More khrok fun: fermented fish and a spicy Isaan dip

My adventures with my granite mortar and pestle (Thai: khrok ครก) continue with a spiced fermented fish dip common in Northeastern Thailand: jaew bong แจ่วบอง

IMG_2709Funky-smelling fermented fishes have already made appearances in previous blog posts focused on Cambodian flavors: here introducing Cambodian prahok, and here with a recipe for fermented fish and pork dip. As with Cambodian cooking, fermented fish holds a very important place in Thai and Lao cooking as well, where it is commonly referred to phlaaraa or balaa ปลาร้า in Thai and badaek ปาแดก/ປາແດກ in Isaan dialect and Lao.

This ingredient, like other fishy items such as fish sauce, are often very off-putting to visitors to Thailand (even from nearby countries). In fact, there are plenty of Thais who find the funkiness of balaa too much to handle. In Thai TV dramas country bumpkins are often depicted as toting around jars of balaa with them wherever they go to the dismay of the “more refined” characters.

If you are courageous enough to spend some time with this ingredient, you’ll come to realize how deep and complex its flavors are, and how key Isaan/Lao dishes like papaya salads, dips, and stews are not quite complete without it.

Finding a good fermented fish in the U.S. can be tricky. In Thailand/Laos, you can find various types of fish fermenting in bins at the market, often in a brown sauce that develops from the fermentation process of salt, fish, and ground rice powder.

In many places throughout Isaan and Laos, locals eat this condiment raw. As you might imagine, liver flukes and other parasites can make a person very, very sick. Cooking balaa before using is definitely necessary.

I’ve found a “preserved salted fish” that works pretty well for a balaa substitute.


This one is made from gourami (plaa salid ปลาสลิด) fish fillets, as you can see from the fish on the label. This fish’s bones are very fine and brittle, and are easy to eat if you finely chop or pulverize the fish in a mortar and pestle.

To prepare the balaa for cooking, take out several chunks/fillets of gourami and wrap them in a banana leaf packet (banana leaves can be found in most any Asian market freezer section). Roast the packet on a grill, broiler, or in a dry pan on a stove until the outside of the packet is dark and until you can smell the umami-rich fish. To make a sauce, (i.e. for papaya salad) you can also simply boil the fish in a little water in a small pan, mashing it with a fork.


My broiler packet of fermented fish

After the fish is cooked in this way, chop or grind it up.

Recipe: Spicy fermented fish dipping sauce – Jaew bong แจ่วบอง/​ແຈ່ວ​ບອງ​

Jaew commonly refers to spicy dipping sauces in Isaan and in Laos. They generally have dried or fresh chiles, herbs and spices, often a fermented fish component. Jaew bong is a pretty common one with a base of fermented fish. This dip is tangy, salty, and spicy hot. Here is a link to a very good video from Thailand’s Food Travel TV to help you envision the process.  It is in Thai but the steps and ingredients follow what I have below.


  • About 2 Tblsp finely chopped lemon grass bottoms
  • About 2 Tblsp sliced shallots
  • About 2 Tblsp roughly chopped garlic
  • About 1 Tblsp roughly chopped galangal root
  • 4-5 kaffir lime leaves
  • About 1/4-1/2 cup balaa, prepared as above
  • 1-2 Tblsp sour tamarind sauce
  • 4-5 green Thai bird’s eye chiles, chopped
  • 2 tsp ground red Thai chile peppers (about 4 peppers)
  • palm sugar and salt (if necessary) to taste

IMG_27121. lightly toast the first 5 ingredients in a dry pan.2. pound these together to a fine paste in mortar and pestle.
3. pound in the balaa.
4. mix/lightly pound chopped green chiles in.
5. fry this finished product in a little oil.
6. add in tamarind sauce, dried red chile flakes, a little palm sugar (and salt if necessary–many fermented fish styles are already very salty).
7. put it in a bowl and eat with blanched or raw veggies and sticky rice.

About David Dettmann

Food obsessed and frequently nostalgic.
This entry was posted in - Featured Food Discoveries, - Recipes, Thai/Lao food and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to More khrok fun: fermented fish and a spicy Isaan dip

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