Fishy Fishy Fish, Treats and Eats:Prahok, et al

Or, everything you always wanted to know about Cambodian fish products, but were too afraid to ask.

As an Englishman, I like my fish either very simple, battered cod and chips, or very, very, fancy, say, a Crisp Skin Fillet of Red Snapper with Scallops, Aubergine Caviar with a Sun Dried Tomato and Sherry Sauce. One of the biggest changes with living in Cambodia is the unrelenting onslaught and volume of fish that is eaten here; fresh fish, dried fish, smoked fish, fish sauce, fish oil, fish et cetera.

Now I like a whole baked snakehead fish stuffed with bamboo, ginger and spring onions as much as the next guy (well, the next barang guy anyway) but there is one fishy product that seems to polarise opinions between Khmers and foreigners instantly.

Prahok: the all pervasive ingredient in traditional Khmer cooking; used as a condiment or a dip.

A lot of my colleagues used to giggle to themselves and try and get me to eat it raw with various things, usually with barbequed beef and raw vegetables. I can, usually, manage a few mouthfuls without gagging (too much) which is usually enough to surprise them into thinking I am a really, really, cool barang. Ha.

Prahok: Fermented Fish Paste

In general, there are two types of prahok; that is bony prahok and boneless prahok.

The bony product, produced from many kinds of fish, is most common, while boneless, which is produced mainly from the more expensive gouramy fish, is consumed almost exclusively by wealthier people and in restaurants. A related product, mum in Khmer, can be thought of as semi-final prahok (de-headed, eviscerated, de-scaled and salted) and is produced mainly from the spotted gouramy.

Two kilos of fresh fish will make one kilo of bony prahok, and three kilos of fresh gouramy will produce one kilo of boneless prahok.

Both of these types of prahok can be cooked and eaten in several ways:

Prahok chow. Is raw prahok, this is often made into a paste, sometimes flavoured with garlic, lemon grass or chillies and eaten with barbequed meat.

Prahok jieng. Is fried prahok, this is the best. It is regularly eaten with pork or beef, often flavoured chilli or garlic. It is also eaten as a dip, usually with vegetables like; cucumber, aubergine or white cabbage, as well as boiled rice.

Prahok gop. This, sort of, translates as covered prahok, is made by covering the raw prahok with banana leaves and placing it to cook slowly underneath a fire or barbeque pot, a sort of basic baking process.

However, it is interesting to note that Cambodia is not the first or only country to use such an additive or ingredient in its cooking.

Garum in ancient Rome was also a sauce made of fish that has been decomposing for several months. Widely used as a condiment by the ancient Greeks and Romans. It was made by taking small fish, the intestines of some larger fish, maybe some oysters, salting them, maybe add some vinegar, pepper and other spices. Then set this in the hot sun for several days. At this point it is called liquimen. As this appetising mass of stuff fermented and putrefied it oozed a liquid. This liquid was garum. Used as a seasoning in cooking and also as a table condiment. There are several modern versions of this: Pissalat from Nice and nuoc-mam in Vietnam, for example. The remaining paste was also used as an ingredient or condiment, much like prahok.

Of course, it is not just fresh fish and prahok, as anyone who has been here for more than five minutes can tell you.

No we have many, many, other fishy Khmer ‘treats’

Smoked Fish

Smoked fish is the second most common form of preserved fish, after prahok, for your average Cambodian; it is less fatty with smaller bones. Flat fish such as krytopterus sp.(trey kes in Khmer) are the most suitable fish for smoking, but in recent years, with the decline in supply of this species, the choice of other fish, such as small Cyprinidae fish (trey real) was inevitable. The peak period for smoked fish production occurs at the same time as the abundant catch period – November to February.

Since four kilos of fresh fish is needed to produce one kilo of smoked fish, and with the cost of firewood and labour, the cost of smoked fish can be as high as 20,000 riel per kilo.

Fermented Fish

Fermented fish, pha?ork in Khmer, is another traditional preserved fish product. Usually, fermented fish is produced from a number of large fish species (Cyprinidae, Leptobarbus, Puntius, and Silluridae).

With the decline in larger sized fish, the smaller Cyrpinidae fish (trey real) is now also being used for this.

To produce fermented fish they are first eviscerated, chopped into a number of large pieces (if large fish), then salted before storing for several months in an earthen jar. Yeast and other ingredients are mixed with the salty fish to give it its ‘special flavour.’

Normally, two kilos of fresh fish will yield one kilo of fermented fish. 20% of the finished product is salt, which along with labour costs, flavouring ingredients, et cetera places the price of the finish product at around 5,000 riel per kilo.

Salt-Dried Fish

Various types of fish are used to prepare salt-dried fish, many with only local Khmer names.
These products contribute several hundred tones per year to consumption, usually at a very cheap price, 4,000 riel per kilo or less.

Chewing, moist, salty old (much used) shoe leather is about the only way I can describe eating this.

Freshwater Fish Sauce

Production of freshwater fish sauce (tuck trey in Khmer) by large commercial enterprises has declined over the last decade, with the rise of small enterprises and family business, which play a very important role in domestic supply. The large and medium-sized enterprises located around the cities were gradually replaced, due to market size constraints and price competition from small enterprises. Production is around 3 million litres of fish sauce every year, of which about 1 million litres is ‘first grade’ or a premium product, with the rest being the ‘normal’ product for urban markets, although there are no specific standards for fish sauce classification.

In general, one kilo of fresh fish can produce three litres of normal grade fish sauce or one litre of premium quality, plus 1 litres of normal quality. The wholesale price of fish sauce is around 1,500 Riel per litre of first grade and 700 Riel per litre of normal grade.

Dried Freshwater Shrimp

Also known as ‘instant dental treatment needed’.

Commercial processing was started over a decade ago, along side the increase in freshwater shrimp fishing. One kilo of dried shrimp requires ten kilos of fresh shrimp. The fresh shrimp are boiled in salty water, then dried under the sun two or three days before pealing the shell, using a pealing machine. If purchased direct from the businesses in Kampot the price can be as low as 8,500 Riel per kilo.

Steamed Fish

Steamed (well, brine-boiled actually) fish is one of the oldest processed fish products; it is eaten by both coastal and inland Khmers. Two different species of mackerel (of the genus Rastrelliger) and a few species of scads are the raw materials for steamed fish processing. The main suppliers of those species to the streamed fish processors are mackerel purse seiners and, occasionally, gill-netters. The peak period for mackerel and scads species occurs in August to February.

Most steamed fish processors are based in Sihanoukville and Kampot province, with a few others in Koh Kong.

The procedure used by the larger producers is to wash the fresh fish, but not eviscerate or behead them, then boil in brine filled bamboo baskets for around one and a half hours. About half the weight of the fish remains after processing, because the brine draws the water by osmosis from the tissues of the fish. The fish, still in their covered bamboo baskets, are then stored under mosquito netting to avoid flies, before being transported to temporary cold storage in Phnom Penh, where it is then distributed throughout the country.

Small Dried Shrimp

Small Metapenaeus shrimp, caught by small-scale fishing gear, are sold in fresh condition to middlemen. Poorer quality selections are boiled in brine, then sun-dried for the local market.

About five kilos of fresh shrimp will yield one kilo of dried shrimp. If purchased direct the price can be as low as 25,000 riel per kilo.

Shrimp Paste

The production of shrimp paste is a traditional food preservation technique of coastal Khmers, usually located in or near mangrove forests. Shrimp paste (kapik or kii in Khmer) is made from brine shrimp, which is a very tiny shrimp species living in and around the mangrove forests where it is mostly caught by hand ‘push nets’ during the night.

Fishermen immediately process the catch, transferring it to a tank or jar where the fresh shrimp is mixed with salt, approximately 20% by weight. A day later, the mixture is then pounded using wooden sticks until a paste is produced. It is then transported to local markets. Four kilos of fresh shrimp will produce one kilo of shrimp paste.

Dried Squid

The production of dried squid has declined significantly during the last decade, this is due to the rise in demand for fresh squid in urban restaurants and frozen squid for export.

Dried squid processing is very simple. Squid are simply eviscerated, then sun-dried for two to three days. Almost all fishing households dry squid in small quantities for family consumption, but some sell the excess to local markets. Five kilos of fresh squid will yield one kilo of dried product. In Phnom Penh you can find it in most of the Khmer markets for around 30,000 riel per kilo.

Dried Ray and Shark

The surplus of fresh ray and shark from local market is processed into salt-dried ray and shark. Processing is conducted by fishing families, or retailers, in small quantity. Three kilos of fresh fish produces only one kilo of dried ray or shark, as the head, bone, and cartilage are, surprisingly, not used. Dried shark is very popular in non-coastal rural areas where it is often eaten as a snack food for small traditional countryside parties. At P?sar Tool Tum Pong (The Russian Market) last week the price was 15,000 riel per kilo.

Dried Sea Cucumber

Sea cumber is only edible when it has been processed, which is a time consuming procedure; boiling, skin peeling, re-boiling, and drying.

It is mainly produced for family consumption by the poorer fishermen or as an additional activity during the dry season. Shrimp trawlers that catch them often just throw them back into the sea.

Having tasted it once, I would also throw it away.

Due to the long and time consuming processing, it retails at about 25,000riel per kilo, usually only found in coastal markets, or for some strange reason, the occasional Chinese restaurant on Monivong Boulevard.

Salted Mangrove Crab

Made in Koh Kong and Kampot Provinces, fishermen collect the small mangrove crabs in the ever decreasing mangrove forests, soak them in brine for several days, before selling them to the local markets. When seen at the market, it looks singularly unappetisingly – pickled crab in dark brown brine, but it is popular with coastal Khmers. As it can not be preserved for a long periods of time, a lot of people sell at once to wholesalers from Vietnam or Thailand.

Lord Playboy
Semi Professional Fish Botherer

The views in this column are entirely those of Lord Playboy of Phnom Penh, Sonteipheap and that muddy patch of ground next to the school; they are in no way representative of Khmer440, its editors, staff or a corn-fed gimp, of any Ministry of the Royal Government of Cambodia that employs Lord Playboy, of men who own Shirley Bassey records, of Californian rock bands, of anyone who panics out of sight of another white face, or the Welsh. Damn, things will be different when I am running the Country.

One thought on “Fishy Fishy Fish, Treats and Eats:Prahok, et al

  1. Pekka Astrom Reply


    This absolutely was a useful article on the different fish in the Cambodian kitchen. It seems well researched.

    However, I often stumble upon another certain product as I cycle through Cam: the small, plastic jars with shrimps in a red liquid.

    I think they are actually pickled shrimps, and can also see some salt crystals in some of the tightly packed jars.

    What are they, salty shrimps, or what? Are they safe to eat?

    The price is usually 2 USD, so not too expensive. They look delicious!

    On the other hand, I suppose they must be kept in a fridge after opening. One would have to eat a lot of them within a couple of days, haha!

    Just curious…

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