Why you should care
With a pungent odor of fish left rotting for months, what’s not to love?
“Pass me the prahok,” I say, sitting with friends for a picnic in the Cambodian coastal town of Kep. As my friend hands over a small plastic container that looks like it could be filled with tuna or cat food, a Khmer woman gives a warning I interpret as, “Just a dab’ll do ya.” She’s right. A dab of prahok will do you fine.
The fermented fish paste, known also as “Cambodian cheese,” has a kick. It’s spicy, salty and comes with the pungent odor of fish left rotting for weeks or months — which it has been. It’s also used in many foods in Cambodia, mixed into soups and curries or left out as a condiment to dip with rice or vegetables. All it takes is a thumb-sized amount to make a flavorful meal out of a bowl of rice. But eating prahok is like tempting fate. Too small a portion and you’re left craving the intense flavor. Too much and it’s overwhelming, leaving you teary-eyed.
It’s no wonder that if you’re caught swearing in Cambodia you’ll earn the moniker of moat si prahok or “mouth that eats prahok.”
Despite being a diet staple, the price of prahok has increased steadily over the last few years, according to local reports. (Last year a vendor could sell just over two pounds for $1.75 whereas the previous year it was $1). While the cause is unclear, the availability of the fish is likely to blame. Drought in 2016 impacted water levels, which led to a smaller catch, raising the price of fish. Also, illegal fishing (the government attempts to regulate the duration of the season), upstream dams and pollution all strain supply. And all the while Cambodia’s fragile river ecosystems are dealing with an expanding population.
After the fish are scaled and decapitated — if making the paste traditionally — they’re placed into a wicker basket and mashed by foot.
Still, as Cambodian cuisine vies for more foreign admirers at home and abroad, expect prahok to be a signature element. And luckily for those wishing to try it, price increases don’t appear to have reached the restaurant level. It’ll be the distinctive flavor in amok — a type of curry steamed and served in banana leaves — and the special something added to sour soups. Also, as chefs experiment with Khmer fusion foods, as is done widely in Thailand, prahok is likely to be the grounding ingredient.
“It’s almost like a blue cheese,” says Nara Thuon, who teaches a cooking class at Good Times cafe in Phnom Penh. (I don’t agree, but see where he’s coming from). Thuon says that while growing up in Battambang, his family would make their own prahok and a batch could last up to three years. This involves buying up small river fish, mostly trey riel from the Tonle Sap, from December through March. After the fish are scaled and decapitated — if making the paste traditionally — they’re placed into a wicker basket and mashed by foot. Then, after adding lemongrass, salt and other spices, the mixture is put into jars or bags and left to ferment for weeks until ready. Prahok can also be made using small fish or big fish, with bone or without and using different spices, Thuon explains. This results in different degrees of sour and spicy, but always the distinct fishy flavor. “When I was young, every dish my mother or my grandmother cooked had prahok,” he says.
Still, prahok is sold in ample supply at any dark, covered market you happen to dip into in Phnom Penh. And it’s worth a taste — maybe in prahok k’tih, a fried pork and prahok fare served with vegetables. Or just go to the source. Look for a seller slowly fanning a grayish mound to keep the flies away. And follow your nose.