The fiery fish that enhances Cambodian cuisine

The fiery fish that enhances Cambodian cuisine. While the world is familiar with the food of neighboring Thailand and Vietnam, Cambodian cuisine is still relatively unknown. Can a strong smelling fish replace that? There is a saying among our elders, ‘There is no good Prahok, there are no good friends, Chef Lu Meng said with a smile. Prahok is part of Cambodian life in the countryside; it has been an essential ingredient in kitchens for many generations.

The fiery fish

In most family homes you will find a Prahok jug, it makes everyone happy. Meng refers to the typical Cambodian fermented fish paste that has provided protein and flavor to the country from the Angkorian era of the 9th to 15th centuries, often referred to as Cambodia’s cultural peak. In the provinces, when people visit and see her future mother-in-law.

They have to cook a good plate of prahok kati (a richly spicy pork sauce) to make her smile. That is how important it is to us. Although little known outside of Cambodia, prahok is the star ingredient in many Cambodian dishes. For centuries, Prahok has sat at the center of local cuisine, deeply rooted in Cambodian culture.

Today, the spice whose pungent smell makes many tourists run, remains a key ingredient in a variety of vegetable, meat and rice dishes, as well as soups. You’ll find a bottle of Prahok in most family homes, everyone likes it, said Meng, founder of the acclaimed Malis restaurant and other upscale restaurants in Phnom Penh, the Cambodian capital.

I was just coming off a two-day season in which a team of cooks prepared 410 boxes of prahok katis, a prized dish consisting of fermented fish paste, minced pork, eggplant, coconut milk and kaffir lime leaves, which They are generally served a dip and eaten with fresh vegetables such as cucumbers, carrots, and cabbage.

Each box can feed a family of eight and was donated to street vendors, cleaners and other vendors working outside the Royal Palace in central Phnom Penh, whose livelihoods have been affected by the pandemic and the recent round of closures. From the capital. severely affected.

“We want to make this Prahok dish to remember the people of the house and give them some food to share during this time,” Meng said. Meng and a team of cooks recently cooked 410 boxes of Prahok Cuties for workers affected by the pandemic (Credit: Almond Group)

The chefs, who have introduced the country’s distinctive flavors and centuries-old cooking techniques to celebrity chefs like Anthony Bourdain and Gordon Ramsay, have spent the past three decades revitalizing and elevating traditional Cambodian cuisine. And at its center is Prahoka.

As Cambodia’s only “master chef,” an honorary title awarded to experts in his field, Meng has dedicated his career to immortalizing and reproducing Cambodian cuisine passed down orally from generation to generation. Many of these dishes were in danger of being lost after the Khmer Rouge regime, under which two million people died between 1975 and 1979.

Cambodia’s currency is named after the fish used to make Prahok. While Prahok remains a staple in Cambodia’s national diet, Meng is finding creative ways to incorporate it into the contemporary dishes he serves. When I was very young, my mother and her friends always made prahokadish, they remember from the bustling kitchen in Malis. The smell was great and we made new friends while cooking them. It was part of my childhood.

The broader culinary culture

Prahok is typically made from local clay carp called tre reel that live in the rivers of Cambodia. Traditionally made from a local clay tent called the Tre Reel, the Prahokhs have played an important role in local livelihoods since the Khmer Empire, the masterminds behind the mighty Angkor Wat. In fact, the Cambodian coin, the reel, is named after the little silver fish.

Prahok has shaped the daily diet of the Khmer people for centuries, said Chem Siriwat, who last year published an article titled Food Diplomacy for Branding the Nation of Cambodia. He notes that Prahoka formed “the basis of the daily life of kings and peasants.” And although the world next door is very familiar with Thai and Vietnamese cuisine, Cambodian cuisine is still relatively unknown.

Sirivat hopes Prahok can help introduce diners to the broader culinary culture of the country. “Prahok enhances the taste and aesthetics of the rich variety of Khmer cuisine,” Siriwat said. “If promoted properly, Prahok can be an essential ingredient in bringing out the powerful flavor profile and uniqueness of Khmer cuisine, a strong national branding act.”

Cambodia is full of waterways, including the Mekong and Tonle Sap rivers and the largest freshwater body in Southeast Asia, Tonle Sap Lake. This means that fish contributes greatly to the national diet. According to CGIAR, a global association that researches food security, fish accounts for 66.3% of the animal protein intake of Cambodian households.

During the monsoon season, floods cause an overabundance of fish in Cambodia’s rivers and lakes. In addition, the annual monsoon rains that cause rivers and lakes to swell, flood the fish. However, during the reign of the Khmer Empire during the 6th century, there was no form of refrigeration to keep fish fresh, so an alternative was sought.

“There were no fridges or fridges then. Many parts of Cambodia still don’t have them,” said the country’s top female chef, Ross Rotanak, known as Chef Nak, who has her own cooking channel and is currently working on my second book. kitchen “[tray reel] is a good food source year-round and packed with protein. [monsoon season] is also the only time when there’s a lot of fish.

So we need to find a good way to keep it for the rest of the year. The best Prahok can be kept for up to three years and is made through a two-day process. The correct answer was Prahok. The best fermented fish can be kept for up to three years and is made through an arduous two-day process passed down from parents to children who have been preparing and selling prahuk for generations.

Between December and January, the banks of Cambodia’s waterways come to life as a fishing season. The change from wet to dry weather causes the Tonle Sap River to reverse its course. This unique natural phenomenon brings with it a massive migration of fish and is a peak period for Cambodia’s army of fishermen.

Fisherman manufacturers buy tons of small fish caught in the nets, which they spend the next few days in meticulous batch preparation to store the country’s supplies for the next 12 months. Chan Sochia, whose family has been producing prahok for generations from his home on the banks of the Mekong River near Phnom Penh, described the process.

“It is very difficult and time consuming,” he said. First, the heads of each of the hundreds of thousands of tiny fish must be cut off before they can be individually scaled and eaten by hand. They are then vigorously washed with fresh water up to 10 times.

The fish is then left to dry outside in baskets for 24 hours, at which point it begins to slowly rot, producing the strong odor that has earned it the nickname “Cambodian cheese.” Afterwards, the rotten fish is ready to be marinated in a pile of salt. Sochiya cannot say exactly how much salt there is. “I know how many fish I have. I learned it from my mother and my grandmother,” he said.

Subsequently, the mixture is mixed. While Sochia now uses a small hand-operated grinding machine, he remembers his grandparents and parents trampling stinky fish with their bare feet. The crushed Prahok is then packed in an airtight container. After pouring in another layer of salt, the lid is tightly closed and left at room temperature for about a month. The result is mature prahok that will be used in Cambodian kitchens until the season arrives next year.

In rural areas, plain prahok is eaten primarily with rice, which is an important nutritional supplement to farmers’ predominantly rice diets. However, it is a common ingredient in soups, such as samlor kakou (a spicy fish and vegetable soup) whose tasty broth is made from fish, pork or chicken, vegetables, prahok, and krung (curry paste). Prahok fish also stars in the national dish of amok, an aromatic fish curry steamed in banana leaves, and also serves as a dipping sauce, such as prahok katsis and tek with seasonal fish-based vegetables, krang.

The fiery fish that enhances Cambodian cuisine
The fiery fish that enhances Cambodian cuisine

Development of Cambodia

According to Rotnak, Prahok is also used in many innovative ways. Like Meng, he scoured the country for centuries-old recipes to preserve in his cookbook, Num. In the town of Tropiang Pre in Siem Reap province, he discovered the rich dish of duck lemongrass sour soup with palm fruit. . Here, prahok contrasts the bitter bite of duckweed and palm fruit.

“Every mother has a different recipe and everyone thinks theirs is the best,” Meng said, noting that Prahok is evolving with the rapid development of Cambodia. “Now, there are new recipes for marinating and preserving fish. There are many more options for using different salts and spices, and this is a huge advance.

In Malis, Meng also likes to get creative and play with Prahok on the menu. For example, the signature kuy tiv prahok cutis is the traditional slow-cooked noodle soup with fish and prawns in a mixture of prahok, spices, and coconut milk.

“We want to offer people who live in the capital to give up home-cooked food that reminds them of life in the countryside,” Meng said. “Like olive oil for Italians, Prahok will always be in the homes of Cambodians.” Culinary Routes is a BBC Travel series connecting rare and local foods woven into the heritage of a place.

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