The soul of traditional Khmer cuisine resides in a barrel of pungent fermented fish paste whose signature aroma is loved by most Cambodians as much as it is loathed by most foreigners. Prahok, a concoction of crushed and salted fish left to ferment until it acquires its potent distinction, is a versatile condiment served with nearly every meal.
Produced each year between December and March when thousands of trey riel, a type of small mud carp, swarm into Cambodia’s rivers, prahok originated as a way of preserving fish for the leaner months in villages where even today refrigeration is uncommon.
But its production cycle – involving murky water, rotting fish mash and crude processing techniques – leaves a whole lot that can go wrong. And given prahok’s odiferous qualities, telling the difference between a good batch and one that has “gone off” can prove challenging.
To protect consumers – and to open the door for exports – the government has drawn up the first-ever industry standard for Cambodian prahok producers. The new standard, introduced in September, defines the characteristics of traditional prahok, including its accepted colour, odour and preparation process, while setting limits on chemical additives and pathogen counts. Samples of the product must be analysed in licensed laboratories before receiving certification.
Kao Sochivi, a fisheries administration official at Ministry of Agriculture, said prahok was a staple food product eaten daily by most Cambodians and so its production warranted extra caution.
“Prahok is a special traditional product that is necessary for daily usage,” she said, adding that the average family consumes over 10 kilograms of the fish paste a year. “So we need to be concerned about its quality, hygiene and standard in order to protect consumers.”
Sochivi said the lack of a national quality standard had prevented Cambodian producers from exporting prahok to other world markets. Instead, thousands of tonnes of semi-finished product are exported to Thailand each year, where factories there process and package it for sale to the Cambodian diaspora. The jars – one brand stamped with an image of Angkor Wat and labelled in Khmer as “Siem Reap prahok” – bear the fine print “Product of Thailand.”
Consumers might be disappointed to learn their contents are often made from crushed snakehead fish, not the trey riel used in traditional prahok. Sochivi said the new standard would ensure consumers get the real deal, and would add value to the product so that it was recognised in the international market.
“If we can produce prahok according to a standard, it will build a reputation for Cambodia,” she said. Cambodia has been beefing up its industrial standards to comply with the Asean Economic Community (AEC) framework, which is phasing out tariffs for trade between its 10 member states.
“After joining the AEC, there are no longer tariffs, so product standards are now the main requirement for exporting,” explained Chan Borin, director-general of the Institute of Standards of Cambodia.
Prior to 2014, there were less than a 100 industrial standards for all products in Cambodia. Today there are 770, of which 218 are mandatory for AEC cross-border trade, he said.
Borin said prahok desperately needed a standard, as producers were trying to “compete on price rather than quality”, putting consumers at risk. He said the new national quality standard would ensure that no short cuts are taken during the production of the fermented fish paste, levelling the playing field for producers and improving their export potential.
“When a product gets the standard certificate, it guarantees for instance that no chemical colouring was used on the dried fish in the prahok,” he said. “The product will be stamped to indicate that it is a safe, high-quality food item, which increases its chances to compete in other AEC markets.”
But is there a market? Hean Vanhan, deputy director-general of the General Directorate of Agriculture, thinks so. “Initially there would be a small market, but there’s no doubt that Cambodians living abroad crave the taste of prahok,” Vanhan said. “The standard is a way to open up the international market to local producers, giving them a chance to export directly.”
He added that with a standard ensuring their shipments would not be rejected by border inspectors in other countries, investors are likely to establish factories in Cambodia, obviating the reliance on Thai processing plants.
Prahok could also command regional appeal. While its fishy pungency repels most Westerners, it is a decidedly familiar for Asian palates. The fermented fish paste is strikingly similar to Thailand’s nam plaa, Vietnam’s nuoc mam and Burmese ngapi, which are used liberally in the preparation of many national dishes.
Yet many local prahok traders are not convinced the new standard will increase their export revenues. Some worry it will drive up costs, eroding their local sales as well.
“I only export semi-finished prahok to Thailand, and if I follow the standard, those traders will not buy from me [due to added costs],” said Hok Pring, president of Angkor Golden Fish Enterprise in Siem Reap.
“It is also hard to sell our prahok with this standard in the domestic market because consumers tend to stick with their favourite trusted producer,” she added.
Sochivi said compliance with the prahok quality standard is strictly voluntary, but it would become mandatory if an ongoing government study demonstrates that unregulated prahok production poses a potential health threat.
“If the study proves there is an impact on health, we will adopt a mandatory standard and those producers that do not comply will be fined or shut down,” she said.
For now, however, the focus is on educating rural prahok producers so that they understand the benefit of adhering to the standard.
“If we certify the product, it will fetch higher prices in the market because consumers will consider their health before price,” she said.
This story was produced under the Reporting ASEAN: 2015 and Beyond series from IPS Asia-Pacific, with the support of The Asia Foundation.