The Rice We Stole from the Cats

I remember years ago, there was a major oil spill somewhere close to home in Thailand. We were in a taxi in Macau, going somewhere, and I remember only counting our sea-salt stock. It was a bizarre thing to think of given the situation. But the oil spill and the purity of my salt are definitely related, and I wanted to make sure I got our pre-oil-spill salt plenty before things go even further south environmentally. 

Needless to say, we’ve had too many oil spills to count since then. But I still buy sea salt, rice, and soy sauce in large quantities. I felt I needed to stock up on the essentials. Just in case, just in case. And we all know the rest. Cases have relentlessly occurred. Now, with the pandemic that hasn’t completely subsided, we are on the brink of conflicts and impending wars, something is definitely brewing into a larger and longer-lasting crisis. And we know all about food shortages, diseases in all their forms, sudden cases of natural catastrophes. Things are well beyond our control, for the most part, but I guess we can all still do something. Such as counting our blessings while we still can. 

The rice we stole from the cats is something I have been eating and liking since I was young. In reality, this dish used to be our cat food. Basically, it is steamed rice mixed with deep-fried Thai mackerel, or Pla Too, some shallot, prik khi noo, or bird’s eye chillies, a squeeze of lime, and soy sauce to taste.  That’s it. Simple, delicious, and cheap. This Khao Pla Too (rice with mackerel) is dubbed “Kitty’s Rice” or Khao Maew for obvious reasons. Cats love fish, and Pla Too used to be so cheap that people bought them to feed their cats. Although the cat’s version consists of just the rice and the fish. But now, since before the hikes in food prices, Pla Too, especially good ones, have become quite pricey. But still, all things considered, they are still not exorbitant.

For those with no Pla Too in hand, perhaps you can improvise from whatever fish you have. I would prefer pre-salted or sun-dried fish over fresh ones because the preserved fish usually lends a unique fragrance which makes this dish special. But in a pinch, fresh ones would also do. At my house, my mother used to deep fry fish all the time. Whatever she found at the market, she deep-fried and served it with a staple side of Nam Pla Prik, or fish sauce with chillies. At my house, though, we were more into soy sauce growing up, so our Nam Pla Prik was always soy sauce with finely chopped chillies, lime, and shallot. And since this meal requires minimum ingredients, make sure you only use quality.

Kitty’s Rice + Nam Pla Prik
  • Steamed rice (I use white jasmine rice)
  • The meat from 2 deep-fried pla too
  • 8 finely sliced shallot (to taste)
  • 5 chillies (to taste)
  • Lime juice
  • Soy sauce
  • Options: young ginger (finely julienned), basils, cucumbers, carrot (finely diced)

Start by oven-grilling or pan-frying the fish. When the fish are cool enough to handle, remove the flesh from the bones. Make sure you get rid of all the small and large bones.

Gently mix the steamed rice with the fish. Use a spoon and fork or your hands to break the fish flesh into the rice. Taste, add soy sauce and lime to taste. Finish it off by mixing in the shallots and chillies. Others are optional.

Nam Pla Prik is perhaps one of the simplest yet most important things on a Thai table. Finely chop your fresh chillies, then add your shallot or garlic, or both, squeeze in the lime, and slosh in your soy sauce or fish sauce, if using. This can be dabbed onto anything from boiled eggs to curries or from stir-fries to deep-fries. 

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