Lao Food - What's That? Pa Daek - defining Lao Cooking

Lao Food what's that? by Xaixana Champanakone at Khop Chai Deu Restaurant

Kin Khao - 'eat rice' is the daily celebration of life, and the way of cooking what you 'eat with rice' - kin kap khao - reflects the Lao attitude to life : Simplicity

Three rocks, some firewood and a pot will do the trick, and a mortar and pestle would come in handy. Ah, and a steam pot and bamboo basket!

You buy fresh in the market what has been newly gathered and caught along the rivers, in the fields and in the jungle - vegetables, leaves, herbs and fish. Whatever livestock runs around the house yard makes for a feast.

Bamboo skewers grill things on the fire while banana leave wrappings roast food in the hot ashes or steam it in the bamboo basket; the pot cooks soups and stews, and fries the odd meat. Mortar and pestle pound roots and spices, chilli pastes and the life sustaining papaya salad; and the steamer and basket makes a home for it all with sticky rice.

With few tools and some herbs the Lao know to magically produce culinary delight, finelybalanced in flavour, varied in preparation, all of it ultra healthy - light and fresh.

Cooking and life - simple, immediate, receiving the abundance of nature with humility. Every meal is Thanksgiving, an auspicious and merry occasion blessed by the presence of family, friends, neigbours and colleagues... or you as the guest, anytime.

Where does this leave you?

Venture on foot or by kayak into the deep countryside for a 'homestay', eat in the local street stalls or bypass exercise and culture shock and go adventuring at a restaurant dedicated to serving Lao food in style.

Where daily meals are 'ingenuity in simplicity' - sticky rice, a chilli dip, something grilled and something boiled, all of which is accompanied by mountains of fresh herbs - festive occasions justify the extra effort to produce some of the Lao signature dishes to be featured in this magazine's next issues together with everyday fare for healthy sustenance :

Copyright (C) Vincent Fischer-Zernin 2010

The fermentation is then continued for at least another two weeks, and you have an authentic Laos delicacy, like the French and Swedes have theirs.

This is the starter set; the stuff keeps forever. People do not completely finish a jar but rather top it off with more of the above (no different from topping off the jar with your home made vinegar with left-over wine). Like a good wine pa daek matures and blossoms with age!

Thai fish sauce (nam pla) is produced in a similar fashion but pa daek is much more pungent, like a ripe durian fruit. Unlike nam pla it is made from fresh water fish and thus it is the cause for serious wide spread liver fluke diseases in the region. To easily make it
safe for consumption, bring to boil and simmer for twenty minutes, which will destroy any harmful bacteria in the same way water is sterilised.

Pa chao (ປາຈາວ) is produced like pa daek but with large chunks of fish. While in pa daek the small fishes need to completely disintegrate by way of fermentation over time to produce the required liquid, the fish chunks in pa chao are fermented without adding water and only for about one month for the meat to stay intact. Add more salt than in pa daek to preserve the meat which should then be consumed rather sooner than later or your pa chao will turn into pa daek. The meat is either fried, pounded into a chilli dip (jeow pa daek) or wrapped like a paket in banana leaves which is then steamed or roasted (mohk).

‘Fry & Simmer’ with Fermented Fish. Start off frying any minced meat with little oil at low heat. Then keep adding small spoonfuls of fermented fish and continue to simmer until the meat is tender; neither dry, oily nor salty.

You find the previous articles at

See you for the next issue

Lao Cooking and The Essence of Life by Xaixana Champanakone