THE smell in the confined warehouse is overwhelming. Inside are 11 vats filled with fish at various stages of fermentation. I can take the smell for only a few minutes before rushing for the fresh air.
Even Uy Meng, the owner of Leang Heng fish sauce company, finds it difficult to work here for a prolonged period of time. He needs a break every hour and a half or so. A cursory visit is more than enough for me, so we continue our conversation outside where occasional gusts of wind remind us of the nature of his business.
Although he established the company four years ago, Uy Meng has only been selling the fish sauce for the last two years.
“It takes one to one-and-a-half years for the fish to become paste that we can use for fish sauce,” he explains.
The fish is kept in the vats with salt and water, each one contains five tonnes of the fishy liquid.
“The longer we keep the fish in the vats the better the quality of the sauce,” he says.
Eventually the residue will be drained off and then kept in huge jars outside the warehouse for the sun to burn off the excess liquid.
“If the sun is strong we can dry the sauce in 15 days, if the sun is not so strong it will take 20 days,” he says. “If we dry it for longer than this, the sauce will get very salty.”
Each year Uy Meng produces more than 10,000 litres of sauce, selling it mainly to markets in Kep and Kampot, although the occasional domestic tourist does come to his warehouse on the outskirts of Kep. “We sell some to Phnom Penh but there the competition is high,” he says.
Leang Heng is one of only two companies in Kep that produce fish sauce, although there are another six in Kampot, and at least two more that Uy Meng knows of in Sihanoukville.
The sauce costs between 5,000 and 25,000 riel depending on its quality.
“For the best we use only fish, water and salt,” he says. “To make lower quality sauce we add sugar.”
Uy Meng used to work at a crab meat processing factory in Kep, but decided to establish this factory a few years ago. It cost him $110,000 which he raised from his relatives.
“Fish sauce production is a long-term enterprise,” he says. “I want to expand more and we also plan to export to other countries.”
It is not access to capital that worries Uy Meng most, but the potential depletion of fish stock caused by over-fishing.
“I am a little concerned about the future, if our raw material becomes less and less it will become difficult for us,” he says. “There are a lot of fisherman now. In the future it might be a problem.”
INTERPRETER: RANN REUY