|Root of the cuisine: Galangal, one of the vital spices for Lao food.
The smell might be a bit off putting for people who aren't familiar with it, but for Lao people the tang and taste of this savoury condiment are essential for any good meal.
Padaek (fermented fish sauce) is the major ingredient in Lao cooking and is used in every meal, whether a dish is grilled, boiled or steamed. But more than anything else it is a component of green papaya salad (tam mak houng) which is especially popular in Laos, particularly among women.
Padaek finds its way into all kinds of dishes. It is mixed into rice noodle soup (khao poon), bamboo shoot soup (kaeng normai) and rattan shoot soup (om wai), pounded into hot chilli sauce (cheo), and added to all forms of laap (minced meat). Some people simply take a dollop of fermented fish from a jar to grill or fry and add to their meal.
This pungent sauce is made by pickling several varieties of fish taken from the Mekong and other rivers in Laos. The fish are cleaned and finely chopped but small fish may be left whole. The fish is then mixed with salt and rice bran and packed into a large jar covered with a wooden lid and left to ferment for a year or more. Some people believe that the longer padaek is left to ferment, the better it will taste.
Grandmother Dokeo, who lives in Xiengnheun village, Chanthabouly District, Vientiane, said her hometown was in Khong District, Champassak Province, where there is a plentiful supply of fish from the Mekong.
She learned to make padaek from her parents and sold it at markets around the province. "My parents used to tell me this sauce should be added to all Lao food; if it's missing from a dish, it's not Lao food!"
"In the past it used to be very difficult to find ready-made fish sauce where we lived, and if we did it was expensive because we were far from any town. My parents cooked all our food and used padaek at every meal so the food was always very tasty," she added.
The people of Champassak Province are fortunate to have a year-round abundance of fish, which they use to make padaek and turn out a top quality product. They also like to prepare sour fermented fish and other dishes for visitors.
Padaek is not only one of the main ingredients in Lao cooking – it is the number one ingredient for people living in the Isaan region in northeastern Thailand, where it is known as pla ra. This shared love of the condiment is not surprising as the two groups share the same cultural background.
Other common ingredients in Lao cooking are galangal, lemongrass, red onions, garlic and chillies, which form the backbone of most sauces.
The strong smell that emanates from padaek may lead some people to think it's unhealthy, but the method of preparation is clean and hygienic – it's just the fermentation that produces the powerful odour.
Whatever province of Laos you find yourself in, padaek will inevitably be a part of your next meal. — Vientiane Times