Disgusting? Cheesy? Stomach-turning? Delicious? No visitor to Camboida is ever ambivalent when faced with the strongest of local delicacies. And that’s because there really is nothing delicate about a food that smells like your teenage brother’s socks. No, we’re not talking durian — the spiky smelly fruit is child’s play compared with Cambodia’s fermented fish paste prahok.
This king of condiments is made from river fish, which are cleaned and descaled before traditionally being crushed under foot in a basket. To make the process slightly less icky, cobbled-together chopping and blending machines keep the maker’s feet fish-free. The resulting mush is dried in the sun for a day, then it’s popped into jars with plenty of salt and left to do what fish does best when its out of water. For at least three weeks. The end product looks grey, gritty and frankly, not very appetising.
But prahok isn’t about such superficialities as appearance or smell. To be honest, it’s not even really about the taste. It’s the overall package, that punches you at the back of the nose, stomps up and down on your taste buds and makes your eyes water. This is not so much food as assault and battery. But however combative the experience is for namby-pamby foreign palates, prahok is the staple of Cambodian food, much beloved and a useful source of protein for poorer families.
Chances are, if you’ve tried Cambodian soups or traditionally-made fish amok, you’ve already encountered prahok — it’s lurking there in those deep notes. In which case, you’re ready for a more knowing confrontation. A favourite way to eat prahok is as a dipping sauce with grilled beef.
If you’re in Phnom Penh, Sovana Restaurant in Tonle Bassac serves up freshly barbecued meat with an innocent-looking small green plastic bowl alongside. Lime juice and peanuts have been added, although there’s plenty of competition from the main ingredient. You can even enjoy prahok by itself — grilled in a banana leaf package and served with rice — but you might wish to work up to that challenge.
And if your first taste of this piquant Cambodian speciality makes you utter an expletive, there’s a good reason. The Khmer equivalent of ‘potty mouth’ is ‘moat si prahok‘ (mouth that eats prahok).
By Abigail Gilbert
Last updated on 25th August, 2013.
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