Spicy Thai Fish

Spicy Thai Fish

Thai food is famed for expertly balancing all of the major flavors-spicy, sweet, sour, and salty, in a dish. And this Spicy Thai Fish is no exception. A whole snapper is used here: bathed in a fragrant, spicy broth with onions and earthy mushrooms and a shower of scallions. If you’ve never made a fish stock from scratch before, you will be delighted by its rich taste. This is a celebratory dish, and looks beautiful when brought to the table.

This recipe has humble origins. As I’m sure you can guess, we fillet a lot of fish at the restaurants. Naturally, that leaves us with a lot of fish heads. Although it’s often considered a waste product, most Asians treat it as a delicacy to be relished. So each time there is a delivery of fish, one of our line cooks will pick out the best one and cook it for me and my husband. He’s been with us for over 15 years, so we’ve eaten a lot of this Spicy Thai Fish, although we affectionately call it Toun’s Fish. I’ve tried to maintain the flavors of the dish, but give you a more PG fish recipe! But truth be told, the tastiest nuggets are always closest to the head. So go ahead and serve it up along with the fillets. Or just save it as a cook’s treat. Either way this fragrant and spicy dish is a delicious way to savor the amazing flavors of fresh fish.

spicy thai fish ingredients

Filleting A Whole Fish

I use red snapper for my Spicy Thai Fish, because it’s plentiful here in South Florida. But yellowtail or any other mild white fish that looks fresh will work well too. And when I say this recipe uses the whole fish, I mean it! If you opt to have the fish cleaned and filleted for you, be sure to ask for the head and bones-those add intense flavor to the stock.

Filleting a whole fish can be very intimidating. I admit, I usually don’t fillet fish either, I have them dressed at the restaurant. So if you want to leave the work to your fish monger, excellent decision! But if you’re one of those who needs a cooking challenge every once in a while to get your mojo on in the kitchen, more power to you. Let’s do this! And if you’ve never worked with a whole fish before, I give very detailed instructions on how to debone and fillet it. Here are some pictures of the process:

head spicy thai fish

spine spicy thai fish

fillets spicy thai fish

This is what it will look like when you’re done:

spicy thai fish cleaned

Spicy Thai Fish Stock

I start making the stock by prepping the aromatics. These ingredients, along with the fish bones and head, will give you a rich and luxurious sauce. Without the bones, the fish will taste a little boring, like it’s missing something, no matter how many other things are in the sauce.

onion ginger spicy thai fish

lemongrass spicy thai fish


head spicy thai fish

Next, I put the lid on and the stock gets simmered for about 35-40 minutes. If this is a dish you are serving for a dinner party or a special occasion, and you have a million other things to think about, you could certainly make the stock the day before. Then strain and refrigerate it, and you’ll have it ready for the following day.

Once the stock is done, Thai Spicy Fish comes together quickly. Heat a deep skillet for several minutes, and then add oil.

onions spicy thai fish

shiitake spicy thai fish

press spicy thai fish

simmer spicy thai fish

SCALLIONS spic thai fish

The fish should be cooked through in about 10 minutes. Remove it from the heat, and heap the fresh herbs on top. I like to serve it right in the pot. It’s delicious served over rice to soak up every drop of the lusty broth. Thai Spicy Fish makes a memorable meal; I can’t wait for you to try it! Let us know what you think by rating and commenting on the recipe, and don’t forget to tag us in your creations @ funkyasiankitchen.

Many thanks to Jorge Figueroa at Trigger Seafood, our awesome seafood purveyor, for providing the gram worthy snapper. We appreciate you!

beauty thai fish sauce



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recipe card spicy thai fish

Spicy Thai Fish

  • Author: Funky Asian Kitchen
  • Prep Time: 15 minutes (or 30 if cleaning whole fish)
  • Cook Time: 1.5 hours
  • Total Time: 0 hours
  • Yield: serves 4
  • Category: Main
  • Cuisine: thai



Finished Dish:

  • 3 lb whole red snapper, yellow tail, or other mild white fish, scaled, gutted, and filleted (You can ask a fishmonger to do this for you but keep the head and bones)
  • 2 Tablespoons neutral oil
  • ½ large onion, sliced
  • 2 cloves garlic sliced
  • 1 inch knob of ginger peeled and sliced into coins
  • 2 Tablespoons fish sauce
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • 8 ounces shiitake mushrooms
  • 4 stalks scallions, cut into 2 inch pieces
  • Salt and pepper to taste


  • Head and Bones of the fish
  • 2 Tablespoons oil
  • ½ large onion, sliced
  • 3 cloves garlic smashed
  • 2 inch piece of ginger, peeled and sliced
  • 1 stalk lemongrass, discard the top third and then cut into 2 inch pieces
  • 6 whole dried arbol chilies
  • 1 can red curry paste
  • 3 cups water


  • Thai basil leaves
  • Cilantro sprigs


For already filleted fish:

  1. If your fish has not had the pin bones removed (you will feel them if you run a finger down the center of the fish), cut down either side of the center of the fillet and cut out ¼ inch of the center where the bones are located. 
  2. Cut the fish into extra large 3 inch pieces. I also included the 2 cheeks and the 2 side pieces that have the rib bones.
  3. Cut or chop the center bone into 2 or 3 pieces so they fit into your pot comfortably. Set aside or refrigerate until ready to cook.

Making the stock:

  1. Heat a dutch oven or heavy pot over medium high heat. Add the onion and stir fry for 2 minutes, constantly moving the onions around the pan with a wooden spoon or chopsticks. 
  2. Add the ginger, garlic, lemongrass, chiles, and curry paste. Stir fry for 15 seconds.
  3. Add the water and stir to combine. Nestle the head and the bones into the liquid and bring to a simmer. Cover with a lid, and lower heat to medium. Simmer for 35-40 minutes. Set aside.

To Serve:

  1. Heat a large 12” deep skillet over medium high heat for several minutes. Add the oil and the onions and stir fry for 2 minutes, moving the onions around the pan constantly.
  2. Add the ginger and garlic and cook for 10 seconds. 
  3. Add the shiitake mushrooms and continue stir-frying for one minute. 
  4. Pour the stock into the skillet, making sure to press on the solids to get all of the liquid. (It’s fine if a chili or chunk of ginger falls in, but you want to keep the fish bones out. You can either discard the bones or serve them later if you like, there’s plenty of edible meat on the bones and head.)
  5. Add the fish sauce.
  6. Bring the sauce to a simmer and then turn off the heat for a moment and gently place the pieces of fish into the sauce. Add the scallions on top in an even layer.
  7. Cover the skillet with the lid and lower the heat to medium and cook for 10 minutes, basting the fish with some of the sauce a couple of times. (The fish should be gently simmering, not rapidly boiling or the delicate fish will break apart. Lower the heat to medium low if the heat is too high.)
  8. Garnish the fish with the cilantro and the basil and serve the fish either in the pan or transferred to a deep platter. Serve immediately.


To prepare your whole fish:

  1. Put a damp kitchen towel under the fish to keep it from moving around on the cutting board.
  2. Use a heavy knife and cut into the head by putting your knife right behind the side fin and cut at a 45 degree angle towards you. Repeat on the other side to detach the head. Set aside.
  3. With the top of the fish facing you, put one hand on top of the fish to keep it from moving and cut along the back spine right above the dorsal back fin going midway through the fish. (You should hear your knife scraping along the ribs as you do this.) 
  4. Now turn the fish and do the same thing but from the belly side. You should grasp the fillet in one hand, almost peeling it back so you can see where your knife is cutting.
  5. Go slowly and try to meet the cut that you already made to keep your fillet even. 
  6. Cut the fillet off and flip the fish over so you can fillet the other side. Repeat the filleting for the other side.
  7. Now that you have 2 fillets, you will need to remove the small triangle of cartilage and bones on the side of the fillets. Keep your knife at a shallow angle and right behind the ribs, keeping as much of the fillet intact. Do both fillets.
  8. Now remove the two cheeks from the head. Pull up on the side fin. Cut off that triangle piece of meat where it is attached to the head. Do both sides and set aside.
  9. Next we need to remove the pin bones which run down the center of the fillet. (You should be able to feel them if you run your finger down the center of the fillet. You’ll be taking out about ¼ inch from the center.). Cut down one side of the fillet as close to the bloodline as possible. Then cut along the other side of the bloodline and remove the center strip. Repeat on the other fillet.
  10. Cut the fish into extra large 3 inch pieces. I also include the 2 cheeks and the 2 side rib pieces to the fillets in the final dish.
  11. Cut or chop the center bone into 2 or 3 pieces so they fit into your pot comfortably. Set aside or refrigerate until ready to cook.

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