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Prahok: important as rice

Prahok: important as rice

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

season.

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

province.

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

book.

With their heads covered by the traditional, chequered krama

(scarf) family groups worked at a feverish pace to process the mass of

decomposing fish.

"I have been able to buy about 50 kilograms of fish to

make prahok-it's good (quality) but a bit expensive this year.

"The fish

are quite big compared to last year-but the quality is much better," said

Seang.

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

enterprise.

"The big fish are scarce this season-only the small ones are

common. These small fish are third class," said Ou Pek, 36.

The prahok

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

locals.

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

fertiliser.

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

ordinary Cambodians.

"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

self-confessed addict.

"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."

- Reuters

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