Padek is a condiment made of highly pungent, fermented fish chunks, and it is a national essential in Laos. It is lumpy and opaque as opposed to the clear liquid fish sauce, Nam Pa. It is made by fermenting raw freshwater fish pieces in salt water, with rice dust and rice husks; a few months in an earthenware jar in the hot sun usually does it. Most Westerners baulk at the idea of rotten fish but Laotians find it equally repellent that we eat fermented milk with lines of blue mould in it – in the form of Stilton cheese! Once you think of that analogy you may find it easier to swallow.
Padek is a marvellous, complex condiment that adds depth and vigour to Lao food, and the taste grows on you. It is usually kept in a jar outside the house (for obvious odorous reasons) and used in almost every dish.
Padek can be used straight; or the fish chunks are washed of their rice husks and used alone; or the liquid is used without the fish chunks. I frequently watched people pour a ladle into a wok with another ladle of water, then hard boil it for a minute, sieve the result and use the flavoured water. Below I have done the same, using a mini frying pan.
Heat the pan until it is hot. Add the Padek lumps (see main picture above), and cook for 20 seconds. Add ½ cup water, it will boil immediately, cook for about 1 minute (add a little more water if it looks too dry).
You can buy Thai and Philippino versions of padek in jars which will give you the closest similar flavour and it really is essential if you want to cook authentic Lao.
I have also found a good alternative in a thick muddy brown bottled anchovy sauce available in most Asian supermarkets, which you can just splash in to give a near-as-damn-it authentic flavour with the added bonus that it is easier to handle. Or use English bottled versions made with anchovies and salt (NOT vinegar).
With neither available you can make your own, like many British Laotians do in an emergency.
Place 400ml of fish stock (or half a stock cube with 1/2 litre of water) in a small saucepan with ten tinned anchovy fillets (in oil). Bring to the boil and simmer for a few minutes until the anchovies have almost dissolved. Sieve out the lumps and boil vigorously for another few minutes to produce a salty, muddy brown liquid. Yum.