Fermented fish sauce ປາແດກ padek, paedek

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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. 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. Boiling it 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.

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.

Media welcomed into Khmu (Khamu) family

Media's baci
Media"s baci

Khamsouk’s child recently had her baci where she was named, and welcomed into the wider Khmu family in Ban Chalensouk, Luang Namtha Province. The Khmu have merged Lao and their own earlier traditions for the ceremony which is held after 28 days following birth, during which mother and child remain in the house, resting on a bed close to a fire. This is thought to contract the uterus, and also gives mother and child time together rather than mother going straight back to work. The offerings part of the ceremony calls the wandering khwan (the 32 guardian spirits that are part of every person) back into the person, restoring equilibrium. This needs to be done for a new baby and mother because birth is traumatic and the new family are setting off on a new life journey.

Baci for Media and her parents
Baci for Media and her parents
Baci for Media
Baci for Media and her parents

The tying of strings on the baby’s and parent’s wrists is accompanied by a set of blessings wishing good fortune, long life etc. It is a wonderfully positive process where everybody bestows their good wishes on baby and parents while tying the strings. I find myself with a widely beaming smile and a loving peacefulness and openness every time I attend a baci.

Khamsouk's mother
Khamsouk's mother tying strings on her daughter

Feast following Media's baci
Feast following Media's baci

Feast
Khmu baci feast in Ban Chalensouk

The baci was, of course, followed by a feast. (I bet you thought I’d never get to the food!)
There were people eating both inside and outside the house; the photo on the left is of the senior men. Khamsouk’s mother is holding Media.
You may have noticed the offerings on the table in the second photo (above) for calling the spirits. They include a boiled chicken and a cooked egg, which was slightly peeled during the ceremony (the chick has successfully hatched?), rice, khanom (crackers and other treats), fruit, lao Lao (a rice spirit of the alcoholic persuasion, not a khwan!), the strings for tying later, money, etc. It is especially important that the chicken and egg are eaten by the main participants, it is “strong food” laden with blessings and power. The chicken stock is made into a soup. There is also a fish soup, grilled fish and accompanying pounded spices for seasoning and sticky rice.

Breakfast at Ban Chalensouk

It was the day Khamsouk’s baby had her baci, the formal ceremony in Khmu culture (and slightly differently in Tai culture) where the baby girl is named (Media, yup, as in communication), accepted into the family, and wished a good life; and her parents, Khamsouk and her husband, are acknowledged and “blessed” in their new role. If Media is anything like her mother she’s well named!  This ceremony is held approximately one month after the baby has been born. For the previous 28 days the mother follows a traditional form of resting close to the fire, eating a restricted diet, and the baby may have a tenuous hold on life. Khamsouk followed this practice. My next post will share the ceremony and the food which followed, but here is a snippet to whet your appetite – our breakfast before the baci ceremony. We arrived at 10 am and we were going to have another feast at midday after the baci! We were late because our tiny car had two flat tires achieved getting to Luang Namtha from Luang Prabang.

Breakfast at Ban Chalensouk
Breakfast for two at Ban Chalensouk (the huge banana-leaf-wrapped parcels of sticky rice not shown)

From top left: Khmu (Khamu) yellow eggplant sa (this is very bitter), lemon grass dipping sauce, jeow houa sikai , simmered bitter bamboo (naw mai kom, which don’t taste bitter at all when young like these ones), a gelatinous pork dish from the market was unfamiliar, it may be made from pig’s trotters and only tasted so-so, yummy freshly grilled tilapia fish stuffed with lemon grass, ping pa, and in the centre, a pork lahp with sliced innards, again from the market.

Bitter bamboo shoots
Simmered bitter bamboo shoots
Lemon grass jeow
Lemon grass jeow

Bitter bamboo shoots are available in the dry season when other shoots are no longer abundant. One peels off the skin of a shoot, breaks off a piece and dunks it into the lemon grass jeow, which makes a stunning accompaniment. The jeow contains finely sliced galangal root and lemon grass, as well as garlic. These are pounded with salt and lime juice is then added. Finally chopped spring onion greens are stirred in. I think that the jeow would be just as delicious using ginger root and such a substitution would be consistent with Khmu culture because they often use small traditional ginger (which is more pungent than commercial ginger) in their dishes where other Lao would use galangal.

Nang Noi’s birthday rice noodles

Kees and I arrived at the Boat Landing Guest House and Restaurant in Luang Namtha after a long bumpy drive in our fire-engine red Honda Jazz from Luang Prabang. This car in SE Asia is considered a teenager’s car but in New Zealand, its a Nana-mobile.  OK, I’m a Nana and Kees has teenage tendencies – so its a good fit for us, even if it is not really suitable for travelling in Laos. We thought we might have to lift it onto a barge at one stage! Still, it, like us, coped with anything, even though the trip cost us two shot tyres!

No sooner had we checked into our bamboo “chalet” by the river, and showered off the dust than we were summoned to Nang Noi’s 20th birthday celebration.

Namthip and Nang Noi
Namthip and Nang Noi at Nang Noi's 20th birthday

Nang Noi (Little woman) had been looking after Namthip as an after school activity since she was about 12 years old. Now Namthip is 9. As you can see it was cold in Luang Namtha!

Everyone gathered outside the Boat Landing kitchen around three low bamboo tables, which had the makings for a version of Lao hotpot sin dat (without the meat as fish was used instead). A huge aluminium bowl of green vegetables, herbs and bean sprouts had been washed and torn into manageable pieces and fine dried rice noodles had been soaked and drained. A rice serving bowl holding delicious spicy home-made chilli sauce was at hand and two electric hot pots filled with stock bubbled away.
The vegetables were piled into one pot of stock – loads of them and simmered. Meanwhile, the fish pieces poached in the other pot. To serve, vegetables were removed with chopstick to a soup bowl, rice noodles and a bit of broth added, topped with fish. The diners added sauce to their liking and mixed up everything together. Accompanied with Beer Lao, this is a great way to celebrate a birthday with minimal work and maximum fun and informality.

Nang Noi's birthday feast
Noodles for Nang Noi's birthday - plus a few extra dishes of course!

Nang Noi serving a bowl of noodle soup
Nang Noi serving a bowl of noodle soup

Namthip practises beer serving
Namthip practises beer serving but Peng doesn't drink alcohol!

The leisurely meal and socialising took several hours, but we toddled off to bed early after catching up with everybody. 7 hours on the road takes its toll! However, the road is much improved from November last year, when it took us 11 hours in a van.