Saturday, April 9, 2011

A Fishy Dressing For Rice (From Fish and Fish Dishes From Laos)

Buddha Park, Vientiane, Laos

          This Alan Davidson recipe from his pioneering Fish and Fish Dishes of Laos (Rutland, Vt., Charles E. Tuttle Co., Inc., 1975) appeals to me greatly on multiple levels: as something to read, to think about and to cook.   I highly recommend seeking out a copy (which, at this point, will be a challenge, I imagine).  In the meantime, however, we have this delightful recipe:


          Tom tcheo is for rice what Bolognese sauce is for spaghetti.  That is to say, it is more than a sauce or dressing, yet it is not intended to be eaten by itself.  Any fish will do for this recipe, but you will save yourself some trouble if you choose one, for example, a catfish, which is free of small bones.
1 ½ kilos (uncleaned weight) fish
2 soupspoonsful padek *(more solid than liquid)
3 shallots
1 head garlic
2 fresh chili peppers, small size
1 teaspoonful MSG**
2 teaspoonsful Chinese parsley*** , chopped

        Gut and clean the fish.  If necessary, in order to fit it into your cooking pot, cut it up; but do not discard any of it.  Bring two cups of water to the boil in the pot.  Add the fish and bring the water back to the boil.  Then, introduce the padek, which is not put directly into the pot, but into a sort of bamboo basket called a Ka sot or Ka sor.   Hold it over the cooking pot and spoon into it the 2 soupspoonsful of padek.  Then lower the basket into the pot, where it should stay for 5 minutes only while the water boils gently.  Remove it when the 5 minutes have elapsed and discard the contents.

Ka sor basket

               While the fish goes on gently boiling (which it is to do for another 20 to 25 minutes), roast the shallots and the chili peppers and the whole head of garlic in the oven or over a charcoal fire in hot ashes.  (Wash them afterward if you use hot ashes.)  Then pound them together in the mortar just as they are (there is no need to peel them) and put them aside.

Grand Stupa, Vientiane, Laos 

              When the fish is cooked, lift it out into a bowl.  Remove bones, skin, fins and head (having first extracted any meat from the head) so that there is nothing left in the bowl but the meat.  Mash this up.  Pour over it most of the liquid from the cooking pot, straining it as you do so in order to keep out rice husks which may have escaped from the padek basket.  (Do not pour in the last dregs from the cooking pot.)  Add the contents of the mortar and mix them up with the mashed fish and the liquid.  Then add the MSG and the Chinese parsley (almost compulsory on this occasion, but not quite, thank goodness).


               The Tom tcheo is served with rice, either sticky or non-sticky.  Rice is put on the plate first and the Tom tcheo spooned over it. 

Squid brand Lao fish sauce (padek)

Reader Notes (from Davidson):  

* Davidson describes padek in his notes on Fish Sauce (Nam Pa) and writes: [Fish sauce] is another ingredient which appears in almost every recipe.  Every South East Asian country has its fish sauce (Nuoc mam in Vietnam, Tuk trey in Cambodia, Nam pla in Thailand, Ngan pyaye in Burma and so on.) They are prepared by steeping fish in brine for a long time (a mixture of 20% sea fish and 80% freshwater fish is used in Laos) and draining off the liquor which is formed. It is brown in color, rather like a peaty Scotch whisky, and comes either in a bottle or a stoneware jar.  Padek  is a related product, but in it chunks of the fish survive, so that it is necessary when using padek to know whether it is these chunks which are to be used or the liquor (nam padek).  Padek is made at home and kept in the large sort of earthenware jar which is illustrated. I am told that the Lao bride of a Westerner, offered tinned anchovies for the first time, exclaimed "But this is padek; rather salty padek, but good!"

Preparing padek

** MSG:  This ubiquitous ingredient is monosodium glutamate, which recently enjoyed a vogue in the United States under names such as Accent.  I am told that questions have now been raised about whether it is good for one.  However, people in South East Asia have used it enthusiastically for a very long time indeed as an agent which elicits from other ingredients the full strength of their flavour. 

An assortment of Lao condiments

***  "Chinese Parsley, Coriander:  Coriander seeds are one thing. The leaves of young coriander plants are another.  They are sold in Laos as "Chinese parsley" and they have a very strong taste, beloved by most Lao, but not by most Europeans.  The Lao name is Phak hom pom.

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