Early in our friendship Svenja and I gifted Chris and Charlie with some home brew fish sauce that just hit a year. The first time we tasted it we were excited by the rich, nutty, herbacious complexity of the brown liquid; it was salty, umami, incredibly round in the mouth, like a large copper coin. It was similar enough and different enough to the bottled product to be revealing of the world of complexities in the most common Southeast Asian condiment. It made the case for a home brew alternative to store-bought relatively cheap fish sauce.
At the Laohaus New Years Eve party they introduced us to their boy, Ricky. A boisterous bearded man with a loud laugh and a sense of humor that’s always prying into things, Ricky embodies a sort of unrestrained presence that’s atypical of most of the people I’ve met. “You ever see an Asian guy with a beard like this? It’s because I only drink Hennessy, dog!”
“Yo, Ricky, check this out,” Charlie brought Ricky’s attention to the small golden brown bottle of liquid. “These guys made fish sauce.”
“Padaek?” Ricky asked, lifting his eye-brows.
“I don’t know what that is,” I told him.
“Naw, this ain’t padaek.” He gave it a smell, and a taste. “It’s good though.” And with that dismissed the whole thing, because now he was on the topic of padaek. “We gotta make padaek!”
“What makes padaek different from fish sauce?”
“Padaek is the Lao ghetto-fish sauce that’s extra dank,” Charlie told me.
Standing in the Laohaus kitchen, Ricky was waxing on the emotionality of the topic though. “Padaek is that deep deep good flavor, y’know? It’s like the Laoist thing! Padaek is life, guy! I gotta eat padaek every day!”
Things moved quickly in that conversation, and before it could progress further we were onto something else. I indulged greatly in Hennessey that night. The winter sunlight raked my body with its ghastly fingers the next morning, invoking a shiver down my spine, a crushing weight on my brain. The previous night faded in and out in jarring insequential fragments, the back of my mind’s tongue resting on a word I’d only just learned: “Padaek.”
The most detailed description of padaek fermentation comes from a Lao-Australian blog called padaek.com. His information about it was incredibly useful. Since we could see the timeline of the results we decided to dedicate at least one jar to his methodology. Padaek recipes, like many Lao recipes, aren’t easy to obtain and replicate. Measurements are scarce or very idiosyncratic – fill this particular bowl with salt up to here, etc – and in general meetings for discussions about specifics move very slowly. We felt it was important to get a jar started sooner than later, given the year minimum aging time.
We picked lake smelts as our fish. They’re the product of Ontario, relatively inexpensive, and live in fresh water. Having a fish that’s small enough that the whole fish can be used without much hassle seems to have its advantages, especially vis-a-vis fish bones.
Finding rice bran was it’s own particular challenge. Finding Asian rice bran was difficult, and we encountered repeated warnings about the high arsenic levels of Asian rice bran. The next available rice bran was organic American rice bran, marketed as a health food with miraculous health benefits, which you can imagine was quite expensive. It’s available on Amazon from either Bob’s Red Mill or Now Foods. Both are steep, but seem fulfill the criteria for padaek.
This recipe is for a kilo of lake smelts, head on. For every 1000g of fish, you’ll need 250g of coarse salt (we used kosher salt) and 250g of rice bran. When choosing a salt don’t use any salt with additives, including and especially table salt! I repeat, do not use table salt. Table salt has iodine added to it, which prevents the salt from properly binding to the food. Any cured, pickled or fermented foods made with table salt will have a sharp saltiness in the forefront that masks any other flavors within. Padaek is supposed to be salty, but it’s a different flavor of saltiness than that which comes from table salt.
First thing to do is wash your fish in cold running water and then let them air dry in a single layer on a drying rack. This also helps them comes to a warm temperature, which stimulates the fermentation.
After they’ve dried, put them in a bowl and add your salt. Rub the salt into the fish, using a bit of force to make sure sticks to them and fills their cavities.
After you’ve salted the fish, put them into a container with a lid and let them sit in the refrigerator over night. They will disgorge, having their liquids pulled out by the salt to form a brine. After about 12 hours, the fish will have a lot of liquid pooled up around them.
At this point, the submerged fish could be fermented for however long to make a traditional fish sauce. The additional step with padaek is the addition of the rice bran. Empty the container into a bowl and mix in the rice bran with your hands. It’s going to be the texture of wet clay. Rub it into the fish, making sure that it’s thoroughly combined.
The next step is to put the fish mixture into a sterilized fermenting vessel. My preference is a bleach solution, followed by many rinses. The vessel we chose was a two litre jar, fixed with an air lock. Use a fermenter weight or cleaned and boiled stones to put pressure on the fish ensuring they stay below the brine. At this point the mixture will not be very liquidy, but over time the fish will break down further, releasing more liquids – and the rice bran will as well, becoming part of the fish brine.
Find a warmish place to set your jar for about a year. Laos is very hot, so unlike sauerkraut which prefers temperatures of around 12 degrees C, padaek has never been aged with a constant cool temperature in mind. It’s important to keep it dark, as ultra-violet radiation will affect the quality of the ferment.
So now, friends, we wait.