Note: This padaek recipe is an experiment and a work in progress.There are other padaek recipes mentioned in this post that you can consider.
What is padaek?
Padaek (paa-dëëk) (Lao: ປາແດກ) (also known as padek and Lao bagoong) is traditional Lao fermented fish sauce. It’s a quintessential Lao ingredient and condiment. Padaek is a seasoned and thicker fish sauce compared to regular fish sauce and it often contains chunks of fish in it. It’s typically pungent in taste and smell, and opaque in colour. It’s funky/rich aroma is akin to cheeses like Époisses. 1 Some Lao cooks would agree that padaek is the lifeblood of Lao cuisine.
Owing to the landlocked nature of the former kingdom of Lan Xang, padaek is traditionally made from freshwater fish sourced from the Mekong River. When it is ready for consumption, padaek can be eaten as it is, or used in a variety of Lao dishes. Padaek sauce is customarily used to make “tum mark hoong” (Lao spicy green papaya salad) and “jeow” (Lao relishes/sauces). It is also an essential ingredient in central and northern Thailand, and the Isan province, which is home to many Lao descendants.
The aroma of padaek is intense, and it can be so intoxicating that it can encapsulate a room and linger. Despite its famous odour though, when the correct amount of padaek is added to a Lao recipe, the sauce magically transforms the dish, adding a sublime depth of flavour that is rich in umami, not replicable by regular fish sauce. 2
In this post, I will share with you my process in making padaek, based on several recipes that I’ve found online. This is my first attempt at making padaek and I’m not even sure how it will turn out. The fermentation process takes a long time (6 months to 1 year), and I won’t be able to tell what it tastes like for at least another year.
Padaek recipes online:
The padaek recipes I’ve found online include the following. If you know of any other padaek recipes or variations to it, please let me know.
- Ting’s padaek recipe based on her mother’s recipe that uses smelt at Playing with Food.
- A ‘Padaek – Lao Fermented Fish Sauce’ recipe at Cooking Software Australia.
- Boutsady Khounnouvong’s padaek recipe at Food From Northern Laos.
- Madame Ny Luangkhot padaek recipe at Food From Northern Laos.
- A padaek recipe by the Kalom (Tai Yuan) people from Luang Namtha, also at Food From Northern Laos.
All of the above recipes share three ingredients essential to make padaek; fish, salt and rice bran. The ratio of these ingredients and the methods vary slightly in the recipes (depending on the size of fish, for example). It is interesting to note that the padaek recipe by the Kalom (Tai Yuan) people include the addition of galangal, chilies and alcohol. 3
Before we start, I would like to share with you a poem, titled “Padaek” by award-winning Laotian American writer Bryan Thao Worra.
Speak to me of padaek
And some poor ba ferments, pungent, chunky and spicy.
Alas, so unlikely to catch on like sriracha or sushi,
At least in this century.
I look at your lips, appreciatively pondering
All that has passed beyond those lovely gates for your jai ngam lai,
Where even the last bit of fish is not forgotten or left behind.
My padaek making process:
I created the following recipe, based on the padaek recipes above. I wanted to make my padaek as authentic to the padaek in Laos as possible by using river fish (eg: redfin perch), however, I was not successful in finding any suitable river fish for sale. Next time though, I think I will just have to catch some river fish instead. Anyhow, I’m very happy with the fish that I found and chose – red spot whiting; which are a great eating fish and look perfect to make padaek with.
- 1 kg of fresh fish (non-oily fish is recommended)
- 250 grams of salt
- 250 grams of rice bran
- First, prepare the fish. Wash, clean and gut them, depending on the type and size of fish. If you’re using larger fish, you might want to cut them into smaller pieces.
- Place the drained cleaned fish into a large bowl/container and add the salt. Mix the fish and salt together, thoroughly and carefully. Be sure to squeeze, knead and blend them all together very well.
- Ensure that the salt is well mixed into the fish and press the salt into the gut and head cavities.
- Cover the fish/salt mix with a lid and leave to rest for 12 hours (overnight) in the fridge.
- After 12 hours of resting in the fridge, add 250 grams of rice bran and mix all three ingredients together thoroughly in the same manner as before.
- Ensure that the rice brand/salt mixture is pushed into the fish cavities.
- Transfer the mixed fish (and the rice bran/salt mixture) into a glass jar. I used a recycled 2kg olive glass jar which is a perfect size for 1kg of fish.
- Once the fish mix/mixture is placed into the jar, use your hand to press down the contents so that it is firm. Be careful to not fill the jar completely. Leave at least 7-8 cms at the top, as there will be expansion with fermentation. A 2kg glass jar should provide more than adequate vacant top space.
- Cover the fish mix/brew with a couple of layers of cling wrap.
- Place a cleaned/washed/boiled river stone in a small zip-lock bag and place it on top of cling wrap layer, on top of the fish.
- Screw the lid back on the glass jar.
- Store your jar of padaek in a cool dry place, perhaps in a cool kitchen cupboard. Remember, hot air rises.
- Leave the mix to ferment for at least six months, a year is preferable.
- During the fermentation, remember to check the mixture. Use a large spoon to turn the fish inside the jar occasionally and press them down again. I have read that the padaek will keep in their jars for two years, perhaps, even longer if it’s a good brew or kept refrigerated? Store your padaek carefully because flies love it, and it could cause a nightmare if dropped!
1 large glass jar (with sealable lid) to store and ferment the padaek in
1 cleaned/washed/boiled river stone
1 small zip-lock bag
Looking back at my process in making padaek for the first time, there are a few things that I would like to make notes of.
- I am worried that I did not pound the rock salt fine enough and the fermentation process will be affected. Next time, I will pound the rock salt finer or use salt flakes instead.
- To prevent my hands from smelling fishy for the next 2-3 hours; next time, I will wear plastic gloves when mixing the fish with the salt and rice bran. I will also make sure that my kitchen is well ventilated, to prevent it from smelling fishy.
- I think that mixing the salt with the fish first and then letting it rest overnight before adding the rice bran was good idea. I believe that this helps cure and soften the fish so that the rice bran can work more effectively? However, this method resulted in excess fish liquid and a gluey paste/mixture when the rice bran was added (as you can see in the photos above). This is of concern to me. I have to wait and see if this gluey consistency is correct/ok, and what effects it has on the padaek.
That’s all folks! Only time will tell if my process is successful. I will keep you posted with photo updates in 1 month’s time. Please pray with me.
Ingredients you’ll need:
Did you know?
- Padaek is a rich source of umami. Umami is identified as the fifth taste. In Lao, the word for umami is “nua”. 4
- Rice bran is the layer between the inner white rice grain and the outer hull. In Lao, the word for rice bran is “hum”.