It’s only appropriate that a blog about anything Lao begin with Pah Dek. Is there anything more Lao than Pa Dek?
I read about Lao food in Wikipedia and they say lap is The national Lao dish. Ha! Who can afford meat? Lap is more a food for special occasions. Pah dek on the other hand is made from fish, and in Laos there are fish in every piece of water bigger than a puddle, and even in some big puddles. Any fish will do but probably the most common variety is the little pa ka duht which I’ve seen in pet shops back home. What’s more pa dek goes a long way. In my case it could stretch forever.
Grandma Viengkham claims that her pah dek is not just good but the best to be had. Smells like rotten fish to me, but the following is roughly her process.
She buys 5 kilos of fish, and cleans them by gutting and scaling, then she packs them into the pa dek jar with heavily salted water until the fish begins to ferment and give up some juice, usually a couple of weeks. Then she replaces the water with a fresh brine solution, adds the husks from the outside of rice, some peelings from pineapple, a hefty shot of white whiskey, a large handful of hot peppers, and back in the pot it all goes, for at least a year. Longer is better.
The pa dek jar itself is a specialty item, not just any clay pot will do. A pa dek jar has a channel for water all the way around the rim. When an upside down bowl is placed such that it fits down into the channel and water is added to the rim a seal of sorts is formed. Grandma claims it is to keep flies from laying eggs in the pa dek and points to the deceased tiny white maggots in the water. I believe.
While we are on the subject of creepy crawlies, no discussion of pa dek would be complete without a mention of liver flukes. The entire Mekong drainage is said to be contaminated with a tiny parasite that lives part of it’s life in the river snail and part of it’s life in the human liver. We are an alternate host as they say. Fish eat the snails or eat the worm after it leaves the snail and we eat the fish and get the worm. Combine the extra strain on the liver with copious quantities of Beer Lao and you have the makings of a hurtin liver.
The whole problem could be negated if people would just cook the pa dek. Mention something like that and you get a genuine dose of Lao fatalism. “if you’re going to get sick, you’re going to get sick anyway”
The pa dek worm can be killed by cooking but the problem is that not enough people cook all pa dek before eating. Just last Sunday my wife started shouting at sister Bien. “Stop, stop, stop, what are you doing?”. Sister Bien was about to dump a couple of cups of raw pa dek into the cooked lap for flavour.
Pa dek goes in everything. Kind of like a Lao fish sauce, but stronger. I like it in tiny quantities, so that the taste is in the background. The problem comes when it is used so liberally that the smell can drop you in your tracks from 20 paces. You often see it in round rubber tubs being sold at the market, kind of a brownish fish pure. Thankfully at the market there are so many other competing stinks that you have to get pretty close to get a whiff strong enough to set you back on your feet.