Battambang might be better known as the last bastion of colonial architecture in Cambodia and the former home of the bamboo train, but outside of the city centre there exists a market that is known for one, and only one thing, prahok.
Considered as one of the quintessential ingredient in Khmer cooking, prahok is essentially a fermented fish paste, which is used to add saltiness, and imparts a distinct umami flavour that characterises Khmer cuisine from other cuisines in the region.
In Phsar Prahok, around 10 kilometres from Battambang, all activities centres around the production of this prized ingredients. The base ingredient of the paste – fish – is finely chopped and mixed with salt, before water is added to kick-start the fermentation process. Once combined, this mixture is then left to ferment in clay jars, a process that takes a minimum of 20 days to complete. However, just as with cheese, the longer the paste is left to ferment, the more pungent it gets. As pungency is, “aged” prahok often commands higher prices than “un-aged” counterpart in the market.
The final product, which resembles a greyish paste, has a wide array of uses. It can be used as
a garnish, a dip, or even as a base for more complex sauces, stir-fries, and stews. However, don’t let its versatility fool you, because just like durian, prahok is definitely not for everyone.