Sinsamout, who works in our Lao PDR office, is our go-to culinary expert in all matters regarding Southeast Asian cuisine— especially tom yum soup (see No soup for you). Recently, he shared another dish with visiting staff at our Lao office – crispy climbing perch. The fish in question, Anabas testudineus, is known for its ability to survive out of water – and even crawl across land – thanks to an accessory breathing structure called a labyrinth organ. This folded wad of tissues lined with blood vessels is located above the gills, and allows the fish to breathe air it gulps down at the water surface. This enables the climbing perch to survive in brackish or stagnant waters, such as flooded fields or canals, which may be too oxygen-poor for other fishes. Lao women often catch these fishes in wetlands using lift nets (see Need a lift?), as did the vendor that sold the fish to Sinsamout.
Although climbing perch can grow up to 25 cm (9.8 inches) long, Sinsamout had purchased a pile of juvenile fishes at a roadside market. In order to whip up a fried fish lunch snack, he first seasoned the bite-sized fish with chopped garlic, salt, soy sauce, and chili powder, then dropped them into a sizzling pan of hot oil. The result was a plateful of fried morsels that get crunched down whole – heads and tails, bones and scales and all. Although we initially had some reservations about eating whole fish, their predominant taste was fried crispiness rather than fishiness. According to Sinsamout, they make great snacks with ketchup and beer. It seems we’ve discovered the fishy Lao version of French fries.