- When buying the fish, ask the fishmonger to remove guts from the gills without slicing the belly open, and leave the scales on. If you’re cleaning the fish yourself and you find it difficult to remove guts through the gills, you can gut the fish by slicing the belly open. Rinse the fish and pat dry with paper towel.
- Get the barbie going or heat up the oven while you prep the fish.
- Bruise the lemongrass stalks with something heavy and hard, like a mortar. Then roughly chop a handful of kaffir lime leaves.
- Fold the lemongrass in half and stuff the fish with a stalk of lemongrass and kaffir lime leaves. Use 2-3 stalks of lemongrass depending on the size of the fish. Do not push too hard until it breaks the flesh of the fish. Alternatively, lemongrass and kaffir lime leaves can be placed stomach cavity if the fish is sliced open at the belly.
- In a large mixing bowl, add 500g of coarse salt, 2 tbsp all-purpose flour, and 1 tbsp of water. Use your hands to mix well. The mixture should be a little moist so it holds on the fish.
- On a pan, add the fish and start layering it with the salt mixture. Pat and rub it with salt, making sure that the fish is covered entirely from head to tail.
- Set the barbie to medium heat, or if using a charcoal grill (tastes best) make sure the heat is steady and quite low. Allow fish to cook slowly for about 1 hr. Wait about 15-20 mins before flipping the fish to make sure the salt is dry and plastered onto the fish and not stuck on the grill. Flip as little as possible to avoid the fish from falling apart.
Preparing the Sauce
- In the meantime, prepare the sauce. Pound salt, garlic and chillies using a pestle and mortar. This do not need to be pounded till smooth and fine, but just make sure there are no big chunks.
- Transfer the pounded chillies and garlic to a bowl, and add lime juice, water, fish sauce and sugar. Mix until sugar is completely dissolved.
- Taste-test and adjust according the preference; add more lime juice if you like it more sour, or add more chillies to make it spicier.
- Grill until the fish feels firm and the salted skin is crusty and golden brown.
- Remove from grill and set on a platter. Use a knife to crack through the skin and lift off the salt crust to reveal the juicy moist meat.
- Serve grilled fish with the sauce on the side. Pla pao is best enjoyed with a serving of steamed rice or even sticky rice.