There are certain foods around the world which nearly always divide people’s opinions right down the middle: Liquorice, Marmite/Vegemite, Blue Cheese, Anchovies, the list goes on. With these food items, people rarely take a middle ground; it’s either a love or hate relationship.
Cambodia is no different. There is one part of Khmer cuisine which stands out above all others as far as tourists and expats are concerned: Prahok, also known as Cambodian cheese because of its strong – at times almost overpowering – smell and flavour.
It’s an almost uniquely Cambodian dish. In fact, prahok is so intertwined with the Cambodian way of life that the national currency is named after the main fish, the trey-riel, which is used to make it. Its starting point in history is unknown, but what is certain is that it has been used in Khmer cuisine for centuries.
Three year prahok is the best
But just what is prahok? Put simply, it’s a fish paste, usually brown or white in colour, which is made by first putting small fish which have been beheaded – usually the aforementioned trey riel but other varieties are also used – in a basket then crushing them into a pulp. The crushing part is usually done the traditional way, by foot, but some prahok producers now use machines too. The paste at this stage is then left in the sun to dry, usually for a full day, before it is salted and fermented and placed in jars to ‘mature’. The minimum maturation process is around 20 days but, like a good wine, prahok aficionados are adamant that the best prahok is left for at least a year, and three year prahok is regarded as the best.
But prahok is more than just a foodstuff. If you find yourself near any of the major rivers, or around the Tonle Sap lake, during the period between around late December and late February when the fish migrate, then you will see prahok production in full swing. The time around the full moon at the end of January is ‘peak production’ time, and you will see the riverbanks crowded with entire families catching the fish or buying catches from others before making their own prahok. With all ages joining in, and the multitude of colourful kramas on display, it is a scene which encapsulates a snapshot of Cambodian life that has changed little in hundreds of years.
Prahok : a vital nutritional supplement
Roughly 10% of the fish caught each year in Cambodia – which averages a total of around 400,000 tons annually – will be made into prahok. Prahok serves a practical purpose for many Cambodians too. In lean years, it serves as a vital nutritional supplement to a rice diet for many rural Cambodians, especially farming communities.
While many foreigners may initially turn their noses up at raw prahok, they will usually innocently go on to eat – and enjoy – dishes which prahok is an important ingredient of. That old tourist favourite, Fish Amok, usually has prahok in it. As does most Cambodian soups. So while you may not find Cambodian cheese appetising on its own, give the dishes which use it a try and you will be more than pleasantly surprised.
If you are a new visitor to Cambodia, there is one sight you may quickly become accustomed to. Cambodians rarely eat breakfast at home, and if you are out and about in the early morning, be it in the urban sprawl of Phnom Penh or in the more rural areas, you will see the ubiquitous roadside eateries, usually part of a shophouse, with full tables for a couple of hours each morning. If you investigate closer, then you will find many of the customers are eating a similar dish; Num Banh Chok, one of Cambodia’s most popular breakfast choices.
What is Num Banh Chok?
Num Banh Chok are the rice noodles on which this dish is based, but it is also the general name for the dish itself. There is a Cambodian myth – or is it legend? – that these rice noodles were invented here and not in China. Whether there is any truth to this is lost in the mists of time.
The noodles can be served in a number of ways, and there are also several provincial variations to the dish, so the Num Banh Chok you eat in Phnom Penh may differ greatly from that tried in Mondulkiri. The version in Siem Reap goes heavier on coconut milk and garlic and comes with a sweeter sauce, but my own favourite is the Kampot version which is served with local shrimp, fish sauce, and peanuts, so if you find yourself in that beautiful riverside town, get up early and join the locals for a fantastic breakfast.
Cambodia’s most popular and common breakfast choices
The most common versions are served either with a Khmer curry called Somlor Kari, or with a freshwater fish soup called Somlor Proher. You will also find these wonderful rice noodles served in a variety of soups with the meat or seafood of your choice and with any of the amazing local vegetables including beansprouts, cucumber, chilies, banana blossoms etc., as well as local fragrant herbs such as basil or mint.
If you want to go a little more ‘upmarket’, there is even a Royal version of Num Banh Chok which includes cognac and chicken livers. Though with the cognac added, this may be a better food choice later in the day rather than first thing in the morning! And while it may be the staple breakfast of many Cambodians, you will also find that it is popular as a mid-afternoon ‘snack’ when those same shophouse eateries experience another rush of business.
No two Num Banh Choks ever taste the same
Beyond the shophouse restaurants, you will also find Num Banh Chok sold by many mobile vendors, particularly in the early mornings. If you spot a Cambodian lady with baskets hanging from a pole across her shoulders wandering the streets around any of the markets or side streets, then there is a very good chance that she is selling rice noodle dishes.
If you go to a different eatery or vendor each time you want to try this dish, then no two Num Banh Choks ever taste the same. Get away from the repetitive blandness of western breakfasts and try a bowl of these tasty rice noodles soon!