I hired a crap bicycle that kept losing a pedal and went in search of what I’d been told was one of the smelliest places in the world – Cambodia’s prahok-making hub, Phsar Prahok, on the banks of the Sangker river, a few miles from Battambang.
How anyone could ever know it’s one of the smelliest places in the world, I have no idea, and I’ve been to a few. But mention the name and even Cambodians hold their nose. I kept cycling up and down mud tracks, and stopped to ask people for directions. But no-one knew what I was going on about.
The smell of rotten fish was definitely getting stronger though. There was just a gentle breeze in the hot midday sun, but sometimes with the wind on my face as I cycled, there was the distant whiff of Cambodia’s infamously smelly fermented fish paste.
I kept cycling, and then stopped to ask an old woman for directions. She was selling boiled duck embryos at the side of the road. She had five chairs outside her stall, and her cats took up two of them. I didn’t want to push them off. They looked vicious. The sort of cats used to keep snakes away.
I thought about dark, hooded encounters with monocled cobras hissing like garage tyre inflators. One of the cats yawned at me and stretched out its claws. It licked its lips, and we both looked round in the same direction. The wind had definitely changed. The smell was coming from somewhere behind those trees.
I asked the woman again and she kept shaking her head when I said Phsar Prahok. Then she asked if I could speak French. She started to babble and slowly words came back to me, and before I knew it she was shouting Phsar Prahok exactly the way I’d said it to her, and I’d gone through a number of possibilities.
She slapped me on the chest, as if to say “why didn’t you say so all along”, and then pointed to where the ginger cat was drooling. A mile later, the stench of putrid fish was breathtaking. Prahok is so strong if you get some on your hands, you soon know about it. Even bleach doesn’t get rid of the smell. Or as some wit put it: “To describe prahok as pungent is being too charitable. It smells like it should be buried with corn seed.”
There was a huge fish processing plant hidden behind iron gates and then further on, where the boats were moored, huts filled with people covered in fish guts. Men were offloading fish they’d netted from the river, and the locals were sorting them into plastic barrels, before the real process of prahok fermentation would begin, exactly the way their ancient ancestors had done to preserve fish and guarantee a year-round supply of protein.
The fish are cleaned and then salted before being left to rot in the sun for a day – which helps kick off the fermentation process. More salt is added. Then they are weighted and left in huge barrels for months, depending on the desired taste or price, with prices rising in the rainy season when the paste becomes scarce. In some of the other huts they were smoking and curing fish. Racks of fish no bigger than sticklebacks were being slowly grilled over embers until deep bronze and rigid.
It’s these preserved fish products that define traditional Khmer food and differentiate it from the strong culinary influences of China, Vietnam, Thailand, and much further back, India and Sri Lanka. Many countries use fermented pastes and sauces, of course, to add the savoury, meaty ‘fifth taste’ of umami to food. China and Japan have soy sauce and miso made from fermented soy beans, wheat flour, water, and salt. Vietnam and Thailand have fish sauce, drained from fermented anchovies, prawns or squid. And there are many other varieties around the world.
But none have the peculiar, cheesy punch of prahok. Most people agree it tastes of blue cheese. But it’s more the harshness and saltiness of Danish blue rather than the creamier, more refined flavour of say Roquefort or Stilton. And always there on the palate and in the nose is the smack of rotten fish, as though you’ve been cutting skata with the cheese knife.
For that reason, you don’t see it on restaurant menus much, especially in places where tourists go. Sadly, many Khmers talk about how it’s now looked down on by Cambodia’s emerging middle class as a reminder of the bad old days. They say it’s the smell of poverty – a remembrance of tough, previous lives working on the farm.
It’s certainly true of Cambodia’s aspirational brand pop videos, which always seem to feature affluent, pale-skinned Khmer couples with silly haircuts posing around in shiny SUVs that would keep a whole village in food for a year. You never see them munching prahok at a street stall. It’s always pizza or fried chicken in soulless, chain-style restaurants.
It breaks my heart more than the appalling car crash, which is how most Khmer music videos seem to end, with a girl crying hysterically, holding the lifeless body of her boyfriend in her arms, and screaming “WHY!” at the sky. Which is not the best viewing when you’re being forced to watch it on a bus clattering away on tyres with less grip than a pickled egg.
After an hour, I could take no more and cycled across the bridge to the old woman’s stall. The cats were still there, but this time there was a seat free. The ginger cat sniffed the air again and looked at me. The smell had suddenly got a lot stronger.