Pla Pao

Recipe courtesy of David and Annie

Photo by: Drew Glickman

Drew Glickman

Pla Pao is Annie’s favorite meal to cook. She grew up eating this popular street food in Thailand and it still remains at the top of her recipe list. Fully encrusting the tilapia in salt before grilling ensures the fish is perfectly cooked and seasoned, without it being the least bit overly salty. It’s traditionally served, as here, with a delicious chile-garlic dipping sauce and ample fresh herbs for a dish that’s bursting with vibrant flavors. Watch David and Annie make it and scroll down for the full recipe!

David and Annie's Pla Pao 04:15

This stuffed whole fish served with hot chili sauce is Annie's favorite meal to cook! Watch as she walks David through the delicious recipe.

Yield: 2 servings

Active Time: 45 minutes

Total Time: 45 minutes

Ease of preparation: Easy


  • One 2- to 3-pound fresh tilapia, gutted through the gill and left whole
  • Vegetable oil, for the grill pan or grill grates
  • 2 stalks lemongrass
  • 5 lime leaves or Thai basil leaves
  • Fine salt


  • 10 to 20 Thai chiles
  • 5 cloves garlic
  • Fine salt
  • 2 tablespoons fish sauce
  • 2 tablespoons palm sugar
  • Juice of 2 to 3 limes
  • 1/2 bunch cilantro, chopped


  • One 8-ounce package thin rice noodles
  • 1 bunch mint leaves
  • 1 bunch Thai basil leaves
  • 2 heads green leaf lettuce, leaves separated


For the stuffed tilapia: Rinse the fish and pat very dry with paper towels. Lightly grease a cast-iron grill pan with vegetable oil and heat over medium-high heat. If using an outdoor grill, clean and lightly oil the grill grates using a towel then preheat to medium-high heat.

Meanwhile, smack the lemongrass stalks against the counter or gently press them using the bottom of a heavy pan. Fold the lemongrass stalks in half and twist.

Make an incision in the gill of the tilapia by the head, then stuff with the folded lemongrass stalks and lime leaves. Heavily sprinkle the outside of the fish with salt on both sides.

Add the fish to the grill pan and tent with aluminum foil, or place on the grill and cover with the lid. Cook until the fish is opaque throughout and flakes with a fork, flipping every 5 minutes, 25 to 30 minutes.

For the sauce: Meanwhile, grind the Thai chiles (depending on desired level of heat), garlic and 1/4 teaspoon salt using a mortar and pestle until roughly chopped. (If you don’t have a mortar and pestle, roughly chop the ingredients on a cutting board, wearing gloves to protect your fingers from the spicy chiles!) Transfer to a small bowl, then add the fish sauce, palm sugar, lime juice (to taste), cilantro and 1/2 cup water and mix to combine. Season with more salt as desired.

For serving: Cook the rice noodles according to package directions, then drain and rinse under cold water. Drain again.

For each bundle and dividing evenly, place the rice noodles, mint, Thai basil and fish in a lettuce leaf. Drizzle with the sauce, wrap and enjoy.

Special equipment: a mortar and pestle or a cutting board and knife

Cook's Note: When buying a whole fish, check the eyes! They should be bright, clear and shiny. If the eyes appear cloudy, avoid purchasing that fish.

Note: A viewer or guest of the show, who may not be a professional cook, provided this recipe. It has not been tested for home use.