“Even when you go to the U.S. or France, always think of Cambodian food, never skip the great taste of Prahok… ”
This is the lyrics of a traditional Cambodian song “Prahok Srok Khmer, which means ”Cambodian Prahok”.
Prahok is considered as an ingredient central in most Cambodian food. It is a fermented fish paste, crushed from finger-sized fish and salted down into bags or plastics jars to sit for weeks, if not months, to ferment. Prahok alone can be a dish, or used as a dipping sauce to include with other dishes.
For Cambodians, Prahok is like a source of identity. Daroth Chay, a Cambodian student who is studying his postgraduate in the UK brought with him the taste of home abroad.
“I usually cook it with lemon grass and minced pork. I mainly eat it when I miss home”.
Think of the smell of dead fish being put for months to ferment, that’s the strong and distinct smell of Prahok. Nicknamed as Cambodian cheese, it sometimes scares away foreigners who haven’t tried the taste of Southeast Asian food.
Lindarose Curtis, an American with strong interest in Southeast Asian culture, described her impression when she saw them.
“So many bubbling over jars of stinky but tasty stuff at the market near the beach” she said.
“I tried some with rice and enjoyed it. My Cambodian friend and her friends made me do it!”
Prahok can be eaten in many different ways. You will be surprised how tasty it is when cooked in different dishes, completely shifting the ugly and smelly look to many delicious national delicacies.
Prahok dipping sauce with steak is one of the popular Cambodian foods. Steak (slice of grilled beef) is served with the sauce and varieties of veggies and herbs.
Another famous dish made with Prahok is Prahok ktis, it is a rather spicy sauce combined with curry paste called Kroeung. It is also another authentic Cambodian cuisine.
In fact, the fermentation of fish as a national cuisine is not only practiced in Cambodia. Many Southeast Asian countries use fermented fish as sauce or ingredient.
In Thai there is Pla ra which is a traditional Thai seasoning. Ngapi is a pungent paste in Burmese cuisine. Balachong, on the other hand, is a Malaysian and Singaporean form of ngapi. The Philippines and Vietnam has Bagoong and Mắm, respectively.
It can be argued that fish sauce gives Southeast Asian a distinct taste. While it may have strong stinky smell, it gives food a heavenly taste, making a lot of people who are not from Southeast Asia fall in love with it.
By Sokunthea Hang, ASEAN Correspondent from Cambodia