“Pass me the prahok,” I say, sitting with friends for a picnic in the Cambodian coastal town of Kep. As my friend hands over a small plastic container that looks like it could be filled with tuna or cat food, a Khmer woman gives a warning I interpret as, “Just a dab’ll do ya.” She’s right. A dab of prahok will do you fine.
The fermented fish paste, known also as “Cambodian cheese,” has a kick. It’s spicy, salty and comes with the pungent odor of fish left rotting for weeks or months — which it has been. It’s also used in many foods in Cambodia, mixed into soups and curries or left out as a condiment to dip with rice or vegetables. All it takes is a thumb-sized amount to make a flavorful meal out of a bowl of rice. But eating prahok is like tempting fate. Too small a portion and you’re left craving the intense flavor. Too much and it’s overwhelming, leaving you teary-eyed.