Padaek is the quintessential Lao seasoning. It is fish sauce, but not merely fish sauce; it is pickled fish, but not quite that. The distinctness and versatility of padaek make it the go-to, the what’s needed, the soul of the food. To the majority of Lao heritage people it is the taste and smell of home. The shared love and understanding of the importance of padaek forms a sort of communal Lao-ness. It itself has a kind of poetry: fish from the river, sun-dried salt, rice bran from home, and patience.
Fish sauce may be the world’s oldest condiment. It’s brilliance lies in the way it economizes and preserves two things: salt and fish. Salt is fundamental to human survival, required by the body to send nervous impulses through our muscles and to regulate the balance of fluids. Salt doesn’t come from within though, so animals need to seek out and consume it from external sources.
Salt in packets, salt in shakers, salt in boxes; high sodium diets causing complications, the astronomical numbers listed next to sodium in packaged foods; salt is on our sidewalks in winter, in our weapons, it is our weapons – the twenty-first century has a hyper-abundance of salt. Westerners consume so much of it that it’s literally killing us. Yet, for most of human history, salt’s necessity and scarcity was a driver of human movement, a dictator of trade, and a reason for war. It may be hard for us to imagine a world where salt wasn’t always at hand, but that’s the way it’s been for most of time.
The properties of salt to thwart spoilage of food has multiplied its usefulness. Highly perishable, often seasonal foods, like fish, game, and vegetables were traditionally salted for preservation – but if salt is also hard to come by, then its crucial to maximize its efficiency. This is the revolution of fish sauce: by salting fish, containing it within the liquid that it expels, and letting it age to develop flavor then the sauce itself can be used to season other foods, adding nutrition and more flavor than could be added with just salt itself. Throughout Asia and much of the world, adding salt directly through the food you’re cooking is rare: salt is added to a dish through fish sauce, soy sauce, pickled vegetables, stewing jerky or salt cured meat.
Look at all that coast-line. Look at how none of it is in Laos. The abundance of the Pacific Ocean’s fish, and all of that coastal trade, kept from the landlocked kingdom in the middle. Virtually no other Southeast Asian country has the same problem as Laos, and that is likely why Laos turned out a little different. The only abundant source of fish in Laos is the Mekong River, the biodiverse giant freshwater river. So that there is one of the key distinctive characteristics of padaek: freshwater fish.
Padaek can be made from any number of varieties of freshwater fish, from small oily fish, catfish, or larger bodied meaty fleshed fish cut into pieces. In the padaek preparation the fish are washed, cut up if the fish is big, and left to air dry. The fish aren’t pureed into a chum like how it is with other fish sauce; they are pickled whole or in several inch pieces for use another time – they are too precious (and tasty) to waste. Then they are rubbed with coarse salt, between 10 to 25% of their total weight (padaek is quite salty) and let to disgorge in a container. After a day enough liquid comes out and rice bran, the same amount as salt, is mixed into the fish and liquid. The fish is then weighed down with some kind of sterile weight (like boiled stones, for instance), covered so flies can’t get into it, and left to ferment in warm temperatures for a year.
Tune in tomorrow for a standardized padaek recipe using Canadian freshwater fish and pictures of our process at Laohaus.