaves. I’ve also been applying this trick to fresh parsley and cilantro, which I’ll now be able to keep in my cabinet instead of leaving to rot in my refrigerator’s produce drawer.
If you can’t find Thai bird chili peppers for this dish, you can use jalapenos or any other chili pepper you can find. Same for the basil: You can use the sweet basil in the supermarket’s produce section or, if you can’t find that, cilantro. If you’re unable to get to your local Asian or Indian market for tamarind concentrate, it’s available on Amazon.
- 2 lbs. cod, cut into large chunks
- 1/4 cup cornstarch
- 2 Tbsp. vegetable oil, plus more for frying
- 6-10 cloves of garlic (feel free to go nuts with this based on your personal preferences)
- 3-8 Thai bird chilis (same here—you know how much heat you can handle, so if you want to bring the pain, have at it)
- 1 scallion, sliced thin, white and green parts separated
- 1/4 cup tamarind concentrate
- 2 Tbsp. fish sauce
- 3 Tbsp. brown sugar
- 1/2 cup water
- Salt and pepper
- 3 leaves basil, plus additional for garnish
- Rice, for serving
Whisk the cornstarch in a bowl with the 2 tablespoons of vegetable oil and 1/2 teaspoon of salt, plus enough water to make a thick slurry—you want it to be the consistency of molasses. Add the fish chunks and toss well to coat.
Pour 1/2 inch of vegetable oil into a skillet over high heat. Fry the fish in batches, flipping once, until golden brown. Remove to a plate lined with paper towels to drain.
While the fish is frying, use a sharp chef’s knife to mince the garlic and chili peppers together until they resemble a paste. In a small liquid measuring cup, stir together the tamarind concentrate, fish sauce, brown sugar, and the 1/2 cup of water.
Drain any extra oil from the skillet, leaving about a tablespoon behind. Add the garlic chili paste and cook for about a minute, until it begins to take on some color. Add the white parts of the scallion, cook for another 30 seconds, then pour in the tamarind mixture. Cook for about a minute, stirring occasionally, until the mixture thickens a bit, then add the fish back to the pan and stir to coat. Remove from the heat and let sit for about one minute, then serve on a bed of rice sprinkled with scallion greens and additional chilis if desired.
Optional: Preheat an air fryer to 350 degrees. Throw in a bunch of basil and cook for two minutes. Check on the basil, spreading out the leaves as needed, and air fry in 30-second increments until dried, then sprinkle on top of the fish. Store the remaining basil in an airtight container in a dark cabinet.
[Editor’s note: While I’ll be cooking this dish at home enthusiastically and frequently (thanks, Allison!), I nonetheless implore everyone to go visit In-On Thai in Chicago and order everything on the menu. —Marnie]