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Koi Pla is a popular traditional northeastern Thai dish consisting of chopped raw fish, mixed with local herbs, spices and lime juice.
To million of Thai in rural Thailand, this pungent but tasty dish is an all-time favorite which is quick and easy to make. Some add extra special ingredients like live red ants or ant eggs for the extra “oomph”.
Tourists to Thailand and neighboring countries, should be wary of this salad as the raw fishes from the Mekong River is infested with a kind of parasites that can cause lethal liver cancer killing up to 20,000 Thais each year.
Deadly Koi Pla Dish Discovered
Narong Khuntikeo, a liver surgeon whose koi pla loving parents died of liver cancer, is now working tireless to educate the people about this deadly dish. The surgeon finally discovered what caused the liver cancer that took his parents’ lives, when he attended medical school.
Narong and scientists are now going round the Isaan provinces to screen the villagers for the parasite, warns them of the deadly dish, and advising them to cook the fish before eating.
Naturally the villagers were shocked to discovered that the dish which they have loved and eaten for generations is now considered deadly. Some sadly commented that the taste is no longer the same, after cooking the fish for the dish.
Isaan region, Northeast Thailand
It has been reported that the Isaan region (also called Isan) in northeast Thailand, which consist of 20 provinces and has been dining on koi pla for generations has the highest reported incidence of Cholangiocarcinoma (CCA) – bile duct cancer – in the world.
The deadly liver cancer is caused by the parasite, fluke worm which is native to the Mekong region and found in many freshwater fish.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), once the raw fish are eaten, the parasite fluke worm will be embedded undetected in the bile ducts of the liver for years causing inflammation.
Over time this inflammation in the liver will trigger abnormal cells that multiply out of control into cancerous liver tumor (CCA).
The Koi Pla dish is also popular in Laos and other countries in the region. According to the United Nations, countries around the Mekong river such as Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam also has high rates of liver cancer.
There are other raw fish dishes in northeastern Thailand, which can cause liver cancer.
Pla Ra (Padaek) is a seasoning sauce made by mixing chopped raw fresh water fish with roasted rice, garlic and salt, and then fermented for 3 moths to a year in a closed jar or container. The resulting sauce is then used in a few popular dishes. It is advisable not to eat uncooked dishes which uses this sauce.
The Pla Ra has a very strong stench and is considered unpleasant by many people, but certainly not for the northeastern Thai villagers.
Pla Ra Som Tam is the famous green papaya salad but with pla ra as the fish sauce. For the Isaan villagers, this dish is certainly one of their favorite daily meals.
Tourist however are turned off by the offensive pungent smell of this pla ra salad.
Pla Som (sour fish) is a variation of the Pla Ra in which the raw fish is mixed with steamed rice, salt, garlic and then placed in a sealed plastic bag, to ferment for 3 days. Some leaves the bag in the sun. This dish could be safe, as the fish is then fried with vegetables before serving.