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The Key to Khmer Cuisine

By blending subtle flavors and spices, Khmer cuisine sets itself apart from the many other styles of food in Southeast Asia. It is similar to Thai cuisine, but is distinctive in creating full flavor without the use of chili. (Khmer cuisine was established before the introduction of chili.) The Khmer culture has mastered the use of herbs and spices to create flavor without the use of fats and meats as well. The hallmark of Khmer cuisine is prahok, a fermented paste made from a small fish called trey riel (Henicorhynchus siamensis). The grey or brown color, strong odor, and intense flavor can intimidate the uninitiated, but prahok is the cornerstone of Khmer cuisine: even the national currency is named after the trey riel. It is so desirable that farmers from outlying provinces will travel great distances to trade rice for it. Prahok is used both as a condiment and as a main element in a variety of Khmer dishes, and it accounts for a large portion of protein in the Khmer diet.

Traditionally, the production of prahok is a community affair. Surrounded with hundreds of pounds of tiny fish, men and women remove the heads, guts, and scales, while children use their feet to crush the bodies of the small fish. The fish can also be processed by a machine, rather than crushed underfoot, but machines fail to remove the bad fish and tend to not process all the fat, which is crucial to prahok flavor. Once processed, the fish pulp is set out to dry in the sun for a day; then it is packed in plastic bags or jars to ferment over weeks or months to produce the signature pungent punch. The result is a spicy mash-like paste of which a little goes a long way. The best quality prahok may be fermented for as long as three years.

The history of the Khmer is written in their food. Many dishes and sauces are similar to those of their neighbors in Thailand. Stir-frying from the Chinese culture and curry dishes from India have all added to the taste of Cambodian cuisine throughout the centuries. There are also traces of French cuisine from the time when Cambodia was part of French Indochina. (The baguette, or the long French bread, is a part of the cuisine and has come to be Cambodia’s national bread.) A typical meal consists of at least three or four separate dishes. Each meal usually includes a sweet, sour, salty, and bitter sauce, to satisfy each taste bud. Rice is a staple eaten at most meals. When prahok is not used as either a paste or dipping sauce, it is most likely to be replaced with kapi, a fermented shrimp paste.

Khmer culture suffered a crippling blow during the purges of the Khmer Rouge from 1975-1979. Nearly two million Khmer people were killed, tortured, or worked to death in labor camps, leaving little possibility for economic growth. During those brutal years, prahok was scarce, along with most other food, and many people starved. The Khmer Rouge regime affected the entire culture of the Khmer people. A significant amount of information was lost, and even the Khmer cuisine was affected by policies that did not allow traditions to be passed on. The social and economic effects of that period lasted decades.

After a long slump, Cambodia’s economy took off in 2006, climbing nearly 10 percent in the past three years, compared to the previous annual average of 2 percent. Stimulated by tourism and industrial expansion, the rapid growth created overnight millionaires, leading to a large wealth gap and increased food prices. Today there are nearly 2.5 million people struggling to survive on less than one U.S. dollar a day, unable to afford one of the most important components of their diet. The price of prahok has increased so rapidly that farmers in the countryside and even city dwellers cannot obtain the nutrients that prahok provides.

Prahok also struggles to survive the effects of global warming. After record catches in 2006 and 2007, the numbers of trey riel have plummeted because of rising water temperatures. With the drop off in the numbers of prahok fish, prices for the paste have more than tripled, rising to nearly 50 cents a kilogram from around 12 cents, putting a basic commodity out of reach for many.

The future of prahok in the diet of the Khmer people is unknown, as the true impact of global warming and rising wealth gaps is still unfolding, but the Khmer people have faced severe hardships before, and their culture has always survived.
Kayla Starr is a journalism student at Suffolk College and an intern at Cultural Survival.

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