The Tamarind Restaurant – A Taste of Laos in the Old Quarter of Luang Prabang is one of our favourite Lao restaurants. Besides their scrumptious food and the best cold drinks in Laos, what we love about Lao-owned Tamarind is Joy and Aussie wife and partner Caroline’s philosophy behind its creation and operation. Recently moved to new premises over looking the Nam Khan river, the restaurant has grown in reputation and popularity, yet still retains its essence – making Lao food accessible to people unfamiliar with the cuisine, not by dumbing down the food, but by providing delicious tasting platters and other dishes aesthetically presented in a stylishly simple dining setting. Staff relish the opportunity to explain the dishes when asked, and having observed the scrupulously clean but essentially Lao kitchen, I can vouch that no shortcuts are taken in producing the carefully selected dishes. Tamarind also sells kitchen ware, books about Lao food, and Lao ingredients packaged in a way to not get seized by Agricultural Security in countries concerned about protecting their bio-security. Naturally arising from their philosophy, Tamarind also runs an excellent cooking school set in beautiful lakeside gardens. Not surprisingly, the restaurant is one of the favourite lunch and dinner haunts for local expats.
For this visit, Caroline had asked Joy’s sister, Morn, to demonstrate their Or paedek for us so that Kees and I could record the process (and then eat the results for lunch)! Or padek uses the fermented fish from the padek pot to form a chunky sauce-like dish eaten with sticky rice and simmered vegetables. It has lots of herbs and other favourite Lao flavouring agents, a little minced pork and eggs. The mix sounds odd, but the resultant flavour is salty, hot and redolent of grilled garlic, lemongrass and herbs, buffered by the eggs and pork. Altogether saep lai! If you are close to an Asian market, it’s a dish that can be made easily around the world, you just have to get your hands on padek or a substitute. This dish would normally be eaten by at least four people with sticky rice and maybe another simple dish.
Or Padek Recipe
1 large bulb garlic
1 handful brown or red shallots
4 stalks lemongrass
10 long red chillies
1 tablespoon pea eggplants mak keng waan on their stalk
1 cup padek fish
1 cup minced pork
1 teaspoon Knorr stock powder (optional, otherwise use part fresh stock for the water when simmering the fish)
2 tablespoons galangal, (check if grilled)
2 stalks dill
3 sprigs lemon (hairy) basil pak I tou Lao
3 – 5 spring onions (lao size, not the hulking great ones in the West, in which case use only one)
Note: All the steps are shown in photographs on the left. Just scroll down as there are more photos than text.
In a fire or on a grill, roast the whole bulb of garlic and shallots, add the lemon grass to the grill.
- Thread the chillies onto a skewer or toothpick and add to the grill. The pea eggplants only need 30 seconds to grill, just enough to bring out the flavour. Turn as each ingredient slowly roasts and blackens. Remove as each ingredient is softened – the garlic will take the longest. Set aside to cool.
- In a wok, dry fry the padek fish a few minutes until aromatic and then add 1½ to 2 cups of water, stir to break up and mix in fish and simmer for 5 minutes. Sieve over a bowl to remove the liquid.
Dry fry the pork in the wok until white and broken up and then add the strained padek water. Add the Knorr if using and more water. Simmer while you do the next step, adding more water if needed.
Remove the black and blistered shin from the chillies, clean up the lemon grass of blackened outer sheath, and remove the garlic cloves from their blackened papery covering and peel the shallots. Destem the pea eggplants. Rinse by pouring over some water to rinse. Discard water containing the excess blackened bits. (I’d never seen this step done before, but maybe Westerners were alarmed by black specks in their food.)
Slice the garlic and shallots crosswise and the chillies vertically into strips, removing the seeds. Slice the lemongrass finely from the bottom up the stalk until if feels a bit tough, then stop. Discard the tough green bit.
- Slice the galangal, then cut across into 2 tablespoons of finer pieces.
Add all the ingredients except the chillies to the simmering mixture. Top up with more water if needed.
Remove the dill and lemon basil leaves from their branched and put in cold water. Chop the spring onions into a bit less than 1 cm (⅓ inch) pieces.
- When the or is thickening, add three eggs. Let them sit for a minute then gently mix in. Slowly cook. Add more water and when
simmering add the herbs, then half of the chillies. Stir to mix. Just before serving add the rest of the chillies, then transfer to a serving bowl and garnish with basil.
Choose a selection of vegetables to simmer for eating with the or padek. Morn used carrot, snake gourd, choko, beans and pak choy (a type of Chinese cabbage with yellow flowers). Zucchini, and wedges of cabbage would also work.
Prepare the vegetables by cutting into pieces suitable for dipping (crudites) and soak in cold water. Add vegetables in order of cooking time and simmer in boiling water until soft but still having a bite. Drain and arrange on a plate.