Prahok is probably the most distinctive flavour in all of Cambodian cooking. It is commonly used as a seasoning or a condiment and very often added to Cambodian soups and sauces.
This national ingredient is a crushed, salted and fermented fish paste. The gray, pasty preserved fish was originally created to replace supplies of fresh fish during long stretches of unfruitful months. Because of its saltiness, distinct flavour and distinct smell, it has earned the nickname ‘Cambodian cheese’. In fact, its odour is reminiscent of Limburger or ripe Camembert.
Prahok is usually eaten as a main course with white rice and vegetables such as long beans, cucumbers and eggplant. Many Westerners have asked how this paste can be appetising but the answer lies beyond prahok’s flavour. A very small amount of prahok goes a long way and adds body and meatiness to a dish. Newcomers may want to use a light touch to start, adding additional prahok at the table and experiment with increasing the amount over time. Some diners may dive right in, especially Cambodians, and consume double the amount. There is no substitute for prahok, although some people suggest using shrimp paste or anchovies in its place.
Image credit: SBS