|Padek ready for fermentation|
My visit this year found my mother more frail as she approaches her ninth decade, but she continues to sing the praises of vintage padek and how easy it is to make. My niece, Dou, and I decided that we should humor our aging matriarch and yes, we told her, we will make padek.
Had I known how easy it would be, I would've done it years ago. Here is how to make authentic padek Lao.
4 lbs of fish, any fish that's inexpensive and available
1 lb of coarse sea salt, I used kosher salt
2 cups bran, preferably rice bran but any will do, I used wheat bran
The cheapest fish I could find was frozen smelt at $1.99 a pound. I had never eaten or cooked with smelt before. They looked like bait to me, which they are for bigger fish. The ones I found were sold whole, ungutted, with head and tail still attached, about 3 to 4 inches long.
I got my mother on the phone and asked her how to proceed. She said she wasn't familiar with smelt either but that it sounded like it would work, and besides, small fish are preferable for making padek anyway. I asked her, "Do I gut them?" "What a silly question," she said. "Fry up a couple, taste them and decide if they need it."
So I pan fried a few of them, with a light coating of flour, salt and pepper. Wow, so good! Crunchy, buttery and delicate, similar to pan fried trout. I did some research and a whole new world of small, inexpensive fish opened up to me...herring, sardines, mackerel etc. Apparently these are all tasty delicacies that are, best of all, often under fished! No environmental conscience to appease here.
|Pan fried smelt|
I decided not to gut them, but cut them in half, leaving the heads and tails on. I tossed them with the salt and bran, kneading and squeezing until they were well blended and the fish pieces firmed up. I put everything in a 2-gallon jar, topped it with two layers of plastic wrap, weighed it down with some well washed rocks and screwed the cover on.
It will sit in a cool dark corner for a year. The longer the better my mom says, who has barrels of different vintages from one to five years old.
When it's ready, it will smell strong and pungent but not fishy. The miracle happens when the right amount is used as an ingredient. The strong aroma dissipates leaving a sublime and subtle flavor that suggests the fifth taste, umami.
|Freshly made padek After one month|