A Khmer curry is the centerpiece of a Cambodian celebratory meal. It’s also one of the most satisfying dishes a newcomer to the cuisine can learn to make. Over two months in Cambodia, I had several opportunities to try my hand at curry-making in some very aromatic, lively cooking sessions. Everyone showing me how to make a Cambodian curry offered the same advice: “The secret to the intense yet subtle flavors of the curry is freshly pounded kroeung, or spice paste!”. As time-consuming as it is aromatic in the making, kroeung is often made using prahok, a fermented fish paste unique to Cambodia.
Teaching chefs in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap substitute prahok with shrimp paste in their cookery classes, catering for Western tastes. Shrimp paste is good, mind you (ask any Thai cook!), but it is not prahok. For true Cambodian flavors, the pungent fish paste prepared from river fish, such as gourami, snakehead, or tiny riel, is the real deal.
Why not try prahok?
The restaurant and home cooks I met in Cambodia purchase their supply of prahok from a known source, to ensure quality. The condiment can be found in local markets in little plastic tubs, but the better brands are exported in glass jars and sold in Asian markets in the UK and North America. Lifting the lid on a jar of the unique ingredient can be a jolting, even repugnant experience. Thankfully, the strong odor gives way to a surprisingly subtle carrier for the intricate flavors of Khmer cuisine.
How to eat ‘Cambodian cheese’
Sometimes called ‘Cambodian cheese’ because of its strong and distinctive smell, prahok originated as a way of preserving fish for use out of fishing season. The fish are de-scaled, gutted and cleaned, then crushed and salted before being packed in salt and fermented for at least 20 days (the best prahok can be stored for up to two years). In the countryside, prahok is often eaten with rice in lieu of meat or fresh fish. Everywhere in Cambodia, it is added to the soups that feature prominently in the cuisine.
As a dish in its own right, prahok can be mixed with finely chopped kafir lime leaves or other herbs, wrapped in a banana leaf and grilled. Chef Johannès Riviere of Cuisine Wat Damnak in Siem Reap serves a delicious side of grilled prahok alongside grilled chicken.
Admittedly, prahok is something of an acquired taste, but its resounding umami hit on the palate is worth the effort. A good place to give prahok a go is Romdeng, in Phnom Penh, where a prahok sampler comes as an appetizer, offers diners a chance to sample with crudités: steamed alone; combined with galangal, lemongrass, and tamarind; and teamed with spiced ground pork.
Cambodians may have invented prahok, but the taste sensation is not restricted to Southeast Asia. Fermented, salted fish preparations have long featured in Western civilizations, as well. Production of garum was an important contributor to the economy of Pompeii! Italian researchers who analyzed the town’s last batch of garum dated it to August, 79 AD, which helped establish the precise date of the city’s destruction.