Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Prahok Stands - Battambang, Cambodia

Eating Jerky Snake in front of a Prahok Roadside Stand
I can’t really describe the love I have for Prahok.  It’s stinky, fishy, and some say downright offensive.  Prahok is crushed, salted and fermented fish that is served multiple ways in Khmer cuisine.  It’s added in soups, used as a dip, and made into dressing.  Basically, if you’ve ever eaten Khmer food, most likely, prahok sneaked its way into your dish.
It should also be noted that in order to really appreciate the beauty of prahok, you must be introduced to it at a very young age. Your tongue needs time to cultivate a palate that will be able to recognize the deliciousness in the hunk of funk.  That being said, I’ve ran into a few Cambodians claiming that even though it was a staple at every family meal, they still can’t stand the stuff and will make a show of turning up their noses at the smell.  But, behind closed doors, (I know this is true because I’ve witnessed it plenty of times) if there is a bowl of prahok on the table, Cambodians cannot help but to subtly dunk their slice of cucumber in the creamy fishy dip.  Why? Because it’s GOOD, damnit. 
Immediately as the rubber bottoms of my Teva soles touched Cambodian soil, I knew immediately what I wanted to experience first.  It wasn’t the Royal Palace, Angkor Wat or the National Museum.  I wanted to try the best prahok Cambodia had to offer.   Unfortunately, I had to wait until the rest of my family arrived because with my limited Khmer and obvious foreigner demeanor (“How can you tell I am not from here??” to which my cousin replied, “You just CAN.”) I was afraid people would send me to restaurants designed for tourists which only had the Disney version of what real prahok was supposed to be.
Finally, my food lover counterpart, family chef arrived - my Aunt (or has Khmer folks say my “Oum”) Oum Ruomie.  I knew that everything that I ate in this country prior to her arrival had been just the shadow of what the culinary world of Cambodia has to offer.  Not only is she our family’s best cook, but just like me, the woman knows how to EAT.  Also just like me, when it comes to Khmer food, she goes by the motto, “the stinkier, the better”! Bring.It.
“Hey, Baby! What do you want to eat?” Was the first question she asked when I met her at our hotel in Phnom Pehn.
“Well, let’s find you some!”
The next day we packed up our stuff, loaded our bags into a rental van and made our way back to my family’s hometown of Mongkul Borei. Comfortably napping on the backseat, I was suddenly tossed to the ground as the van made a sharp turn onto a dirt road.  When I got up from the floor, I peaked outside the window, and it was at that moment I saw the gold mine, treasures a plenty.  It was a roadside stand that exclusively sold dried salty fish, and hundreds of jars of prahok at various prices depending on grade.  I gasped with complete awe.  As I approached the jars of various shades of fish, I was astonished by the variety available.  I stood behind my aunt and uncle as they bantered about price with the prahok monger.  Suddenly, my ears perked up as soon as I overheard “Do you want to smell?”  
With that cue, I rushed over to get a whiff of the caviar of Cambodia.  I bent over and inhaled deeply.  Immediately, my eyes widened and salivary glands started to tingle, awakened by the salty pungent smells of fermented fish.  I instantly recognized what I was smelling was grade A, artisanal prahok.  It smelled like the Spanish sardines, aged to perfection, one would find in the finest specialty shops in Noho. 
“Mmmmm…”  I said wistfully. 
“Ahhh, she must be Cambodian.” she responded with a smile.

Daikon Salad with Anchovy Lime Dressing
I know that I love prahok, but I am not going to pretend that everyone else will automatically be obsessed with it as well.  As an alternative, I decided to substitute prahok with anchovy filets that you can buy at your local supermarket.  I figured that anchovies are a good baby step towards the direction of stinky bliss. 

I used these veggies, but any crunchy veggies will work
training wheels


 Serves 4

 For the salad

½ pound string beans
1 grapefruit (segmented)
1 medium daikon (grated)
1 chayote (thinly sliced)
½ pint grape tomatoes (halved)
½ red bell pepper (julienned) 
Peanuts to garnish

 For the dressing

      Juice from 1 ½ lime
      2 anchovy filets plus 1 teaspoon of oil from can
      2 birds eye chili
      3 garlic cloves
      2 tlbs of fish sauce
      1 tlbs of palm sugar


1.  Combine dressing ingredients using a mortar and pestle or blender. 

2.  Toss into prepped veggies. Serve with crushed peanuts and a wedge of lime. 



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