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To outsiders, Cambodia has two distinct seasons: the wet season and the dry season. But to the Khmer people, there is a third one, rdauv prohok, a prohok season. Prohok is a fermented fish paste. It is the heart and soul of Khmer and Cambodian cuisines, and yes there is a difference between the two cuisines, but that is a topic for another day. Prohok season generally starts in December and ends in February, coinciding with the fishing season (November to March). This year, the first phase of the season began on December 20 and ended on the 29th.
To understand why a fermented fish paste is so important to our food culture, one has to understand Cambodia’s geography and its dependency on fish. I mentioned Boeung Tonlé Sap, also known as the Great Lake, before in one of my posts here. As the largest inland fishery in the world, the lake has been sustaining the Khmer people since the beginning. It is integral to Khmer food culture (we eat 140 pounds of fish per capita annually, compared to the global rate of 64 pounds). Lives in Cambodia essentially revolve around this abundance of fish, with 45% of the population working in fish related employment during this short peak fishing season. People from all over the country travel to the Great Lake, the Mekong, and every waterway to buy or trade rice for fish to make pha’ak (fish fermented with sweet fermented alcoholic black rice), sun-dried salted fish, smoked fish, and of course to make prohok, to ensure that fish products are available throughout the year.
There are two types of prohok. Prohok ch’oeung is made with small fish, bones included, with 15% to 20% salt. The bones will become soft during the fermentation process. Prohok sach is made with large fish, bones discarded, using 25% to 30% salt. Both kinds are made by first removing the heads, scaling, and cleaning the fish. The prepared fish are then mixed with a quarter of the salt and left overnight in a basket. This first fermentation process produces the most desirable liquid (fish sauce) that is more valuable than any other kind of fish sauce. The next day, the fish are left out to dry in the sun before crushing them with mortar and pestle. Next, the fish are mixed with the rest of the salt, packed into airtight earthenware containers, and left to ferment in a dark and cool place. To keep the fish from floating, a heavy object, either a piece of wood or a rock is placed on top. The fish are left to ferment for months and up to a year without shaking or stirring which can result in bad smelling or granules to form.
Khmer culinary tradition, past and present, depends heavily on prohok. If you’ve sampled Khmer food before, you’ve most likely tasted the strong and pungent smell and taste of prohok. And it is very very strong. Think of an aroma resulting from a mixture of blue cheese and anchovy. That is the only comparison I can think of. Khmers use prohok practically in every dish. We season soups and stews with prohok, salads are tossed with prohok dressings, curries and fish mousse/custard are flavored with prohok. Grills, stir-fries, and noodle sauces/gravies also feature prohok heavily. The list goes on and on.
If you happen to stumble upon a jar of prohok in Whole Foods and you feel quite adventurous, try prohok k’tis, a prohok dip made with pork belly, coconut cream, and kroeung samlor m’chu. That last one is a paste made from fresh spices and herbs that, along with prohok, make up the foundation of Khmer and Cambodian cuisines.Published in