How Tai Neua make fermented soy bean paste for Khao soi noodles

Preparing soy beans for tua nao paste
Tai Neua tua nao paste fermenting; essential ingredient of Khao soi and other Tai Neua dishes must ferment for 1 - 2 years
Tai Neua tua nao paste fermenting; essential ingredient of Khao soi and other Tai Neua dishes must ferment for 1 – 2 years

Ever since I first espied the towers of richly deep reddish brown piles of tua nao paste resting in large basins in the Luang Namtha and Muang Sing markets I have wanted to know how to make this essential ingredient of the local khao soi noodles from scratch. I did some internet research and found some information about the fermented soy bean paste made in next –door Yunnan, China, and further away in Korea.  Determined after several years of making my own pork mince and fermented bean sauce using purchased paste I decided it was definitely time to go to Muang Sing, to track down the people who made it all the time for sale in the market as a local ingredient.

Like in a modern day Wild West, we drove slowly down the main street at sundown in our bright red Honda Jazz as town was wrapping up its business. We were about as conspicuous as a whore in a nunnery so to speak. As soon as we got out of the car Kees recognized a former guide who had accompanied him to photograph the opening of the Akha Experience trek for Exotissimo and GTZ. Well, it turned out that his family made tua nao paste, so at 8.30 the next morning we (Kees and I plus ‘intrepid camper in the freezing cold’, Sharon) set off to find that the font of fermentation lay in a Tai Neua village, Ban Nam Khao Hong.

Tua nao paste for khao soi
Tua nao paste for khao soi

Our guide, Than  Sai Kuatong (Kees’ mate’s little brother who needed to practice his English) took us to the village where we met his Mother, Nang Jantee, elder sister and hairdresser, Nang Buawon, Paw and their elderly next-door neighbour who makes the most superb fermented beancurd – but that’s another story!)

This family IS tua nao paste. At least twice a year they make the paste using 100 – 150 kg of dried soy beans, and set it to ferment in ceramic jars and Chinese plastic tubs for 1 – 2 years (up to 4 years). The older the better. They start selling it at 4 – 5 months.

Nang Jantee with tua nao paste
Nang Jantee with tua nao paste

There are only five Tai Neua villages in Muang Sing and only 9 in the whole of Laos, and this paste and the associated dishes is THEIR local dish. They take their noodles and paste down to Luang Namtha to sell at the market. They also tell us that in Luang Namtha they make a different type of rice noodle (round sheets that are then cut) and that the Tai Neua way is the proper way. (Again, that’s another story.)

The night before, Nang Jantee had dry fried 10 kg of soybeans until the outsides started to blacken until nearly burned but the insides were yellow. She then set the dried fried soy beans in a big pot with water on the fire at around 7 pm , where they simmered until the fire went out. Nang Buawon got up early and reset the fire so they continued to cook. By the time we arrived, they had been simmering for about 12 hours. They were soft but whole and certainly didn’t look burned.

Preparing soy beans for tua nao paste
Preparing soy beans for tua nao paste

The next step usually is to set the beans and their liquid aside in a covered pot for 3 days to start the fermentation process. This step produces the best fermented bean paste. Sadly, we didn’t have three days because of commitments in Luang Prabang. However, our demonstrator said you could do make the paste without the 3 days fermentation but it would not be the best although we would be able to learn all the steps involved. Deal. Also, not wanting to condemn all the beans to becoming inferior paste by skipping the three days, we only used a big bowl of beans, probably about 1.5 – 2 kg and gave the rest to the family.

Steaming soy beans, tua nao
Steaming soy beans ready for pounding

Using a dipper, Mother transferred this smaller quantity of beans into a colander to drain and we trouped over to the pounder at the next house to pound the beans while adding the extra ingredients of chilli, and then salt.

Cooked beans in mortar
Cooked soy beans are transferred to the giant mortar for pounding

It took about 25 minutes in total to pound the beans because they had not started their fermentation process. When the beans have been left for 3 days they break up faster and more easily to form a sticky, gooey paste which is darker than the paste in the photos.

Pounded paste before adding broth
Pounded paste before adding broth

After the beans are pounded to initially break them down, chilli powder is added in the proportion of 1 : 10 (1 kg chilli powder to 10 kg dry beans) and pounded throughout the beans.

Nang Jantee adds chilli powder to the pounded beans
Nang Jantee adds chilli powder to the pounded beans
Pounding the soy beans
Nang Buawon pounds soybeans for tua nao paste

Then salt is added, which is done by taste. Some pastes are saltier than others according to personal taste.

Our small tua nao paste sample had half a large packet of salt added (about 500 g), a ratio of 1: 20. The salt was then thoroughly pounded in. Finally three ladles of bean cooking liquor were added, pounding between each so that all ingredients were mixed into a smooth paste. The consistency was a bit wetter than either smooth peanut butter that has been newly opened or a Thai chilli paste.

Adding broth to tua nao paste
Broth from boiled soy beans is added to the tua nao paste

The finished paste was transferred to a bowl and covered with a plastic bag to keep out the air. It had begun its 1 – 2 year journey of fermentation. I now have it in a plastic lidded container in the back seat of the car and we will take it to our home in Bang Saray, Thailand where it can happily ferment away. I learned that although the family say the fermentation process is one to two years, they were using 5 month old paste themselves and had taken some out of a big tub to sell at the market while the paste was still a teenager by tua nao paste chronology!

Tua nao paste after pounding is completed
Tua nao paste after pounding is completed

Here a spoonful of the sample batch we made after a few years fermentation – its much darker than paste made with the traditional 3 days fermentation.

Tua nao paste
Tua nao paste without the three day fermentation period. it is much darker than the paste which is fermented first.

Fermented fish sauce ປາແດກ padek, paedek

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Padek (paedek) for sale
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Best quality padek

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.

Namthip learns to cook

Lao children learn how to prepare food by watching and doing from an early age. In the villages they help their elders with fetching water, gathering vegetables and foraging, catching insects, field crabs and fish. Learning starts with imitation of older children and adults, often their carers, and as the young person’s skills develop, their assistance becomes an important contribution to the household. Namthip, Joy and Sompawn’s daughter, lives at the Boat Landing Guest House and Restaurant in Luang Namtha, so instead heading off to forage she is more likely to be in the kitchen – the heart of extended family action!

Namthip is now nine and already competent helping in the kitchen, which she does informally and for fun.  While Kees and I were recording a recipe for Poon Pa, Luang Namtha -style, Namthip wandered into the kitchen and got in on the action. Her presence was immediately accepted and incorporated into the pace of the kitchen by Peng and the other kitchen staff. She started off stirring the occasional pot while the cooks were otherwise occupied, then moved on to stringing chillies for the Poon Pa.

Namthip learning to cook
Namthip observing how to string chillies for grilling
Namthip stringing chillies for grilling
Namthip stringing chillies for grilling

When she put the chillies on the grill Namthip noticed larger chillies and garlic were also grilling for another jeow (spicy dipping sauce).

Grilling chillies and garlic
Grilling chillies and garlic

Namthip took over the chopping of these grilled chillies for young sweet chilli jeow using the same technique as is used for chopping meat or fish for lahp or sa. She’d obviously done it many times before.

Namthip mincing chillies for jeow
Namthip mincing chillies for jeow

As Namthip demonstrates, the most comfortable position for mincing (lahp) is to work at floor level while sitting on a low stool. When mincing grilled chillies or meat, cut the ingredients into small pieces first, then finely chop with a small cleaver or knife on a wooden or plastic chopping board. Work from one side of the ingredients to the other, and use the knife to fold the minced ingredients back to the centre. Also do fold the ingredients at right angles, so everything is evenly minced. Namthip shows these moves:

Mincing chillies
Mincing chillies 2
Mincing chillies 3
Mincing chillies 3
Mincing chillies 4
Mincing chillies - moving chillies to centre
Mincing chillies 5
Mincing chillies 5

Preparing ingredients for jeow

Essential to the flavour of Lao food, and the first step in many Lao recipes is the preparation of flavouring ingredients. Most jeow (chilli dipping sauce) recipes call for the roasting of such produce as whole bulbs of garlic,  shallots, apple eggplants and chillies, and maybe additional flavourings such as ginger, lemon grass, water beetles etc.

I’ll share the traditional way of doing this first, followed by how to do it in a Western kitchen. Either way, the goal is smoky flavoured, cooked until soft ingredients that are easy to pound or mash.

Roasting ingredients in embers
Roasting garlic and shallots in embers

Traditionally, unpeeled heads of garlic, shallots and apple eggplants are roasted in embers (jee) or grilled (ping) before they are pounded to make jeow, Lao dipping sauce. They must be turned occasionally until the outer skins are thoroughly blackened. After cooling, peel or break off the burnt skins. Don’t bother about removing all the burnt skin as its smoky flavour is valued.

Grilling ingredients for jeow
Grilling ingredients for jeow pa (fish jeow)

Thread chillies on a toothpick or sharp strip of bamboo and lay on a wire rack or splatter guard over a charcoal stove or gas flame. Grill until charred, but not completely blackened. After cooling, remove the burnt pieces of skin  before pounding the chilli pulp.

Grill chillies to this level of "doneness"
Grill chillies to this level of "doneness"

There are a few issues with these methods. First, with the charcoal stove, there is the hassle of waiting until the embers are subdued enough not to immolate your garlic and other goodies. You want things black, yes, but you are not aiming for a job as a charcoal burner! Controlling the embers is not a problem for most Lao within the Lao PDR where a charcoal (or wood) stove is used for everyday cooking.

Second, with a gas flame,  bits of charred garlic skin often float around the kitchen causing alarm to others, and chillies slide off the wire rack and into the gas flame to become totally burnt offerings that then need to be fished out through the wire rack, causing alarm to the cook.

Garlic grilled over gas - just about ready
Garlic grilled over gasflame - just about ready

A piece of tinfoil or a splatter guard under the goodies foils (sic) the escaping chillies but doesn’t do much to contain the floating fragments of skin. The answer is to place the ingredients  on either tinfoil, a rack or vegetable barbeque tray and grill the ingredients in a toaster oven or oven grill, while turning occasionally (the ingredients, not you!). Don’t cover them in tinfoil because you want them to blacken for the smoky flavour, not stew. Of course, firing up the gas barbie is the obviously outdoors answer to these modern problems!

Blood, usually duck or pig ເລຶອດ leuat

Cutting coagulated blood
Cutting co-gulated blood
Eating blood or blood products is extremely common in Laos. Noodle soups, especially kao poon, frequently contain cubes of boiled blood cake as does a sidewalk staple, cold glass noodles with vegetables. Akha pork balls (page 109) usually contain fresh duck blood. Speciality duck restaurants serving a salad based on fresh blood are massively popular. If you are game and have access to a freshly killed duck which is far from any whisper of avian flu, here is how to make the salad.
Duck blood salad
Duck blood salad
Drain the blood from the duck and set aside. Cook the duck liver and mince it, adding a little bit of salt. Make a liver lahp by adding mint, chopped red and green chillies, spring onion greens, garlic and basil. To the duck blood, add fish sauce and 5 tablespoons of water. Mix together and pour over the lahp. Sprinkle roasted sticky rice powder over the mixture and enjoy. To ensure blood is fresh, put a drop in a bowl of water. Try to cut the drop with a toothpick tip. If the blood stays whole, the blood is fresh. If it can be cut, it is congealed and not fresh. Do not eat it! Black pudding can be substituted for blood cake.

Yanang leaves ໃບຍານາງ bai yanang

Yanang leaves
Yanag Leaves

A food from the forest, yanang is used throughout Thailand and Laos. The juice extracted from the leaves is used in all sorts of Lao recipes for bamboo dishes, especially bamboo shoot soup, gaeng naw mai. A moke may be made with fresh rock algae and yanang juice. Tinned yanang juice is available from Asian food suppliers.

Tinned yanang juice
Tinned yanang juice

To extract the juice from yanang leaves, bruise the
leaves with either a mortar and pestle or on a chopping board with a pestle or the back of a cleaver. Place the leaves in a bowl with 2 cups of cold water. Rub the leaves together to extract the aromatic juice. Alternatively, place the leaves and the water in a blender or food processor and mix until the liquid foams. Strain the resultant juice off and throw away the leaf remnants.

Kmhmu fish dishes (Khmu)

Food preparation by the men
Food preparation by Ban Chalensouk men

This article describes various Khmu fish dishes prepared by the men of Ban Chalensouk the morning after the party.
The farmed fish used are small tilapia – a sweet tasting freshwater fish much used in Laos and bought from the market that morning.

Three dishes were prepared and served with sticky rice – grilled fish flavoured with local herbs and chilli, a sour fish soup and a stew of spicy fish innards. The only thing not used from the fish were the scales. One bowl of fish thus served 20 plus people generously.

Fish for lunch
Tilapia - enough for 3 Kmhmu dishes

The fish were first of all scaled and gutted. The quantity was divided in two, one half to be grilled and the other half to be made into a soup. The guts were set aside for the stew.

Seasoning fish for grilling
Seasoning fish with pounded herbs for grilling

The fish to be grilled were plastered on one side with a pounded mixture of lemongrass, green chillies, galangal, lemon (hairy) basil (pak i tou Lao) and finely chopped spring onion. Salt and msg were added. After seasoning, each fish was folded crossways to enclose the filling and secured between two pieces of split bamboo (mai heep neep) ready for traditional grilling over the open wood fire.

Fish ready for grilling
Fish secured in mai heep neep ready for grilling
Fish grilling over embers
Fish grilling over embers, Kmhmu-style

The second portion of the fish was made into a mild sour fish soup (gaeng som pa) which had lemon grass, a few green chillies, onions, tomato, salt and msg added.

Sour fish soup
Sour fish soup and grilled fish Kmhmu-style (eyes included)
Preparing innard stew
Adding pak i tou Lao to stew

The guts were made into a stew flavoured with pak i tou Lao (bai manglaek (Thai),  lemon or hairy basil), chopped galangal, garlic, chillies, spring onions and fresh mak ken (a local version of Sechuan pepper).

Herbs all added and mixed together
Herbs all added and mixed together

Small cubes of coagulated pork blood were  added later.

fish dishes
Grilled fish, innards stew and sour fish soup

In all three dishes, msg and salt were the flavour-enhancers rather than fish sauce and Knorr stock powder, which are more recent influences. The food was delicious – the best grilled fish I’ve tasted!

Fish lunch in Ban Chalensouk
Fish lunch in Ban Chalensouk

Pork and bamboo shoot soup and other feast food at Ban Chalensouk

The next few posts will be about the party in Ban Chalensouk, a Kmhmu (khmu, kamu, khamu) village about 20 km south of Luang Namtha township in Northern Laos on Route 3 to Bokeo. This is Khamsouk’s village and she was organising a big celebration after returning from her successful Vientiane studies. In part, it was held to honour us as her study sponsors, but also I think, to make a statement to others that Khamsouk was returning to her village well educated and grown up – the first university graduate of village with her own local shop and a baby on the way. It was a two pig celebration (having encouraged her to spare the cow). I have a soft spot for cows, coming originally from a New Zealand dairy farm. (I didn’t know until my 20’s that the beef we ate could be female as well as male – I’d always thought after a life of giving milk, cull cows were sold for pet food – duh!).

We arrived by motorbike around 9 am, and the bamboo shoot and pork soup was already bubbling away. The bamboo shoots were from the forest and the pigs – well, they had been dispatched early in the morning and were sliced and diced well before we arrived. For details of this process, at an earlier celebration a few years before in the same village, visit Kees’ website in PBase.

Here is the outdoor kitchen, with the soup brewing:

Pork and bamboo soup cooking
Pork and bamboo soup cooking on wood fires

And inspecting the soup:

Pork and bamboo shoot soup
Pork and bamboo shoot soup

Upstairs, which is usually the village official meeting place, the other dishes were being assembled by the women:

Preparing soop pak and lahp for 60+ people
Preparing soop pak and sa (a Northern-style lahp) for 60+ people

For the soop pak (steamed vegetable salad with galangal and sesame seeds), freshly picked and steamed vine shoots, flowers, berries, leaves and gadawm gourds (mak gadawm or mak noi) formed the main ingredients:

green vegetables for soop pak
green vegetables for soop pak

Pounded finely chopped galangal (tasting it I think that there was a fair wallop of Knorr or salt added to help the breaking down process), freshly pounded roasted chillies, msg and pounded roasted local sesame seeds were added and everything was mixed together:

Mixing soop pak while the other women make lahp
Mixing soop pak while the other women make sa
Rice noodles for lahp
Rice noodles for sa

The sa (spicy pork salad) meat had already been chopped finely and lightly fried with a bit of oil in a wok then left to cool. Rice vermicelli had  been soaked and drained and banana flowers finely shaved. The amount of shaved banana flower was roughly the same as the amount of cooked minced pork.

Pounding cooked sa meat
Pounding cooked minced pork for sa

One woman pounded the fried minced meat to a finer consistency. I’d never seen this done before. I tried it a few days ago making lahp for some visitors and it gave a lovely fine texture to it (although I like it coarse as well). Also, two handfuls of medium-sized green chillies were finely sliced. Salad herbs were prepared – a mix of finely shredded spring onions and small coriander leaves (cilantro). Now came the assembly process. First the pounded pork and banana flower were thoroughly mixed and kneaded together with the sliced chillies and some of the meat juice.

Cutting noodles into the sa
Cutting noodles into the sa

The rice vermicelli (or maybe the noodles were bean threadsit wouldn’t matter which, but bean threads wouldn’t break up as much) was cut into smaller pieces about 4 – 5 cm long (2″) and lightly mixed in. No pounded roasted rice or lime juice was added, but salt and msg were. The herbs were added last of all and everything lightly mixed together, then served up  garnished with more herbs on small plates at the table.

Mixing the lahp
Mixing the sa

Here is our breakfast, with the soop pak and sa made from the feast ingredients. A soup (gaeng) is also added and the banana leaves contain freshly steamed sticky rice, grown locally.

Breakfast, the one after breakfast and before lunch
Breakfast, the one after breakfast and before lunch! gaeng gai (chicken soup), soop pak (steamed vegetable salad), sa moo (pork sa) and khao niao (sticky rice)

And one table of the post baci feast, before eating:

One table of feast food
One table of feast food, with (from left) soop pak, sticky rice, pork sa and bamboo shoot & pork soup.

Chilli wood, pepper wood Piper ribesioides Wall., Piper interruptum Opiz. ໄມ້ ສະຄານ mai sakahn, sakhan, sakharn, sakhahn, mai sakhaan

Chilli wood, pepper wood Piper ribesioides Wall., Piper interruptum Opiz. ໄມ້ ສະຄານ mai sakahn, sakhan, sakharn, sakhahn, mai sakhaan
Chilli wood, pepper wood Piper ribesioides Wall., Piper interruptum Opiz. ໄມ້ ສະຄານ mai sakahn, sakhan, sakharn, sakhahn, mai sakhaan

A very spicy (peppery and chilli tones), woody vine with a lingering aftertaste used in Northern Lao food. It is slightly numbing to the tongue. Used in Luang Prabang and Luang Namtha provinces in aw lahm, it enhances a dish’s flavour. It is  also added to some river weed and taro (bon) dishes. It is  an appetite stimulant. It is sold in lengths of very thick vine trunk. Smaller sections – 3 cm x 1 cm (1½ in x ¼ in) – are chopped from the whole with a cleaver immediately before adding the bits to an aw lahm. If not used immediately, it will either dry or go black very quickly. Choose mai sakahn that is not dried out and which is insect-free. Mai sakahn can be kept in the freezer.

The closest substitute for a 3 cm (1½ in) mai sakahn piece is a combination of 1 teaspoon of whole black peppercorns, 5 Sichuan pepper berries (or the local version, mak ken), plus 1 dried red chilli and 1 bitter leaf, such as celery, placed together in a tea infuser and submerged in the stew. Remove the infuser and its contents before serving.

aw lahm with bufalo skin
aw lahm with buffalo skin and chilli wood


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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.

Spring onion greens, scallion greens ຜັກບົວໃບ pak bua bai; spring onions, with bulb ຫົວ ຜັກບົວໃບ houa pak bua bai

Spring onion greens, scallion greens ຜັກບົວໃບ pak bua bai Spring onions, with bulb ຫົວ ຜັກບົວໃບ houa pak bua bai
Spring onion greens, scallion greens ຜັກບົວໃບ pak bua bai Spring onions, with bulb ຫົວ ຜັກບົວໃບ houa pak bua bai

The hollow green leaves (greens) are chopped and added just before serving to soups and stews. Both the leaves and white stems are eaten raw with papaya salad and lahp. Spring onions are also deep-fried for a tasty garnish. To make it, finely slice the white part of the spring onion and pat dry with a paper towel or let dry for half an hour, and then deep-fry in 1 cup oil. Drain until cool. Use immediately or store in an airtight jar.
Small bunching onions are also referred to as pak bua bai. They are more common in some parts of Laos than spring onions and are used interchangeably. Many rural homes have small raised gardens in which onion greens and other herbs are grown. Indeed, these waist-high beds, usually about 1 x 2 metres and often on bamboo legs, are a fixture of the Lao countryside.

Waist high kitchen garden, Luang Namtha
Waist high kitchen garden, Luang Namtha

Chinese flowering cabbage ຜັກກາດຊອມ pak kaat som, pak kaat kiao

Chinese flowering cabbage ຜັກກາດຊອມ pak kaat som, pak kaat kiao
Chinese flowering cabbage ຜັກກາດຊອມ pak kaat som, pak kaat kiao

This green has yellow flowers and long stems. It looks similar to pak kaat kuang tung only bigger, with longer stems. Steamed, it is used to scoop up jeow. It is also used in stir fried dishes. It can be used as a vegetable for gaeng or soups where a mixture of greens is required. It is an ingredient for vegetable soop, a cooked salad.

Garlic ຫົວຜັກທຽມ pak tiam

Garlic from Lao seed
Garlic from Lao seed

This is a kitchen staple. Both the green tops and bulbs are eaten as salad. Fry cloves in oil at the beginning of a stir fry or soup. Use cloves in lahp when young. Heads of garlic are roasted over a fire, and then the cooked cloves are pounded as one of the ingredients for jeow and other dishes. Lao garlic, which has very small cloves, is used raw in jeow and other recipes.
Grilling Chinese garlic for jeow
Grilling Chinese garlic for jeow

The larger Chinese garlic is more commonly available now than the smaller Lao variety.

Ground, roasted sticky rice ເຂົ້າຂົ້ວ kao koua

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This is used as a texture and flavour enhancer in lahp and sa preparations and as a thickener in stews and moke.  To make it, dry fry 2 tablespoons uncooked sticky (or plain) rice in a pan on medium heat until lightly brown. Remove and pound until fine (or use a coffee grinder). Make plenty because it stores well in a screw-top jar without refrigeration. Some Lao roast the rice until it is dark grey which creates a charred flavour. This is best done outside using an old pan. The Boat Landing roasts its rice until the grains are golden brown. Use sufficient powder in mixing lahp to create a roasted, nutty taste and to produce a slightly gritty texture.
Ground, roasted sticky rice ເຂົ້າຂົ້ວ kao koua
Ground, roasted sticky rice ເຂົ້າຂົ້ວ kao koua