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Feb 12, 2006 02:14 PM

New Lao Recipes - Som Pa (Sour Fish) and Jeow Mak Lin

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This one is for garlic lovers! Please note that you have to start three days ahead of time. You can also use shrimp instead (shell, devein, and slice them lengthwise first), in which case it's called Som Gung.

1 lb. catfish fillets (skinned)
1 medium head garlic
1 tsp. salt
1/2 cup steamed kao neow (ie: NOT raw) - cooled
4 T peanut oil, in all.

Cut the catfish fillets into 1" wide strips. Peel all the cloves of garlic and put them into your mortar along with the salt. Mash them to a fine paste. In a large bowl, combine the fish and the garlic-salt paste. Mix well with your hands, squeezing and kneading to work the paste into the fish (you might want to wear vinyl exam gloves for this!). Add the steamed kao neow and work it in the same way. Cover the bowl tightly and refrigerate for three days without disturbing.

After three days, bring the fish to room temperature. Set a 12" wok or skillet on high heat for one minute, then add 2 T. of the oil and heat one minute more. Stir-fry half the fish, turning the pieces until the outsides are crispy. Drain on a plate lined with paper towels. Wipe out the wok and repeat the procedure with the rest of the oil and fish. Serve at once with steamed kao neow and nam jeow.

Note: If you don't use all the fish, it can sit in the refrigerator for two or three days more - it gets more sour the longer it marinates.

Here's a nam jeow using tomato:

Jeow Mak Lin

2 tomatoes
1/4 cup water
5 cloves garlic, peeled
4 large shallots, peeled
One large square of heavy-duty aluminum foil
2 dried chilies japones
3 T padek (substitute Fillipino bagoong, or use fish sauce)
1 tsp sugar
1/3 cup coriander leaves and tender stems, chopped
more fish sauce, to taste.

Grill the tomatoes under the broiler, turning often, until the skins are browned. Squeeze the seeds out, then chop them and put them in a saucepan with the 1/4 cup water. Cook on medium heat, stirring constantly, until thick, then remove from heat and set aside until needed.

Wrap the garlic and shallots in the foil (twist the ends of the packet to seal them) and grill directly on a stove burner turned on low, until the contents are soft and somewhat charred. Toast the dried chilies in a heavy iron skillet, turning them constantly, and removing them as they darken. Mash the chilies, garlic, shallots and sugar to a fine paste in a mortar. Add the tomatoes and padek (or substitute) and continue to mash until well mixed. Add the coriander and fish sauce and mix again.

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  1. Just to provide non-feedback, sort of.

    I'm really enjoying your posts and your replies that freely admit that there is no classic recipe, but that these are peasant-y foods made by what's available when making them, and thus, improvising.

    And yet there are substituting ingredients, often pulled from other nationalities.

    I'm working on Indian cusine at the moment (yup, four or five different lentils on hand), but do plan to swing around to really studying these recipes soon.

    1 Reply
    1. re: SteveT

      The substitution ingredients are the ones used by my Lao friends themselves. Take padek: Not every young Lao housewive wants to make padek (which can take up to a year to ferment), and not every American cooking these recipes has access to it (it's not sold commercially), so an ingredient from another cuisine has to be used. I have still not seen real kaopuhn for sale in our one Lao grocery here in Chicago, so I'm sure Chicago Lao people are still using somen. These substitutions are a necessity when trying to cook the food of a small immegrant population, especially one that never used many commercially prepared foods to begin with.

    2. Thanks for the recipies. My local Thai market has both fermented shrimp paste and fish paste (not Chinese, but Thai and possibly Vietnamese). How do these compare to padek?

      3 Replies
      1. re: tongzhi

        I'm not familiar with every fermented fish-based product out there - I only know what my Lao friends used as a substitute, and that was bagoong, or simply more fish sauce. I think you could use a few canned anchovies ground up and with some fish sauce added to make a liquid (although I must say I haven't experimented with this). I do think that Thai shrimp paste, kapi, is inappropriate - maybe the fish-based things are better.

        1. re: tongzhi

          Maybe when you look at commercial products on the store it would be helpful to know that padek is made with freshwater fish, rice hulls, "rice dust" and salt (and water, I guess, although I don't have my recipe in front of me). So maybe if you read the label, it'll help.

          1. re: Akatonbo

            I think the concentrated shrimp paste is a good substitute for padek. I like to make papaya salad and don't always have padek readily available so I just use the shrimp paste instead. It works for me.