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Got fish? It's Prahok season in Cambodia

Chrang Chamres, Cambodia, January, 2007 - The pungent smell of rotting seafood hangs heavily in the air as Cambodians crowd the country's riverbanks, gutting and crushing finger-sized fish by the tonne as the annual frenzy of making prahok, fermented fish paste, gets underway.

With a deft flick of his knife, Yos Kim slowly works through the 300 kilograms (660 pounds) of tiny fish piled high around him and his family on the banks of Cambodia's Tonle Sap river, slicing off their heads while his children crush their bodies underfoot in woven baskets.

The grey pulp will be set out to dry for 24 hours before being salted down and packed into bags or plastic jars to sit for weeks, if not months, to ferment. The result is a spicy pungent mash that, while challenging the senses of even the most adventurous foreigner, is considered by Cambodians to be the soul of their rich culinary culture.

"Prahok is the taste of Cambodia. If there is no prahok, we are not Cambodians. Prahok is the Khmer identity," says Nao Thouk, director of the agriculture ministry's fisheries department.  "It is like butter or cheese for Westerners," he adds, explaining that some 70,000 to 80,000 tonnes of prahok are produced each year between December and March, when thousands swarm to the rivers.

Farmers from outlying provinces will travel vast distances to trade rice for the fish paste, which is one of the most important sources of protein for Cambodians in the countryside, where simple meals of prahok and rice are common.

"Prahok is equal in value to rice. Farmers would face a hard time living without it," says Yos Kim, who traveled from his home in Prey Veng province, bordering Vietnam, for this year's prahok season.

Prahok is also used as an ingredient in soups or as a condiment, lending its unique flavour to a wide variety of Khmer dishes.

"It's so important for our daily lives -- we use it in every soup," says Dim Eang, her hands deep inside a pile of raw fish which she is mixing with salt.
In her home village, some four hours from the capital Phnom Penh, the 52-year-old farmer says she will trade 80 kilograms (175 pounds) of the paste for rice while keeping 20 kilograms for her family.

"It's our most necessary and best-liked food," she says, as small boats loaded to the gunwales bring their silvery catch to the riverbank, where hundreds of people are waiting to turn the fish into paste.

Among them is Los Mann, who is trying to hawk his services with a machine he guarantees will take some of the back-breaking work out of stomping tonnes of fish to mash.  "Hundreds of people have brought me their fresh fish," he says, shouting over the metallic clacking of his contraption, which resembles a crude blender that pummels the fish into pulp and spits them out onto a wire mesh belt through which the heads fall.  "It saves time and you don't have to step on them," he says.

But while Los Mann and scores of others operating similar machines up and down the river say they cannot keep up with demand, other fisherman are grumbling that their prahok catches have greatly diminished this year. "There are less fish than last year," says one owner of a fishing concession on the river, without saying how many tons of the tiny fish he had managed to scoop out of the water this year.

Others complain that the price of prahok fish has almost doubled this year to roughly 13 US cents a kilo -- threatening to put prahok out of reach for many of those who rely on it the most to supplement their meager diets. "I had planned to make 100 kilograms of prahok, but now I can only make half that," says Trang Oeun as she prepares to leave the riverbank littered with tens of thousands of fly-blackened fish heads.

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Published on 1/19/07

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