Boat Landing doyenne, Joy Khantisouk, was taught this dish by her mother, who is a great cook from Luang Prabang. The dish doesn’t use much of anything, but the combination of tastes melds into a perfect savoury accompaniment to simmered vegetables and sticky rice.
Kees and I missed Joy’s demonstration of the dish because we did not know it was happening, although she was doing it solely for us and we were in the room next door. You have to have worked or associated with Lao people before you can understand how this sort of thing happens – which is often!
So far, the biggest occasions we have missed are Khamsouk’s graduation, for which we came to Laos especially, but her College Director asked her to attend an early ceremony (she couldn’t refuse him and didn’t want to disturb our plans), and Kees missed out on our own farewell baci from the Rural Research and Development Training Center in Vientiane because it was a well kept surprise; a huge affair two months in the planning. Kees had a prior engagement in Luang Namtha, seven hours drive away, but could have made it by driving down from Luang Prabang at 4 in the morning if he had realised the true purpose of the occasion. Unfortunately he had been told repeatedly that it was a house warming for someone else and thus he gave repeated notice that he could not attend. We should have listened between the lines! Why were they repeatedly asking what they knew already? Duh, thick falang!
Anyway, we ate the superbly flavoursome op padek dish with Joy, plus a delicious mushroom lahp and a ginger, poached egg and ivy gourd soup (whose demonstration, of course, we also missed). The happy news is that Peng later demonstrated the op padek dish for us so we can share it with you.
Two notes to this recipe: The original dish is very strong and salty but not at all fishy from the amount of padek used, so if this is your first time using padek as a main ingredient or you are concerned about salt consumption take it easy on the padek at first and then increase the amount tasting it and leave the Knorr stock powder out. For die-hard padek lovers, a greater amount of padek will get you swooning with joy. Secondly, in the tropics the herbs would be cut just before adding to the dish so that they don’t wilt in the meantime. In cooler climates, its OK to pre-chop them.
Here is the recipe:
Braised minced pork with fermented fish sauce ອົບປາແດກ Op padek
4 large garlic cloves
3 red or brown shallots
7 long green chillies
2 T lemon grass, finely sliced (a fine bladed mandolin works brilliantly)
1½ T raw garlic, chopped
2 T vegetable oil (or pork fat)
½ t Knorr seasoning powder or stock cube (optional, omit or otherwise add salt, or soy sauce depending on the saltiness of your padek)
2 T lemon basil (pak I tou Lao or maenglak Thai), chopped
2 T coriander (cilantro), chopped
2 T spring onion, chopped
4 whole leaves Kaffir lime, torn
1 large duck egg-sized handful minced pork
¼ – ⅓ C fermented fish sauce (padek), or use Isaan/Thai nam pla or other substitute. If you are tentative about the strength and saltiness of your sauce, try 3 T (45 ml) first, and adjust the quantity after tasting.
2 wedges of cabbage
1 bunch of Chinese greens (pak kaart som) or other stalky leafy green
4 apple or small Japanese eggplants or pumpkin
5 C water
- Grill the garlic cloves, shallots and chillies over a charcoal fire, gas ring, barbeque or electric oven grill, turning regularly. Use a wire rack or a frying pan which can sustain heat. Each ingredient will have a different cooking time. The garlic, shallots and chillies are ready when slightly blackened on the outside and softened on the inside. Remove ingredients to a plate when ready.
- Heat a wok or deep frying pan and add the oil. When the oil is hot, toss in the chopped garlic and sauté it for one minute until aromatic. Then add the meat and seasoning powder, stir frying to mix. Add the padek (or substitute) and the torn lime leaves. Simmer on low.
- In another pan, set the vegetables to simmer in five cups of water. Turn occasionally. They should take between 10 to15 minutes on a low heat once brought to the boil depending on how thick the cabbage was cut and how soft you like the vegetables.
- If you cut down on the padek, now is the time to taste and add more so the padek has a chance to absorb into the meat before adding the eggs.
- Peel the grilled garlic and shallots and cut into small rough slices. Scape any blackened skin off the chillies and slice them the same size.
- Finely chop the basil, coriander and spring onions if not already done.
- After the pork mixture has simmered for about 5 minutes, add the eggs and stir fry until the mixture thickens. Add the sliced lemon grass, shallot and garlic slices. If the mixture gets too thick, thin with some of the vegetable stock. Taste and adjust seasoning if needed. It should have a salty, spicy punch with a rich under-taste. Add the chopped herbs, turn off the heat and mix together. Transfer to a serving bowl.
- Remove the vegetables from the cooking water and transfer to a serving plate. If you like, save the cooking water for stock for another dish such as the base for an accompanying mild soup – gaeng jeut, just add 2 T soy sauce, some sliced Chinese greens, daikon (white Japanese radish) and pepper. Serve with sticky rice. For non traditionalists, op padek is particularly good with brown jasmine hom mali rice.
What to do with leftovers – heat up and serve with corn tortillas, add to fried rice.