Fermented fish sauce ປາແດກ padek, paedek

Padek (paedek) for sale

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.

Chilli paste awng with pork ນ້ຳພິກອ່ອງ ຊີ້ນໝູ ຫຼື ເຕົາຮູ້ nam phik awng sin moo

This jeow, which is eaten as a condiment for steamed or simmered vegetables, is claimed as both a Lao and a northern Thai dish. It is also prepared in northeastern Thailand as a local recipe. The Luang Namtha version uses the local kao soi fermented bean sauce, whereas the southern versions utilize shrimp paste and lemongrass. Its popularity is no doubt due to easy preparation from readily available ingredients. The jeow compliments greens superbly and tastes great!

Chilli paste awng with pork ນ້ຳພິກອ່ອງ ຊີ້ນໝູ ຫຼື ເຕົາຮູ້ nam phik awng sin moo
Chilli paste awng with pork ນ້ຳພິກອ່ອງ ຊີ້ນໝູ ຫຼື ເຕົາຮູ້ nam phik awng sin moo


1 small head garlic cloves, peeled and chopped
4 T vegetable oil
1 T fermented chilli soybean paste (see Ingredients section for substitutes)
1 C (225g/8 oz) pork, minced (optional)
½ t sugar
1 T thin soy sauce
Chilli powder to taste (optional)
2 large tomatoes, chopped
Water or stock to adjust mixture to a thick salsa consistency
1 small bunch spring onions (scallions), greens only, chopped finely
1 T coriander (cilantro), chopped finely (optional)

Accompanying vegetables

1 bunch Chinese flowering cabbage (and slices of pumpkin and gourd [optional])
Water to cook vegetable accompaniments


  1. Heat the oil in a hot wok. Toss in the chopped garlic and stir fry briefly. Remove the garlic if it is browning too fast. Add the fermented soybean paste to the oil and fry, squishing the paste down so it cooks, but does not burn or stick. Add the minced pork or tofu as well as the garlic if it has been set aside. Add the sugar, soy sauce and tomato. Flavour with chilli powder if desired.
  2. Simmer, stirring occasionally, until the meat and tomatoes are cooked and integrated with the other ingredients into a rich, chunky sauce. Add water or stock to thin if necessary. Taste and adjust seasoning.
  3. When finished, stir in the onion greens and coriander. Transfer to a serving dish such as a Chinese rice bowl.
  4. Steam or simmer the greens for 5 minutes until they turn vivid green, but remain crisp.
    To eat, take a long stalk of green and bend it over repeatedly until it is the length of a little finger, wrapping any floppy bits around the middle to form a bundle. Use this to scoop some of the sauce to the side of the serving bowl and eat in one mouthful.
Steamed vegetables to eat with jeow
Steamed vegetables to eat with jeow


  • The finished jeow is superb tossed through pasta. It’s worth making for that alone.
  • Use a thick version of this jeow to make Sloppy Joes. Lightly grill a baguette, slit it and add the jeow. Add lettuce, cucumber and tomato.
  • For a delicious pasta sauce, stop cooking while the tomatoes are still chunky, before they cook down. This variation is a bit of serendipity discovered when making the sauce in bulk. The bottled gas ran out before the tomatoes could cook as long as intended. A new sauce was born.
  • Substitute tofu for the pork.