PREK KDAM - The pungent smell is enough to send most untested nostrils gagging
for relief but Cambodians are fanatical about this fishy condiment-prahok (fish
paste) to the uninitiated.
This month along the banks of the Tonle Sap
river the scent of freshly harvested rice fields has been temporarily replaced
by the all-pervasive odor of fermenting fish.
From the remote corners of
the country thousands of impoverished rice farmers and their families downed
tools this week and set forth in ox carts or battered, commune taxi trucks to
flock to the river banks and participate in the annual week-long fishing
Their goal is to buy from the river fishermen as much trey chong
var (small fish) as their hard-earned riel will allow and then render down the
putrefying mash into a whitish paste considered as vital to their diet as the
daily staple, rice.
"Prahok is our best food-it's as important as rice,"
said Seang Chan, 60, a toothless, peasant farmer from southern Kompong Speu
Seang, his 60 year old sister Som Chan and about 50 other
peasants left their hamlet five days ago to join thousands of fellow prahok
makers camped along the banks of the Tonlé Sap.
Earlier, thousands of
farmers and peasants descended on to the banks of the Tonlé Sap creating a
colorful and dusty spectacle in their distinctive ox carts-a scene that could
quite easily have been lifted from the pages of a Cambodian history
With their heads covered by the traditional, chequered krama
(scarf) family groups worked at a feverish pace to process the mass of
"I have been able to buy about 50 kilograms of fish to
make prahok-it's good (quality) but a bit expensive this year.
are quite big compared to last year-but the quality is much better," said
Seang said, he had been able to purchase enough small fry to make
sufficient prahok to last for six months and that he had no intention or selling
the sauce. "We'll keep it for eating not for selling."
"Last year it was
cheap-10 kilograms of fish cost only 1,200 riel," he said, adding that one kilo
this year cost between 4-5,000 riel ($1.75-$2).
Other prahok makers
preferred to use larger but more expensive fish for their paste-making
"The big fish are scarce this season-only the small ones are
common. These small fish are third class," said Ou Pek, 36.
making season tends to be a 'Cambodians only' affair. The Chinese and Vietnamese
communities do not share the same enthusiasm for the paste as do the
Cambodians use prahok as a flavoring for soups, a dip for green
mango or in the case of the poor rice farmers, a valuable protein supplement
during the lean seasons of which there are sadly, too many.
The recipe is
simple-to make prahok sauce the fish are first beheaded and the bodies tossed
into a strong basket and squashed to a pulp.
The leftover mash is then
press-dried, salted and pulverized before being stored in preserving jars for
future use. The fish heads are laid out to dry for use as natural
Local experts said the best quality 'prahok' comes from
northwest Siem Reap and sells in the market for 10,000 riel ($5) a huge sum for
"I first started cooking with prahok when I was six
or seven years old, but my mother told me not to eat too much because it could
alter my complexion," said Sodaly, an office assistant in Phnom Penh and
"If we don't put prahok in sour soup there is no
good taste," said her friend Narin, adding: "Prahok is for khmer food only."