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I’ve had mushrooms in my veg box for the fifth week running which put me in mind of a recipe taught to me by Seng Sone Darasavath, at the Darasavath guesthouse in the Northern Lao town of Luang Nam Tha. Seng Sone was an extrovert, thirty-year-old single mother who ran her own business in Laos with canny charm. She spoke English and Chinese and crocheted hats at great speed in between capably multi-tasking the business and looking after her excitable toddler, Micky.
The evening I arrived, she took the time to sit down and introduce herself to me, whilst coping with twenty raucous communist party officials on a drunken night out, and offered to teach me to cook the meal I ate on my first night there – chicken and potato curry, served with a plate of steamed vegetables and two super hot jaew, one made with fermented shrimp paste and another with mushrooms.
Jaew is pounded sauce or rough paste, the main ingredient of which is chilli. The varieties are endless, and you may wish to try my tomato jaew recipe on my blog link here. Seng Sone’s jaew was extremely hot; she used twenty bird’s eye chillies for one small bowl, though today I used four, as I didn’t want to my guests to detonate during our barbeque.
Seng Sone had big plans to build another guesthouse and restaurant in the hills ten kilometres away near her family’s poppy fields, and I’m sure a woman of such determination is now the head of a mini-empire in the region. I still have a delicate crocheted hat she presented to me when I left the area and, of course, her recipes to share.
4 -20 birds eye chillies, seared, stalks removed
1 head of garlic, seared black and then peeled
2 shallots, seared black and then peeled
a little peanut or sunflower oil
½ tsp coarse sea salt
1 tblsp of paa dek or alternatively, Thai fish sauce. (see paa dek notes at the end of the recipe)
10 Basil leaves
Baste the mushrooms with a little oil and grill until juicy. Set aside.
Spear the chillies, garlic, and shallots on a skewer. Then sear them over an open flame (gas ring or even a candle if desperate) until well they begin to blacken.
Rub off the worst of the soot and discard the onion and garlic skins. Roughly chop up the onion and garlic, leaving the chilli to one side.
Transfer everything to a pestle and mortar in the order below and pound until they turn to rough paste.
First pound the chillies and salt pound to a paste then add the garlic and paa dek (or fish sauce) and keep pounding.
Next add the shallots and when they have reached paste form add the sliced grilled mushrooms and pound some more. You may need a spoon to scrape the mixture around as you pound it. I prefer the mushrooms to stay in larger lumps so I only pound for about ½ a minute.
Add the basil leaves and pound some more. Serve with sticky rice.
Paa-dek is a condiment of fish chunks mixed with brine, rice dust and rice husks. These ingredients are fermented in large pottery jars for up to a year to produce a salty fishy sauce with a pungent aroma. This may sound a little off putting (remember, we eat fermented mouldy milk) but the taste is very similar to preserved anchovy fillets. The mixture may 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 often saw 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.
You can buy Thai and Philippino versions of paa-dek in jars which will give you the closest similar flavour .
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.
Home made English Paa Dek water
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.