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Som pa – a fishy souvenir from Vientiane province

Pickled fish wrapped in banana leaves, or som pa, is a well-known traditional Lao food, which can be found across the country.
Som pa translates to ‘sour fish’ in English. The fish is preserved using a traditional method to make it last longer - a recipe that’s been passed down from generation to generation.
While almost all species of fish can be made into som pa there are only a few types of fish that can bring out the ideal taste.

Ms Koud Vongdara carefully checks her products before putting them on sale.

Pork and other meat can also be preserved in this way and are known as som mou and som xeen.
Som pa is particularly well known in Vientiane province. People who travel along Road No. 13 North always make sure to stop at the new Thaheua market in Thaheua village, Vangvieng district, to buy their tasty fish souvenirs.
The Thaheuatai Fish Processing group has over 30 shops here selling fish products at a reasonable price.
The group was established in 2014 with 22 shops and later extended to 33 outlets as its clientele grew. The group has received the One District, One Product label, as a guarantee of quality.
Ms Koud Vongdara, one of the fish processing group committee members in Thaheuatai village, told Vientiane Times how she makes the som pa that she sells in her shop. She always buys fresh fish from local vendors and chooses only giant snakehead fish and clown knifefish.
Fresh ingredients and the selection of herbs and spices determine the unique taste and smell of som pa, she added.
She cleans the fish and uses only the meat, which becomes the main ingredient. Shoppers can choose between the two different fish meats depending on their preference.
The fish is chopped finely and mixed with salt and a little bit of seasoning. It is then mixed with cooked sticky rice, garlic and other flavourings.
“Too much salt would make it too salty but if I don’t add enough the end product won’t smell good, so there is a fine balance to the amount of salt you need to add. Garlic and herbs also mask the fishy smell really well,” Ms Koud said.
After everything has been mixed together, the fish is wrapped in clean banana leaves and about two days later it is ready to eat. It can be eaten immediately or after being grilled on a stove to create a nice aroma from the banana leaves, Ms Koud added.
Som pa in banana leaves sell for 4,000 kip a piece or 50,000 kip for 15. She can also offer a special wholesale price.
Ms Koud sells a variety of fish-based products such as dried fish, cheo pabum (spicy herbal fermented fish sauce), cheo padaek (spicy fermented fish sauce), crispy minnows with herbs, and crispy sour, sweet, and salty fish skin.
Her customers come from across the country and foreign tourists also stop off to buy her products.
Minnows with herbs and crispy sour, sweet, and salty fish skin are popular among European and Korean visitors while som pa in banana leaves is the best seller among Lao people.
She also sells her products in other provinces with the support of local Industry and Commerce departments. On special occasions such as the Khao Kai Noi rice festival in Xieng Khuang province in 2015, the annual Elephant Festival in Xayaboury province, and the That Luang Festival in Vientiane this year she has also displayed her wares.
She did a brisk trade at these festivals and received good feedback from customers. At the recent That Luang festival she made over 8 million kip a day.
Her prices start at just 4,000 kip and her shop at the new Thaheua market is open daily from 5am to 11pm.
If you’re going past the market any time soon, don’t forget to stop off and buy som pa and some of the other fish products from Ms Koud’s shop.

By Souksamai Boulom
(Latest Update November 11, 2017)

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