Oct 28, 2007

Som Pak (gaht) or pickled mustard greens

I’ve no idea why we call these greens mustard greens. In Laotian they are called pak gaht. They grow pretty well in the cooler part of the year, and are a common winter vegetable. Here in Colorado they are one of the first plants up in the spring, and one of the last to die in the fall.

Mustard greens are the ingredient for the som pak you see sold in bags wherever kao neeow is sold. Typicaly a small bag costs twenty cents or so, combined with sticky rice and something barbequed they round out a meal.

The following is mama’s method.

The leaves are washed then sprinkled with salt which is worked in with lots of turning over of the leaves and gentle squeezing to push the salt into the vegetable. A benign bruising if you will. To test for saltiness taste some of the water that collects at the bottom of the bowl. If too salty drain and add fresh water. Remember the rice water has salt too.

Rice is boiled with water and salt so that the rice breaks down, cooled, and then pushed through the fine strainer when added to the mustard greens. The whole concoction is put in a large jar and set on the counter to sour for a day or two. The reason for the screen is to keep out the rice grains themselves, they don’t look good.

I like the som pak plain with ginger and sticky rice, with scrambled eggs, and especially in the stock for the thin sour soup called gaeng som pak.


Shelley said...

Just wanted to say, nice blog. I'm getting ready for my 4th trip to Laos, this time with my daughter who speaks some passa lao. She was Peace Corps in Issan. Anyway...my husband and I fell in love with this country on our first visit...2 days up the Namtha in 2003. We did that trip again last January and I was both shocked and pleased and have thought about writing about it. This is just such a great blog with so much information! Thanks!

John said...

Som Sai. Really great information in your blog, thanks a lot . My wife and I will be visiting Laos in Feb 2008 from Thailand and Singapore.
Keep up the good work !
Melbourne Australia

Somchai said...

John and Shelly thank you for the positive feedback. I write this blog for you.

Shelly if you feel like writing anything. I'll be glad to post it on here.

Josie said...

is there any risk of botulism from this kind of a dish? especially just sitting out for 3 days in a regular jar? Just wanted to know how safe this was to make b/c it sounds like it could be used for a variety of dishes, esp. as a side dish. Thanks!!

Somchai said...

Hi Josie,

I'm not sure about botulism. I think a lot of fermented foods such as som pak, padek, beer, cheese, pickles, and so on, are simply a way to control the rot of foods and actually preserve them. I do know that with the mustard greens at first they taste yucky. It's not until about the third day that they are really good. I lived in NW Yunnan one winter and mustard greens seemed to be the only vegatable. Lots of cultures make them.

Also bear in mind I'm not really a cook or Laotian, but I like to eat and watch, sometimes I'm allowed to help or take photos. For the real thing check out Lao Cook or Lao Cuisine.

H said...


how much of the rice do you use and how do you cook it. great blog!


H said...


how much rice do you use and how do you cook it. the blogs are great!

thanks, H

Somchai said...

Making pickled mustard greens can be as simple or complicated as you’d like. At it’s simplest you sprinkle some salt over a bowlful of greens making sure some gets on every leaf, wait a few minutes, and gently squeeze them to work the salt into them. Let them. Meanwhile on the stove cook a very little rice with water. Say a quarter cup of rice and a couple liters of water. Over cook it. Let it cool so it’s not even warm. Add some salt to the water and mix with the mustard greens again squeezing some more. Put in a covered jar on the counter, wait 3 days, refrigerate, eat. I like to wash the salt and old rice off. Sometimes it’s good to pickle some hot peppers in there too, or cabbage, or other things.

They have to sit out and age a while before they taste good. Refrigeration slows the process.

Gaeng som pak is the thin soup with the meal. Cook a small bone in a lot of water, add sliced som pak, bang nua and salt.

loki-dog said...

botulism is not a problem if you have enouogh salt, and the item gets sour, which will happen with mustard greens. Also there is too much oxygen in the greens at the start for botulism to develop, then once the oxygen is used up the resulting pickled greens are too acidic or sour. You only have to worry about botulism with things that are oxygen free and non-sour - usually improperly canned meats, fish, or vegetables. Pickles and preserves are not usually a problem (again if they are salty, sour, or very sweet)

Oh, and you should use non-iodized salt for pickling. The photo shows iodized. Iodine can add a strange flavor sometimes, and it can inhibit good bacteria that produce the lactic acid.

Somchai said...

Wow! Thanks for the info about botulism loki, and thanks for the tip about iodized salt. I'll tell it to the chef.

pelicano said...

Nice post! I became interested in these awhile back, and have been making them a few years now and have collected some info about them. Here's a fool-proof addition to the method: to the fresh greens add SOME salt. Enough to wilt them, but keep a measure of how much salt you have used so far. I let them wilt for like 12 hours or so, turning now and then. Then measure (I use a 4C/quart measuring-bowl for this) and calculate 1.5t salt for each cup of greens and liquid. For each cup of rice-water (the simple starch in this "kick-starts" the lactic-acid-producing bacteria found abundantly on all brassiaceae plants) also allow 1.5 t of salt. So, subtract from the total how much salt you have already added, and add the rest. Place all in a crock jar or wide, opaque container (non-metal) and fit a plate over the contents weighted with a boiled (to sterilize) and cooled rock to keep the contents under the liquid. Cover the top well, but not sealed. Plastic film with a rubber-band works fine. In 3 days, check for any foam and skim carefully.

Yes, at first the smell of the gasses from the bacteria isn't pleasant, but as it sours, this unpleasant scent disappears and the sour greens are delicious! And they keep indefinitely without spoiling... though in some cultures the year-old, pickled greens are removed and drained, shredded and then dried; the brine is kept and used for souring other dishes (used similarly to vinegar).

Anonymous said...

Thanks for post this article. I now know how to make som pak! It's one of my favorite Lao side dishes but I didn't know how to make it and asian stores in my area do not sell it. It is only sold whenever theirs a festival at the area temples.

Thanks again.


mslyly said...

1st yum!!! I'm lao but came here in 1974 and was raised by america...its nice to have a place to get a taste of my childhood of which I at times dont know the names let a lone the
Would you tell me the ratio? Also, could I please put in a request for sai gok and awh lam? and anything else you would so graciously share. Thank you again.

Nina Espinoza said...

Do you u use sticky rice or Jasmine rice