Cambodian Food Recipe Key Ingredient, Prahok
Fish and rice have been key elements of the Cambodian diet for many centuries, even today, Cambodians still preserve fish by fermentation. Prahok is a fermented fish paste that provides the strongest and most distinctive flavour in Cambodian cuisine. It is probably the most distinctive flavour in all of Cambodian cookings and is certainly the most unusual for Westerners due to its strong, pungent scent reminiscent of spoiled cheese or men’s dirty sock that’s been cured in their locker room for months. In fact, due to the pungent unappetizing scent, many Cambodian restaurateurs use minuscule amounts of prahok in the food they serve westerners, or none at all, in comparison to domestic cooking where prahok is used very liberally. Beyond the scent, however, is the savoury flavour it gives to dishes –a kind of body and volume that a dish takes on that is beyond saltiness.
Much like kreoung, Cambodian prahok are usually freshly made in Cambodian households in rural areas. Fresh fish are cleaned, crushed and then left to dry in the sun. They are then salted and placed into baskets where the runoff liquid collected can be used to make fish sauce or tirk trey in Cambodian. After drying and salting again, the fish are then left to ferment in large earthenware, clay pots or airtight plastic containers for months.
It originated as a way of preserving fish during the long months when fresh fish was not available in abundant supply for the poor rural citizens in Cambodia –at times, it would be the only source of protein in a meal —eaten with rice. During the wet season when the fish are in abundance, locals begin making a copious amount of prahok in preparation for the dry season ahead, when water levels are at their lowest.
Over the years, however, prahok immersed itself in all parts of Cambodian cooking and found its place as a distinctive flavour enhancer in soup, side dishes, salads, and dips. In the Cambodian national dish somlar kako, if fish is scarce, prahok is used as both a source of protein and a powerful flavouring agent along with the usual seasonal vegetables.
There are two basic types of prahok, prahok trey touy is one made with small fish and prahok sach tom is made with larger fish, bone removed. Prahok trey touy is generally used by adding boiling water to some prahok and using the resulting teuk prahok (prahok water) as a flavouring agent –the solids with usually includes tiny bones are then discarded. This prahok water can be made in large quantities, stored in an airtight container, and refrigerated for several weeks. Prahok sach tom is often chopped finely and put into the dish or used as part of a dipping sauce, usually eaten with fresh vegetables —in recipes such as prahok ktiss.
Prahok can be purchased in most Asian grocery stores such as B&T, or T&T. The imported Thai brands are usually the one most Cambodian family in Canada or US purchases, with the favourite being the Siem Reap Style version –the one with the drawing of Angkor Wat and Khmer letters on the label. It is the closest to authentic Cambodian prahok, made with the preferred mud fish, and all bones removed. When Cambodians visit their homeland, they usually come back with luggage full of prahok in airtight containers wrapped tightly with newspaper —to stop the pungent scent. The amount of prahok brought over would last them for years until their next visit that is. YES —Cambodians love prahok that much.
Prahok has a very distinctive and strong taste. It is an acquired taste, and most newcomers may want to use a light touch to start their Cambodian culinary adventure.