Monday, April 4, 2011

Lao Food: Padek

Padek ready for fermentation
Padek is a very strong, pungent fermented fish sauce unique to Laos and parts of Thailand.  It is indispensable in Lao cooking.  My mother says you cannot make good Lao food without good padek and that the best padek is one you make yourself. For years I've rejected the notion that I had to make my own padek and stubbornly forged ahead with my own version of Lao food, full of short cuts using store bought padek and other sauces. Alas, my cooking is never as good as hers. My mother lives and makes padek in the south of France and when I go for a visit, I find myself looking forward to her Lao cooking as much as French wine and cheese.

My visit this year found my mother more frail as she approaches her ninth decade, but she continues to sing the praises of vintage padek and how easy it is to make. My niece, Dou, and I decided that we should humor our aging matriarch and yes, we told her, we will make padek.

Had I known how easy it would be, I would've done it years ago. Here is how to make authentic padek Lao.

4 lbs of fish, any fish that's inexpensive and available
1 lb of coarse sea salt, I used kosher salt
2 cups bran, preferably rice bran but any will do, I used wheat bran

The cheapest fish I could find was frozen smelt at $1.99 a pound. I had never eaten or cooked with smelt before. They looked like bait to me, which they are for bigger fish. The ones I found were sold whole, ungutted, with head and tail still attached, about 3 to 4 inches long.

I got my mother on the phone and asked her how to proceed. She said she wasn't familiar with smelt either but that it sounded like it would work, and besides, small fish are preferable for making padek anyway. I asked her, "Do I gut them?"  "What a silly question," she said. "Fry up a couple, taste them and decide if they need it."
Pan fried smelt
So I pan fried a few of them, with a light coating of flour, salt and pepper. Wow, so good! Crunchy, buttery and delicate, similar to pan fried trout. I did some research and a whole new world of small, inexpensive fish opened up to me...herring, sardines, mackerel etc. Apparently these are all tasty delicacies that are, best of all, often under fished! No environmental conscience to appease here.

I decided not to gut them, but cut them in half, leaving the heads and tails on.  I tossed them with the salt and bran, kneading and squeezing until they were well blended and the fish pieces firmed up.  I put everything in a 2-gallon jar, topped it with two layers of plastic wrap, weighed it down with some well washed rocks and screwed the cover on.

It will sit in a cool dark corner for a year.  The longer the better my mom says, who has barrels of different vintages from one to five years old.

When it's ready, it will smell strong and pungent but not fishy.  The miracle happens when the right amount is used as an ingredient.  The strong aroma dissipates leaving a sublime and subtle flavor that suggests the fifth taste, umami.
 Freshly made padek                     After one month    


Unknown said...

Mmm, looks interesting. I'll have to take this one on faith!

HousiGirl said...

Will have to tell my brother about your Padek recipe as I'm sure he'd love to whip up a jarful!

Anonymous said...

I found your blog while searching for Lao food blogs. I love it! I particularly enjoyed the posts about your garden and everything Lao related.

Patty said...

Wow! I didn't think it was that easy to make padek. Thanks for the recipe and for the pictures.

Ting said...

Patty let me know how your homemade padek turns out. Mine is almost a year old, I can't wait to taste it!

Daniel Treviño said...

I have been trying to find a recipe for Padek. Thank you. I have a question that I think may be related to padek. My friend and I used to eat sticky rice and dip it into padek, but it was very spicy. Is that a different variation? Or is it something different all together. Does anyone know how to make that?

Ting said...

Daniel, I think what you're talking about is "chiew padek". This padek is more of a sauce that is used as an ingredient. Chiew padek is usually made with roasted hot pepper, shallot and garlic pounded together with padek added for flavor. There's many variations of course but this is basic in our kitchen.

Unknown said...

how is it coming along for u? what other fishing should i use?

Ting said...

Thon, my padek is now 18 months old, it's gotten quite dark in color but otherwise looks and smells like padek :) I haven't tasted it yet but plan to very soon.

You can use any small fish, give it a try, it's so easy. Good luck!

Anonymous said...

A long time ago, I visited with some recent Lao immigrants in Massachusetts and they were having a celebration dinner of some sort. It was the most amazing time i had in my life. The people were great, and I drank so much. THat was almost 30 years ago. But one thing i’ll never forget is the soup i ate and i’ve been trying to find out what the name and recipe of that soup was for the past 10 years. Here’s how i would describe it: first of all, the SMELL. i noticed the smell as soon as i walked into the house. the smell actually smells like poop. i’m serious. since poop is bacteria, i assume that a major part of this soup was fermented at room temperature. the smell was very intense and at first i didn’t even want to taste it. by the end, i couldn’t get enough and my mouth was ON FIRE and i have eaten lots of hot foods all my life. the soup put me into another dimension. i’m not exaggerating. the flavor was also intense, as you can imagine from the smell. it was the most amazingly delicious thing i ever had and i think it was served over sticky rice but not sure. so please, someone here take a guess at what it was that i had. i would love to make this or at least have it once more. fwiw, i’ve eaten all sorts of food in my life, from chicken vindaloo about a million times, to thai food, authentic japanese and chinese, etc., but none of it was anything remotely like this. what could i have eaten?? thanks.

Unknown said...

Have u tried it? I havent tried making it yet

Padaek said...

Hi Ting! How are you? Hope you are very well and ready for Christmas. I was wondering how your above padaek/padek is coming along? Have you tasted it yet? Best wishes. :)

Anonymous said...

I Have Never Bought Rice Bran Before. Is It Like Rice With The Outer Shell On Or Is It A More Grinded Down Particle? In Your Picture It Looks Like A Powdery Particle. Thx!