Fermented fish sauce ປາແດກ padek, paedek

This extremely pungent, opaque fermented fish sauce incorporates chunks of fish. It is eaten raw or cooked in a variety of Lao dishes; it is used extensively in Thailand’s Isaan province, home to many Lao. It is also made and used in northern and central Thailand. Padek’s odour is so intense that tam mak hoong (papaya salad) made with nam padek (padek liquid) can be detected a room away. When the correct amount of padek is added to a Lao dish, however, the sauce magically transforms it, adding a depth not replicable by substituting fish sauce.

High quality fermented fish sauce ປາແດກ padek, paedek
High quality fermented fish sauce ປາແດກ padek, paedek

The main ingredients of padek are salt, fish and rice bran or rice husks. The addition of other ingredients depends on preference, but is based on scale. The best padek has fermented for at least six months – a year is better – and comes from the North, according to northerners. It should be made in the dry season (around April) when the danger of spoilage is less.
Fresh water fish such as glass fish, Siamese mud carp or giant Mekong catfish, bpaa kao, are commonly used. Padek made from Mekong fish in the South has the danger of containing liver flukes. There are no known ways to remove liver flukes from padek. Investigators from Singapore and Thailand have discovered new bile duct cancer-associated gene mutations that are caused by a type of parasitic flatworm (liver fluke) infection. Boiling padek for 15 minutes may kill bacteria but cannot be guaranteed to kill the liver flukes, so it is best to avoid padek from southern Laos unless the fish origin is known to be safe. If using the fish pieces in the sauce, wash the bran or husks off first. Commercially produced padek, such as that sold in Isaan, is rumoured to sometimes have formalin added.

Padek seller preparing a plastic bag of padek for customer
Padek seller preparing a plastic bag of padek for customer

Bottled Lao or Isaan padek or Thai pla ra can be bought from some Asian food supply stores. Another substitute is anchovy sauce or paste. Do not use one with vinegar. Alternatively, stew tinned or bottled anchovy fillets in fish stock until disintegrated. If desired, this mixture can then be sieved for a finer sauce. Preserved or fermented fish from various Asian countries also makes a good substitute, for example Filipino fermented or preserved gourami fish.

Here is a recipe for authentic padek from Boutsady Khounnouvong who learned it from her grandmother when she was young.

3 kg of fish/3 portions of fish
1 kg of salt/1 portion of salt
1/2 kg of rice bran (eg, half the amount of salt)

Scale, gut, wash and drain the fish.Put the drained fish in a large bowl and add the salt. Mix together, and then leave to sit, covered, for 12 hours.
After 12 hours, add the rice bran and mix again. Shift the mixture into a pottery or glass jar. Use your hand to press down the contents. A boiled rock may be used to maintain pressure on the fish. Do not fill the jar completely; leave 7 to 8 cm (3 in) at the top as there will be expansion with fermentation.
Cover the jar, and then leave it for at least six months. A year is preferable. During the fermentation, check the mixture. Use a large spoon to turn it and press it down again. It will keep two years in the jar. Store carefully as flies love padek!

Here is another recipe for padek from Madame Ny Luangkhot who devised it using sea fish when she was a graduate student in the Soviet Union.

If you have small fish, the proportion of fish and salt is one to five –1 kg(2 lb) of salt to 5 kg(10 lb) of fish. Mix the salt and fish together, and then leave for a few days. Next add 1 kg (1 lb) rice husks or rice bran. Squeeze the mixture a bit as the ingredients are being incorporated. Transfer the mix to a jar or pot. Put a clean boiled stone on top. Its pressure will create the juice over the next months. Keep the pot well closed for at least a year. If you are making padek with large fish – 7 to 8kg (16 lb) per fish – the proportion of salt to fish is one to three. Before salting, hit the fish firmly several times on both sides so that the flesh can absorb the salt.

Here is how the Kalom (Tai Yuan) people make padek in Luang Namtha.
Big fish are preferred, but small fish are also used. Use 3 kg (7 lb) fish, including heads. Slice fish and bones into 4 cm (1½ in) pieces. Put in a bowl, and then leave three or four days until the fish smells—the smellier the better. Pound a thumb-size piece of galangal and 6 – 10 chillies together and add ½ cup rice bran, ½ kg salt and ½ cup alcohol, such as lao Lao or whiskey. More salt may be used if a very strong sauce is desired. Add the fish, mix and put in a ceramic pot to ferment. Cover with a plastic bag and weigh down. Leave untouched for a year, although it may be eaten after two months. Two-year-old padek is very nice.

18 thoughts on “Fermented fish sauce ປາແດກ padek, paedek

  1. Thank you so much for posting this information! I have wanted to know how to make padaek for some time, and here there are three cooks who have shared their secrets with you, and you with your readers- much appreciated!

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    1. Yes – well usually it is assembled outside because it gets very smelly. So the temperature would be around the 30 – 40 degrees C as the best time to make padek in Laos is April. This is because the weather is dry and hot, so the risk of contamination with bad bacteria is less. I’ve got a newly documented recipe for Op padek which I’ll be posting this week. Its delicious!

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  2. I dont really know where to ask this, i figure this is a good a place as any, but as a kid my aunt would make this dipping paste, she would grill beef, and then make this dry paste in a mortar and pestal, not the wet sugar, fish sauce and chili paste, but rather a darker, dryer paste, with possibly little pieces of dried fish or shrimp, im only assuming she used fish or shrimp, it may not have been. The local laotian shops used to sell it too, in little prepacked containers ready to eat combos consisting of sweet rice, beef and paste, ive asked around, and none of my friends have a clue. The dipping paste was good even by itself.
    And about padeak, my dad makes it, he fails almost every time, he uses striped bass, ive seen on the travel channel, maybe bizarre foods, and it showed an old lady making some, she used the guts of fish rather than the flesh. Im assuming hers is extremely strong.

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    1. Hi, Jonah, I think I have the sauce that you want. The recipe comes from “Real Thai, the best of thailand’s regional cooking” by Natalie McDermott. It comes from the Isan section. Isan, as you probably know was part of Laos until the French and Brits did a dirty deal with the Thais without consulting the Lao. Natalie’s book is my Thai bible for practical authentic Thai food even though I have other acclaimed Thai cookbooks. She also does a vegetarian cookbook. It’s a must buy. Here is her recipe called Jaew makheua thet, which of course is Jaow Mak Len in Lao (one of many!)

      Ingredients
      6 large unpeeled shallots, halved lengthwise
      6 large unpeeled garlic cloves, halved lengthwise
      9 cherry tomatoes or 4 plum tomatoes, stemmed
      6 fresh ki noo chilies or 3fresh serrana chilies
      2 teaspoons palm sugar
      2 tablespoons fish sauce

      Preheat a broiler until it is extremely hot. Spread out the shallots and garlic in a large roasting pan. put the whole tomatoes and chilies in the pan as well, and place on the center of a rack about 6 to 8 inches under the broiler flame.
      Roast for 10 minutes, checking often and turning as the vegetables brown, blister and blacken in spots.
      When the shallots and garlic are softened and charred, remove them from the pan and set aside. let the tomatoes and chiles continue cooking until they are nicely blackened.They may burst open in spots.Remove the tomatoes and chilies and set aside with the shallots and garlic until you can handle them easily.
      Peel the shallots and garlic and place them in a large heavy mortar. Stem the chilies and add them too. carefully pound to a fragrant mush. Stop to scrape down the sides with a spoon as needed to mix well. The add the sugar and grind it in well.
      Add the tomatoes, including any juices and skin that stuck to the roasting pan. carefully grind and scrape the tomatoes into the mixture until all the ingredients are broken down into a coarse puree, about 3 minutes.
      Stir in the fish sauce and taste. Add more fish sauce or sugar as needed for a pleasing balance of salty, sweet, and hot.
      Transfer the mixture to a small bowl and serve.
      Note: The garlic, shallots, chillies and tomatoes can be roasted over a very hot charcoal fire.
      Natalie introduces this recipe by saying it is the traditional sauce that accompanies Isan Neua chem, salty sun-dried beef. She gives the recipe for this as well. I wholeheartedly recommend her books.

      re the entrails padeak – I’ve never heard of that. Must be pungent stuff!

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  3. Rice bran is the brown outer layers of a rice grain. It is a byproduct of milling and polishing riice after the outer seed husk has been removed. You can buy rice bran at a health food shop if you are in a Western country.

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  4. Hello! I tried making padaek based on several recipes I found online, including the ones you’ve provided in this post. Thank you very much for sharing them. :) This was my first time at making padaek and the only visual/photographic reference I have of what it looks like during and after the preparation process is at Ting’s site. My methods resulted in a wet/gluey mixture of salt/rice bran/fish liquid before bottling, which I am concerned about. I was wondering if you have any thoughts about this? Thanking you kindly in advance. :)

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    1. Hi, so sorry I took so long to reply, I lost my password to the site! Gluey is fine. Over time the fish juices will extract themselves and break down the bran, it just takes time. Looking at your photo there is too much air in the pot, minimize this as much as possible. Please let me know how it turns out!

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      1. Hi, thank you very much for your reply. Phew – that’s comforting to know that the gluey mixture is fine, I was quite concerned for a while. Regarding the excess air in the pot, as you’ve advised, how do you think I should go about this? Thank you. I’ll be posting a 1 month update tomorrow. Best wishes! :)

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      2. Hi, thank you for your advice. With all due respect, I’m a little worried that if I open and transfer the content into a new jar now, I might disturb the fermentation process. Does the crockery jar need to have a tight seal? What could happen if I leave the padaek in its current jar? Thank you.

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