Group Writing: Fish’s the Season

 

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.

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  1. Bryan G. Stephens Thatcher
    Bryan G. Stephens
    @BryanGStephens

    What a fantastic explanation of something I didn’t know I wanted to know about but now I’m happy I do.

    • #1
  2. Hoyacon Member
    Hoyacon
    @Hoyacon

    This post motivated me to look for Cambodian food in my general area.  Like many places, we are inundated with kabob places, pho places, and, of course,Chinese, Mexican, Korean, Thai, Indian, and pizza, pizza, pizza.  There are tons of  “ethnic” restaurants of varying shapes and sizes.  In a major metropolitan area, I found exactly one restaurant  in a rather obscure location of DC serving Cambodian cuisine (or their version o f it?).  Still, when we return to something approaching normal, I’ll check it out.

    • #2
  3. PHCheese Inactive
    PHCheese
    @PHCheese

    Are only fresh water fish used or also saltwater fish?

    • #3
  4. Nohaaj Coolidge
    Nohaaj
    @Nohaaj

    LC: 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 and 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. 

    We loved Cambodia during our pre-covid tourism jaunt, and spent a few days in the local fish markets, on the river and lake.  You post brought back memories and perked a question.

    I am missing something in your explanation.  It sounds like the first fermentation creates a fish sauce (liquid) which is drained off and kept separate. Is this correct?

    Then from your quoted text, the fish are dried, crushed (into powder?) with salt added and packed into the earthenware crocks.  Is more liquid added?  What is the liquid?  If the fish are crushed in a mortar and pestle, I would think they become tiny fragments of fish or powder.  

    We used to make sauerkraut in a crock, and would put a plate and weight on top of the cabbage to keep it submerged.  That sounds like the same principle.  The cabbage had enough water in it, that the salt would create cabbage juice.  My question is about dried fish.  Does it have enough water to create a liquid to ferment in? 

    • #4
  5. WillowSpring Member
    WillowSpring
    @WillowSpring

    When you write these posts, I feel like someone has opened a curtain on a world I have never seen before.  Thank you very much.  Because of friends at work, I know a little about Viet Namese food, but nothing about Cambodian cuisine.

    • #5
  6. Jules PA Member
    Jules PA
    @JulesPA

    Thank you LC. Nice to see you, and read this food journey. 

    • #6
  7. Charlotte Member
    Charlotte
    @Charlotte

    LC: 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.

    Yes, please!

    • #7
  8. LC Member
    LC
    @LidensCheng

    Hoyacon (View Comment):

    This post motivated me to look for Cambodian food in my general area. Like many places, we are inundated with kabob places, pho places, and, of course,Chinese, Mexican, Korean, Thai, Indian, and pizza, pizza, pizza. There are tons of “ethnic” restaurants of varying shapes and sizes. In a major metropolitan area, I found exactly one restaurant in a rather obscure location of DC serving Cambodian cuisine (or their version o f it?). Still, when we return to something approaching normal, I’ll check it out.

    I don’t know about that restaurant, but a bit north in Wheaton, MD there is a Vietnamese eatery that has one Cambodian dish on their menu. It’s a noodle soup which is very popular with Vietnamese people, especially those in Southern Vietnam. It goes by the name Hu Tieu Nam Vang, which translates to Phnom Penh noodles. This noodle soup is a breakfast dish in Cambodia. It is served two ways, wet with soup or dry with the soup on the side. The place is called Mi La Cay.

    • #8
  9. LC Member
    LC
    @LidensCheng

    PHCheese (View Comment):

    Are only fresh water fish used or also saltwater fish?

    Fresh water fish only. People don’t really eat saltwater fish in Cambodia. Fish, lobsters, and others from the sea are for export only. Fish, lobsters, clams, shrimp from the lake and rivers are mostly for local consumption only.

    • #9
  10. LC Member
    LC
    @LidensCheng

    Nohaaj (View Comment):

    LC: 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 and 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.

    We loved Cambodia during our pre-covid tourism jaunt, and spent a few days in the local fish markets, on the river and lake. You post brought back memories and perked a question.

    I am missing something in your explanation. It sounds like the first fermentation creates a fish sauce (liquid) which is drained off and kept separate. Is this correct?

    Then from your quoted text, the fish are dried, crushed (into powder?) with salt added and packed into the earthenware crocks. Is more liquid added? What is the liquid? If the fish are crushed in a mortar and pestle, I would think they become tiny fragments of fish or powder.

    We used to make sauerkraut in a crock, and would put a plate and weight on top of the cabbage to keep it submerged. That sounds like the same principle. The cabbage had enough water in it, that the salt would create cabbage juice. My question is about dried fish. Does it have enough water to create a liquid to ferment in?

    Yes, it’s fish sauce. It’s preferable to other kinds because it’s very light in aroma and taste, unlike those that are left to age for quite awhile.

    No, not powder. The fish are not completely dried out. And some people skip that step entirely. Not exactly crushing it, more like a light pounding to soften the flesh. The fish do create enough liquid to ferment in.

    • #10
  11. Nohaaj Coolidge
    Nohaaj
    @Nohaaj

    LC (View Comment):

    Nohaaj (View Comment):

    LC: 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 and 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.

    We loved Cambodia during our pre-covid tourism jaunt, and spent a few days in the local fish markets, on the river and lake. You post brought back memories and perked a question.

    I am missing something in your explanation. It sounds like the first fermentation creates a fish sauce (liquid) which is drained off and kept separate. Is this correct?

    Then from your quoted text, the fish are dried, crushed (into powder?) with salt added and packed into the earthenware crocks. Is more liquid added? What is the liquid? If the fish are crushed in a mortar and pestle, I would think they become tiny fragments of fish or powder.

    We used to make sauerkraut in a crock, and would put a plate and weight on top of the cabbage to keep it submerged. That sounds like the same principle. The cabbage had enough water in it, that the salt would create cabbage juice. My question is about dried fish. Does it have enough water to create a liquid to ferment in?

    Yes, it’s fish sauce. It’s preferable to other kinds because it’s very light in aroma and taste, unlike those that are left to age for quite awhile.

    No, not powder. The fish are not completely dried out. And some people skip that step entirely. Not exactly crushing it, more like a light pounding to soften the flesh. The fish do create enough liquid to ferment in.

    Thank you,  that makes perfect sense now.

    • #11
  12. Randy Weivoda Moderator
    Randy Weivoda
    @RandyWeivoda

    Some time when we are at a Ricochet Meetup in a city big enough to have a Cambodian restaurant,  we will have to go there and you can be our guide through the menu, LC.

    • #12
  13. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    Has anyone ever compared prohok with lutefisk, which is also a type of fermented fish (I think). The Norwegians in Minnesota used to have lutefisk festivals at their churches, which those of us who weren’t Norwegian assumed were an attempt to poison the rest of us so they could have Minnesota for themselves.

    • #13
  14. Randy Weivoda Moderator
    Randy Weivoda
    @RandyWeivoda

    The Reticulator (View Comment):

    Has anyone ever compared prohok with lutefisk, which is also a type of fermented fish (I think). The Norwegians in Minnesota used to have lutefisk festivals at their churches, which those of us who weren’t Norwegian assumed were an attempt to poison the rest of us so they could have Minnesota for themselves.

    I’ve never tried it myself, but lutefisk has been described as like eating hot fish jello.

    • #14
  15. Charlotte Member
    Charlotte
    @Charlotte

    Randy Weivoda (View Comment):
    hot fish jello

    Those are three words that should never appear in the same sentence.

    • #15
  16. Randy Weivoda Moderator
    Randy Weivoda
    @RandyWeivoda

    Charlotte (View Comment):

    Randy Weivoda (View Comment):
    hot fish jello

    Those are three words that should never appear in the same sentence.

    Hey, I’m not advocating the eating of lutefisk, I’m just giving you a second-hand report.  I think we see why Norwegian cuisine has not caught on in the U.S.A.

    • #16
  17. Clifford A. Brown Contributor
    Clifford A. Brown
    @CliffordBrown

    This tasty post is part of our Group Writing Series under the December 2020 Group Writing Theme: “’Tis the Season.” The January theme is “Old and New.” Stop by soon, our schedule and sign-up sheet awaits.

    Interested in Group Writing topics that came before? See the handy compendium of monthly themes. Check out links in the Group Writing Group. You can also join the group to get a notification when a new monthly theme is posted.

    • #17