I was in an area where no-one speaks any English, and I’d got lost trying to find what I’d been told was one of the smelliest places in the world - Cambodia’s prahok-making hub, Phsar Prahok (fish paste market), on the banks of the Sanke river near Battambang, where hundreds of tons of freshwater fish are bought and sold each year.
How anyone would ever know it was 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 a mud track lined with stalls, 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 fresh spring rolls 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 of rotten fish was coming from somewhere behind those trees to the north-east.
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 a few words came 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 fermented fish was breathtaking. It smelled worse than the crocodile farm I’d been forced to spend two days in for a story about whooping tourists hurling live chickens and ducks into crocodile pens.
It’s so strong if you get some on your hands while dipping chunks of barbecued veal and raw vegetables in prahok sauce, you soon know about it. Even bleach doesn’t get rid of the smell. Or as someone once said: “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 on the Sanke, a long line of 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 and crates 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 and mashed underfoot in barrels 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.
River fish are put in barrels and salted...
The fish ferment and become a grey, cheese-like paste...
Prahok chopped and ready to cook...
The taste and smell varies largely from batch to batch, depending on the type of fish used, how carefully they’ve been prepped, and the time, skill and methods used to ferment them. The cheapest stuff is filled with bones, fins, and scales like the bag of prahok I’d bought from a street stall on the coast last month. It looked like it had been made from crab bait, and had a disconcerting ripeness.
In some of the other huts they were smoking and curing fish. Racks of fish no bigger than minnows were being slowly grilled over charcoal coals until deep bronze and rigid. Some of the larger fish were being turned into maam, a more expensive version of prahok. It’s salted for 24 hours, then stacked in a jar with salted rice and galangal, and stored for less time (usually a month) until it becomes sour.
It’s these fermented 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 salted and fermented anchovies, prawns or squid. Malaysia has its blocks of fish paste, or blacan, and there are many other varieties around the world.
But none of them have the 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 their tough, previous lives working on the farm.
It’s certainly true of Cambodia’s highly aspirational pop videos, which always seem to feature affluent, pale-skinned Khmer couples 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, burgers or fried chicken in soulless, chain-style restaurants.
It breaks my heart more than the appalling car crash at the end, 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.
I want to apologise for the very poor delivery times of the paperback version of my new food book Down And Out In Padstow And London. For reasons that are beyond me, Amazon have had problems distributing recent batches. It’s something to do with the wrong metadata being input, whatever that means. But Completely Novel who print my book have promised they are trying to sort it out.
I don’t know how long it will continue, but I’ve been told that books ordered through Amazon will arrive soon, and they will obviously not take your money until they do post the book to your address. To help remedy this, an eBay page has been set up to sell my book. So if you want the book in the next few days, then cancel your order at Amazon and buy the book HERE... For the eBook version click HERE...