The crushed prahok is then packaged in airtight containers. After adding another layer of salt, the lid is tightly closed and left at room temperature for about a month. The result is a ripe prahok to use in Cambodian kitchens until next season arrives.
In the countryside, regular prahok is mostly eaten with rice, providing a vital nutritional supplement to the rice-dominant diet of farmers. However, it is a common ingredient in soups, such as samlor kakou (a spicy fish and vegetable soup) whose tasty broth consists of fish, pork or chicken, vegetables, prahok and kroeung (curry paste). Prahok is also the star of the national fish dish amok, a fragrant fish curry steamed in banana leaves, and it doubles as a dipping sauce, like prahok ktis and the seasonal fish-based vegetables that accompany teuk kreung.
According to Rotanak, prahok is also used in many innovative ways. Like Meng, she traveled the country looking for age-old recipes to keep in her cookbook, Nhum. In the village of Tropiang Prei in Siem Reap province, she discovered the rich dish of sweet and sour lemongrass and palm fruit soup (samlor mchou thnaut sach tea). Here, the prahok adds a stark contrast to the sweet duck and the bitter bite of the palm fruit.
“Each mom has a different recipe, and each thinks hers is the best,” Meng said, adding that prahok is evolving along with Cambodia’s rapid development. “Now there are new recipes for marinating and preserving fish. There is a lot more choice using different salts and spices, and this is a big step forward.”