March 11, 2013

Whiff of Padek 'n I'm Salivating! ໄດ້ກິ່ນປາແດກແລະຂອຍນ້ຳລາຍເຫີຍ

You can't tell me that bucket of rotting fish doesn't look deelish to you!? :)  It's padek!  A Lao sauce made from fermented fish.  And yes it's delicious! (Pics and videos below).

You might be put off but what it looks like or by the way it smells but after you're around it for a while it really does start to grow on you - to the point where a light scent of it will make you salivate and crave it.  And adding just a few tablespoons to a particular Lao dish you're making can make a world of difference in the final product.  For example, think of:  tum mak hoong (papaya salad), jee kow jee (sticky rice patty dipped in eggs), gang naw my (bamboo soup), aw lam (Lao beef stew), etc.

Photo Credit:

The Smell.  Padek gets a bad wrap for the way it looks and how it smells.  And certainly a lot of people make playful comments on it.  Lao blog site LittleLaosOnThePrairie, recently wrote as their Valentine's Day (February 14 2013) message saying "Love means never having to say you're sorry about the smell of padek."  That put a smile on my face.  Another Lao blog site, LiveLaod, goes with the tagline "Wake up and smell the padek!".  And indeed I would agree the smell of padek would definitely wake up anyone (for some it might make them run out of the room!).

I used to think it was smelly as well.  But after having visited Laos, I quite enjoy it.  Incidentally, the place where I was staying in a suburb of Vientiane was down the street from a place with a padek factory sign on the front.  The word factory could be used loosely here as it was just someone's house along the road.  So there would be days where I would smell it randomly throughout the entire time I was there.  It was likely because of that that I began to get used to and even enjoy the peculiar, and dare I say aromatic, smell.
Photo Credit:

Possible Origins.  Padek likely came from a need to preserve fish in Laos.  Perhaps from this someone then realized one day that the flavor of the liquid was actually quite good and could be used as  a food flavoring.

Recipe.  The recipe for padek is quite simple.  It only needs a few ingredients (fish, salt, rice bran/husks also called hum in Lao).  Though fish is the primary ingredient, there are variations of this made with other seafood including crab and squid.  Additionally, the type of fish you can use is broad.  In Laos, there's a preference to use smaller varieties of fish or anchovies but it can be done with larger fish that are simply cut down to size.  Almost any white fleshed fish found in the Mekong or its tributaries will do.  You just have to ensure the fish is clean, gutted and scales removed.

Video Credit:  Darly on Youtube (link embedded in video)

The making of padek is one of patience.  Fish and salt go together first and then allowed to sit for at least a day.  Then the hum is added.  Once you've assembled and mixed everything, you just leave it with some pressure applied on the fish by weighting it down with something.  Literally, at this point you leave it for a few weeks to a few months with intermittent mixing once in a while.  The length of time it is left will concentrate the flavor further.  So depending on how strong you like it, you can choose to begin using it sooner rather than later.  In Laos they don't necessarily keep it air tight but we would suggest that if you're going to try this at home, that you ensure your container is sanitized and air tight as the smell will attract insects, in particular flies.

Padek is essentially a variation of nam pa (fish sauce).  Fish sauce has popularity throughout Asia but in particular southeast Asian cuisine.  It should be noted that the main characteristic with padek is that the fish pieces remain in the liquid even during use.  In other words, the contents are not filtered out leaving a clear liquid like the nam pa that you buy in the stores.

The recipe's simplicity and flavor and aroma of the final product makes it widely utilized throughout Laos and in the old days it was often made at home whereas now many people simply buy it at the market.

Additional Notes:
  • Across Asia and in particular southeast Asia, with the generally plentiful bounty of fish, many countries produce their own versions of fish sauce, salted fish or fermented fish sauce.
  • Alternate spelling:  Padek = bpadek = badaek
Video Credit:  Darly on Youtube (link embedded in video)

Final Note:  If you've made it to this final part of this article, I'd say you have more than a passing curiosity about padek and so I'd encourage you to go make or buy some! :)

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