Citizens – Cambodian (Khmer) cuisine is a great favorite of TFD, having the flavor complexity of Thai food but with a more subtle hand when it comes to the incendiary spicing that is endemic to most Thai recipes. That said, a very common ingredient – almost a national institution – in Khmer cooking is an extremely pungent type of fermented fish paste, a potent flavoring known as prahok (Central Khmer: ប្រហុក).
Specifically, Prahok is a crushed, salted and fermented fish paste (usually of mud fish) that is used in Cambodian cuisine as a seasoning or a condiment. It originated as a way of preserving fish during the longer months when fresh fish was not available in abundant supply.
Due to its saltiness and strong flavor, it was used as an addition to many meals in Cambodian cuisine, such as soups and sauces. A Cambodian saying goes, “No prahok, no salt”, referring to a dish that is of poor flavor or bland thus highlighting its essentiality in Cambodian cuisine. Prahok has a strong and distinct smell, earning the nickname “Cambodian cheese” among food writers. Prahok is usually eaten as a main course with white rice and vegetable such as yardlong bean, cucumbers, and Thai eggplant.
Because it is easily stored and preserved, Prahok is sometimes distributed as a donation to victims of flood or drought by charities and other organizations. It can be eaten cooked or fried, but is usually not eaten raw because of health issues (raw Prahok cannot be stored long due to spoilage if not consumed in a short period) and the unpleasant smell it makes.
It’s very much an acquired taste for most Westerners but it is an integral part of Khmer cuisine. It is included in many dishes or used as a dipping sauce. The liberal use of prahok, which adds a salty tang to many dishes, is a characteristic which distinguishes Khmer recipes from those of its neighboring countries.
Prahok can be prepared many ways, but it is Prahok jien (ប្រហុកចៀន) that is the recipe for today. It is fried and usually mixed with meat (beef or pork) and chili. It can be eaten with dips, vegetables like cucumbers or eggplants, and rice.
When prahok is not used, kapǐ (Central Khmer: កាពិ), a kind of fermented shrimp paste, is used instead and since Prahok is virtually impossible to find in Western countries, it is the substitute TFD recommends in this recipe. Regardless of which you use, the smell will be strong, Citizens – this is as it should be: be resolute, don’t let the olfactory overload stop you and you will be rewarded with a delicious meal, I promise!
Battle on – The Generalissimo
150 g pork belly
50 g prahok (Cambodian fermented salted fish) – if not available, use a thick Thai-style Shrimp paste as an alternative – buy it here
2 garlic cloves, crushed
For the sauce:
½ red pepper, pounded to a paste
2 garlic cloves, crushed
20 g palm sugar – buy it here
125 ml (½ cup) coconut milk
1 tbsp tamarind water (optional but recommended)
1 small chopped eggplant
2 kaffir lime leaves, shredded
splash vegetable oil
For the Kroeung paste
1 stalk lemongrass, thinly sliced
2 large garlic cloves, coarsely chopped
1 small shallot, coarsely chopped
½ tsp galangal, peeled, coarsely chopped
3 kaffir lime leaves, deveined
½ tsp turmeric, peeled, chopped
1 tbsp red curry paste (homemade or Thai-style in a jar – buy it here)
1 red fresno or jalapeno chili, chopped, seeded (optional)
Using two knives cleavers finely chop the pork belly, prahok and two garlic cloves.
Using a mortar and pestle or food processor, pound or blend all the ingredients for the Kroeung paste to a smooth paste (add a little water if necessary). It is much easier in the food processor, though the texture is not as authentic.
Splash a little vegetable oil in a hot wok, add pounded red pepper and garlic, and stir till fragrant. Add coconut cream and optional tamarind water and cook until thick and bubbling.
Add chopped pork, prahok and the remaining 2 cloves of crushed garlic.
Stir till well combined. Add one large heaping tablespoon of the Kroeung paste, allow the flavors to combine, then add the eggplant and cook until soft.
Just before serving, add finely chopped kaffir lime leaves.
Serve with cabbage wedges, cucumber wedges, snake beans and a squeeze of lime.