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What is Padaek?

I’m talking all about padaek (also known as padek) and what is inside this ingredient as well as why it makes the famous papaya salad dish so delicious!

Padaek is an ingredient that is used in the very popular papaya salad recipe that EVERYONE loves to eat. I’m sure you’ve seen it listed in various authentic Thai and Lao recipes that you’ve come across, but you have no idea where to buy it.

You’ve probably also tried to re-create that papaya salad you found at your favorite Thai restaurant, but can’t exactly get that flavor right because you skipped over finding this elusive padaek ingredient.

Well, fear no more. Today, I’m going to talk to you about what padaek is, how it’s made, and what brand to get. As a forewarning, as I talked through the facts of padaek, I want you to keep your stomach in tact and just trust me when I recommend my favorite two padaek brands. Sound good? Let’s get started!

padaek - lao fish sauce brands

What is padaek?

Padaek is a traditional Lao fermented fish sauce made from freshwater fish sourced from the Mekong River. It is a traditional Lao condiment that is made from fermented or pickled fish that has been cured. With a long fermentation period,  Padaek is a thicker, seasoned fish sauce that typically contains chunks of fish.

While it originated in Laos, Thai cuisines also have adopted the ingredient in some of its dishes. In Thai, it’s called Plara.

Padaek is a condiment made from fermented and pickled cured fish. The fish typically ferments anywhere from a year to five years. It has the consistency of both a sauce and a paste. It is a staple in a Lao cupboard as an ingredient in some of the most infamous Lao dishes. It is the quintessential ingredient that is the lifeblood of Lao cuisine. It is what makes a Lao dish, Lao.

It is made up of fish, salt, and rice bran and may include additions of galangal and hot chiles.

To the average westerner, the aroma of padaek is very pungent. The reason for this smell is because the duration of the process of the fresh fish being fermented over a long period of time. When added to dishes, it brings out flavor that is incomparable and makes the dish shine in it’s own right.

Padaek is bold, thick and adds a very unique flavor to Laotian dishes (and Thai dishes that takes its origins from Lao dishes). It often contains chunks of fish in it. It has a light tan to opaque color when bottled up. It doesn’t taste at all fishy, and actually when fermented properly, brings out the fifth taste that everyone calls umami. 

Even though the smell is intense, the depth that it brings to the dishes that it’s incorporated into provides a rich, flavorful experience that once won’t son forget.

Is padaek the same as fish sauce?

Padaek is NOT the same as traditional fish sauce that you would see at your local grocer. Padaek is unfiltered fish sauce. Even at your local Asian supermarket, you may see products like this. This is NOT Padaek.

While that Squid Brand fish sauce is my favorite fish sauce, that is NOT the padaek ingredient that you would use in a traditional papaya salad recipe.

Other Names for Lao Fish Sauce

If you are looking at recipes online, Lao padaek has many monikers. This includes:

  • padaek
  • padek
  • Lao fish sauce
  • Lao bagoong

There are so many names that it goes by, just remember that you are looking for fermented fish sauce. The jar should normally be a paste that you will see chunks of fish inside floating around.

Where can I buy padaek in the grocery store?

You will need to make a trek to your local Asian grocery store (check out my post here on visiting an Asian grocery store for the first time). Here, you’ll find an aisle with a ton of different brands. If you start seeing jars like this, you’re in the right place. Scroll down for my recommendation on which brand of padaek to get.

padaek - lao fish sauce brands

Don’t get scared as you see fish in clear jars.

padaek - lao fish sauce brands

Keep your stomach in tact. I promise you it will be worth it for whatever recipe you are making.

padaek - lao fish sauce brands

Seriously, maybe close your eyes as you start seeing scales through the jar.

padaek - lao fish sauce brands

Once you hit this area, you are getting closer to the best fermented fish sauce out there!

padaek - lao fish sauce brands

Closer…

padaek - lao fish sauce brands

This is the brand you want! Do you see the one below in the blue packaging? YOu want the Pantai Bu-Do Sauce. That’s the padaek brand you want in order to make authentic papaya salad.

padaek - lao fish sauce brands 

I use the Pantai Fish Sauce (Ground Preserved Fish) that has a little less fish chunks in it. This is the pink bottle of padaek. I use this one for creating my khao poon red curry Laos recipe.

khao poon ingredients recipe add a milk

Can padaek be eaten raw?

Yes, padaek can be eaten raw, often dipped with Lao sticky rice.

What are traditional Thai and Lao dishes that use padaek?

A few popular dishes that use padaek as an ingredient include:

  • Papaya salad  (Thummakhoong)
  • Minced Meat (Laarb)
  • Lao dipping sauce (Jeow)

I’ll be sharing my favorite versions of this recipe, so stay tuned for that in the next upcoming posts.

What are some padaek substitutes?

If you have to substitute for padaek, you can use anchovy sauce or paste that does not include vinegar. You can also cook bottled anchovy fillet in fish stock until it’s incorporated into a sauce.

It is not an easy substitute. I would recommend visiting your local Asian grocer and finding the bottle I recommended above.

Rising Popularity of Padaek

Consumers are becoming increasingly interested in new, bold, spicy flavors and a desire to expand their palettes. Padaek is in the category of fermented artisanal foods, because of its elusive “umami” factor for the subtle, salty flavor.

In addition, the popularity of Thai restaurants serving papaya salad (which is originally a Lao dish) and the availability of homemade papaya salad recipes online has made padaek a popular ingredient being sought after.

Padaek is truly a “love or hate” ingredient, similar to the asian durian fruit. There is typically no inbetween.

From a cultural perspective, padaek is largely popular in countries like Laos, Cambodia and Thailand.

Is fermented fish sauce good for you?

If you purchase fermented fish sauce in the United States, the products go through the rigorous FDA approval process.  If you are really interested, there have been a lot of various articles around the safety aspect of fermented fish sauce, including articles on bacteria in the creation process.

I hope that you know have a general feeling of what padaek is and how it can help bring bold flavors into your Lao and Thai dishes! 

As I start creating more Lao and Thai recipes, I’ll be incorporated the brand of Padaek that I mentioned and I hope you find a way to include it in some of your new dishes as well. 

Padaek ingredient in Lao and Thai food

Padaek ingredient in Lao and Thai food

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Carter

Tuesday 2nd of June 2020

Perfect. I love the information and appreciate the time you put into creating it. I'll be picking some of this up very soon.

Jen

Friday 29th of May 2020

Hi! I could only find the pink bottle not the blue bottle. Can I make papaya salad with the pink bottle? Thanks for all the great recipes!

James Wilson

Monday 6th of January 2020

Awesome information thank you so much. I have been trying for days to figure this all out.