As the weather cools down and the waters recede, it’s time for Cambodian people to get their fishing nets out. Settlements of tents and makeshift wooden structures appear on the shores of lakes and rivers. The reason for all this activity is simple: it’s time to make Cambodia’s national dish, a fish paste called prahok.
The epicentre of this activity is Phsar Prahok at Prek Tacheng village, about twelve kilometres from Battambang town on the Sanke river where hundreds of tons of fish are bought and sold each year.
Larng Sory, 43, cleans huge jars for storing prahok that will arrive soon from fishermen from the Tonle Sap lake. Larng Sory and 50 other fellow traders buy fish paste from and then may sell on to traders from Battambang town, Banteay Meanchey, Siem Reap or Phnom Penh. However, most of the time she keeps it until the rainy season, when parahok becomes scarce. She can then get a good price for the pungent product .
“The prahok season is starting … from mid December onwards, we will see more and more fishermen,” Larng Sory says, “fish does not keep well. It will be spoiled. But our ancestors have left us prahok. It is a traditional method to keep fish longer.”
Prahok is not so different from French cheese but it is made from fish. Fish is crushed to remove the scales and mixed with salt. Cambodian people put Prahok in their soup or add to other food to add flavour.
Larng Sory expects to buy about five tons of fish paste from fishermen from the Tonle Sap lake and keep it for selling over the course of the year.
But another trader, Yi Pek, 46, wants to buy up to seven tons of fish paste. He knows that the prahok market is a good market to be in because Cambodians will want to eat it all year.
“When fishermen brought their prahok to sell to us in previous years, we noticed that the number of fish in our country decreased. I assume that there is only 30 per cent of fish stocks left. But I hope the amount of fish will increase this year after we had the big flood,” Yi Pek said.
At Phsar Prahok, fishermen get about 1000 riel per kilogram of prahok from traders. The traders can then sell this on for about 2000 riel to traders from cities and towns. Traders in places like Phnom Penh can sell prahok for five times this amount.
Mann Chanta, an assistant at a prahok business called Battambang Golden Fish, says that he hasn’t started buying prahok from fishermen yet, even though they are catching fish to make it. He’s waiting to see how the market stands before he makes any purchases. When orders from other provinces come in, he will start to buy.
“Every year we get orders from other provinces. as well as Thailand. We cannot just buy prahok in or we may not sell it. It’s better to wait until we have order. For now, let other traders start their small business first,” Mann Chanta says.