Tales from Kampuchea: Part Two
Fermented fish ingredients seem to be such an ubiquitous part of South-East Asian cuisine. Everywhere you go in the region you will find some kind of variation of fish fermented in salt, either its liquids strained and bottled, or the chunky preparations used in some tasty local speciality.
Personally I've never been put off by these things. It does smell pretty strong on its own, but belachan (wrapped twice in plastic bags and then a plastic box to prevent the jam from taking on a fermented shrimp fragrance), chinchalok and thai fish sauce had always been much beloved staples in my family's refrigerator while growing up, and learning how they were made only made me more appreciative of their precious flavours. I always felt sorry for the guy who has to sort the teeny tiny shrimp from all the other things one can find in the sea and catch in big nets.
Thus Prahoc didn't come as a big surprise to me, and even though friends of mine, Cambodian or otherwise, would talk about it like it was a big joke, dramatically wrinkling up noses and even faces for effect. Instead, it made me more determined to seek out this interesting ingredient and give it a good strong sniff. It didn't take me long. My first visit to the local market, and the shop vendors laughed to see this obvious foreigner sticking her little noise in a barrel full of neatly arranged preserved fish. It wasn't that bad really. Found in varying shades of off white to green/grayish white, the chunks of fish are preserved in salt and packed into barrels. The smell reminded me immediately of mui yu, an oil preserved salted fish with a mushy texture and incredible salty taste used in some Chinese cooking, most often with pork.
Seeing that the smell didn't put me off, the excited G immediately bought some to cook for me, Cambodian style, an excuse for her to indulge in one of her favourite things to eat, fried minced pork with Prahoc, since her husband categorically refused to eat what he describes as 'dirty, smelly and unhygenic' (bah! i say, salt kills all the germies) So the next morning I woke up to the sound of a chopper chopping away (no, in Cambodia the butchers have no meat grinders. mincemeat is a luxury because you need to chop away at it yourself).
That afternoon, at the orphanage we were visiting, we had a very delicious packed lunch of white rice, baby cucumbers, green baby brinjals an green tomatoes (all eaten raw) topped with generous sprinklings of the tasty minced pork fried with Prahoc. **
Needless to say, I had to try my hand at making it too, thus when G made her trip here next i requested for some Prahoc to experiment with. Not content with just prahoc and pork I had to add some other ingredients to the mix, ginger, lemongrass, garlic and chillies. Blended into a fine paste, it was chopped into some pork (I tried to mince pork by myself!!! wow!!!)(Very tedious. Next time I'll just buy it ground)
The end result wasn't taste too bad, but because I was cooking a large quantity, I think it didn't dry out as much as it should have. The pumpkin balanced the flavours and made the mix more palatable for my family, some of whom are much less enamoured of preserved fish products than I am.
Definitely a recipe to try again, albeit with some tweaking. I still have half a jar of prahoc in the fridge. I'm saving it. Hopefully it will turn out better next time. :D
**(Which made me feel bad later when i saw what the children were having for lunch. They came back from school for their lunch break. There were two pots for them on the table. One contained some poor quality boiled rice, and the other a soup made from some bones and green gourd. Two small pots to be shared among 15 to 20 girls. No child deserves that.)