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.