Pa Fouk – Lao Catfish “Quenelles”

These are not really quennelles, although if you don’t have a bamboo steamer you could make them that way (see note at bottom). They’re sort of a Lao gefilte fish. The use of dill (phak si) seems very Lao to me, as several of the recipes I was taught contain it. This is yet another way that Lao cooking is different from Thai. According to “Traditional Recipes of Laos,” which is a collection of the recipes of the late Pia Sing, cook to the former royal household, dill is used widely in fish dishes.

1 whole large catfish, head off, skinned, about 18″ long from gills to tip of tail

1 stalk fresh lemon grass
3/4 cup raw glutinous rice (kao neow), soaked for 4 hours
1 1/2 tsp. ground white pepper
1T. (scant) seeded, chopped, fresh red chilies
2 small onions, sliced
2 large cloves garlic
1 1/2 tsp. salt
2 1/2 T. fish sauce
4 extra large eggs
1 cup coconut milk (combined thick and thin parts)


1/2 c. equal parts scallions, coriander leaves, and dill, all minced and mixed together
4 red chilies, seeded and cut into strips

8 to 10 strips aluminum foil, 6″ wide.

Side condiments:
More scallions, coriander and dill, chopped together and put in a bowl.
Fish sauceStrip the hard outer leaves from the lemon grass and thinly slice about 1″ or so. Minced the slices to get 1 1/2 T. lemon grass and set aside until needed. Save the rest for the fish stock.

Cut the meat from the catfish and coarsely chop. You should have 2 1/2 cups of fish meat. Chop up the carcass and put to simmer for 30 minutes with the left-over lemon grass stalk and enough water to cover.

Thoroughly drain the 3/4 c. kao neow. Pulverize it in a food processor, scraping often to get the wet stuff out of the bottom and off of the sides. Add the minced lemon grass, the ground white pepper, and chopped red chilies, and process until the chilies are reduced to specks. Add the onions, garlic, salt and fish sauce and process until thoroughly mixed. Add the fish meat and process until you have a pasty mass. You may at this point have to take half out and do the next step in two batches. Add the eggs and process until well mixed. Remove all the fish mixture to a large bowl and add the coconut milk. Stir to mix thoroughly. It should have the consistancy of a thick batter.

At this point you can test the seasoning of the mix by dropping a tablespoon of it into the simmering fish stock. It will rise to the top when it’s cooked. Taste, and correct the seasoning of the batter, if necessary.

Take a strip of aluminum foil and fold it in half to make a square. Fold up and crimp the sides to form a container that’s about 3″ wide and 1 1/2″ tall. Continue to make the rest of the containers, enough of them so that they fit comfortably in the top of your steamer without being too tightly crowded. Leaving space around them lets the steam through more efficiently. My 10 1/2″ steamer fits 8 containers nicely.

Fill each foil container to the top with batter. Strew a little of the topping mix over each, then decorate each with red chili strips. To save any left over batter, drop it in spoonfulls into the simmering fish stock to make quenelles (good for lunch the next day).

Set the steamer over a pot filled with a few inches of water, and steam for about 30 minutes, or until set.

Serve two containers of Pa Fok per person, along with steamed kao neow, the bowl of chopped scallions, coriander, and dill, a bottle of fish sauce, and a dipping sauce (nam jeow) if you have one (you could use the one from my Laab Kai recipe). Diners can add more of the herb mix and fish sauce to taste.

Note: If you don’t have a steamer, you could do them all in the French manner, though this isn’t a traditional method. Strain the fish stock and return to the stove. Once it’s simmering, use a large serving spoon and drop in rounded spoonfulls of batter. They are done when they float to the top (about 5 minutes, depending on size). Serve in individual bowls with the toppings strewn over the top.

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