Prahok is a crushed, salted and fermented fish paste (usually of mud fish) that is used in Cambodian cuisine as a seasoning or a condiment. It originated as a way of preserving fish during the longer months when fresh fish was not available in abundant supply. Because of its saltiness and strong flavour, it was used as an addition to many meals in Cambodian cuisine, such as soups. Prahok has a strong and distinct smell, earning the nickname Cambodian Cheese. Prahok is usually eaten with rice in the countryside or poorer regions.

Because it is easily stored and preserved, Prahok is sometimes distributed as a donation to victims of flood or drought by charities and other organizations. It can be eaten cooked or fried, but is usually not eaten raw because of health issues (raw Prahok cannot be stored long due to its going bad if not eaten in a short period of time) and the unpleasant smell it makes.

Preparation of Prahok

Prahok is prepared using fresh fish (both large and small). Typically, the larger the fish, the more valuable the Prahok made from it. Some types are rarer than others and the rarest are considered delicacies, thus are more expensive. One of the pricier types is one made from the gourami fish.
Prahok is obtained by crushing or grinding fresh fish after de-scaling, gutting and cleaning them. They can be crushed underfoot, like wine grapes, or processed by machine. After the fish is crushed, it is left in the sun for a full day, then salted and sealed in jars full of salt.
Prahok can be eaten after just 20 days of fermentation, but better quality Prahok can be preserved for one to three years.

Types of Prahok

Fried Prahok
Prahok jien   It is usually mixed with meat (usually beef or pork) and chilli. It can also be eaten as a dip, accompanied by vegetables like cucumbers or eggplants, and rice.
Covered Prahok
Prahok gop or Prahok ang  This type of prahok is covered with banana leaves and left to cook under a fire under pieces of rock or over the coals.
Raw Prahok
Prahok chao  This type of prahok can be used to make a paste with lemon grass, lime juice, fresh peppers, and Thai eggplant eaten with steak. Also this is the type of Prahok preferably used as a dipping paste for vegetables and fruits .

"Ladies deboning fish at the Bprahok factories" © Keith Kelly
Used with kind permission.

The Faster Times
March 15, 2010
Karen Coates

The soul of Khmer cuisine resides in a murky barrel of a potent, fishy paste that graces every meal—prahok. It’s the odiferous spice of Cambodia, the protein-packed punch of grandma’s soup and auntie’s curry. Just a little dab will do, thanks to the olfactory power of fermentation. It takes the country’s blazing sun, its muddy waters and the sweat of its people to lug and crush, salt and dry, heaps and piles of tiny fish, which then rot into potent distinction. Prahok is indeed the heart of a nation; its juices, the blood that keeps Cambodia running.

Why, then, are some Khmers shunning this heritage?

“Now I don’t like prahok anymore,” says Keo Touch, who goes by the name of “Toot” and runs a Battambang cooking school with his wife, Nuon Nary.

His statement catches me off guard, so I start asking questions. The answers, I realize, I have heard many times before.

“Now I am a towner, I am no longer a farmer,” he says. “Some people look down on you if you eat prahok, because if you eat prahok, you are a farmer, you are poor.”

I understand his concern. Poverty is a pestilence that Cambodians everywhere aim to escape. This is a countrified state, with 13.3 million people scattered among some 14,000 villages housing more than 80 percent of the population. Read the other way: only 20 percent of Cambodians live in a city. Of those, many have ended up on the urban scene because they lost land, got sick, needed money or suffered some heinous tragedy that left them no recourse. The average Cambodian earns less than $2 a day. Marginally few are the people like Toot, who built a thriving business after years of destitution.

Toot says the scent of prahok reminds them of the farm. And the farm is a place that offers no easy life. Plus, it comes with the added baggage of memory—every Cambodian spent 1975-1979 as a farmer under the genocidal Khmer Rouge. And every survivor harbours stories of slave-like labour, death and starvation. No surprise, people want to forget.

It’s as though Toot internalizes the acrid smell of prahok as a blemish on his character—untrue as that might be. “I am very ashamed if I tell about prahok to my students,” he says. “Because if I tell, and they smell, they run away.” Only if they ask do his recipes and market tours include prahok, that most fundamental of Cambodian ingredients. “Now I use shrimp paste. Shrimp paste is not very strong.”

Still, it’s Nary’s kitchen (she cooks while Toot peruses the market and chats up the students), so I ask her about prahok as she minces an almond butter-coloured pad of the stuff. “Yeah,” she smiles, “I like.” No problem for her.

When I get to Phnom Penh—the throbbing capital of hustle, bustle and noise—I ask my long-time friend, Ke Monin, whether he can vouch for Toot’s ideas. “Yeah, sure,” he agrees. He is “100 percent sure,” if people have money, “they don’t want to eat prahok.” He says rich Khmers eat fish paste only once every few months. “When they don’t have money, they eat a lot.”

I ask one more source, the notable photographer Heng Sinith, a long-time friend and confidante. Sinith is the most knowledgeable Cambodian I know. He has Access with a capital A. He makes friends with everyone, singing karaoke with cops and schmoozing with bodyguards while taking his liver to the outer limits. Meanwhile, secrets emerge in the blur of inebriation.

Sinith doesn’t think Khmers willingly forgo the fish of their identity—least of all, he. “I really like real Khmer food,” he says. Nonetheless, he insists prahok will disappear as quickly as the fish in Cambodia’s ailing lakes and rivers (diminished fish stocks are a growing worry). “The people will never deny prahok,” Sinith says, but “prahok will be finished because there are no more fish.”

And that is a story for another time.