Smoked Fish Preserves River Dwellers’ Tradition

A villager prepares smoked fish after they are grilled in Kandal province. Photo by Chhum Chantha

KANDAL – Smoke billows from the homes of people in the Koh Chin commune along the Tonle Sap River showing that they are busy with the generations-old practice of smoking fish.

It’s the second week of the prahok season and smoking fish on bamboo chips is a traditional way of preserving it to eat or sell later.

Smoked bamboo leaf fish (Paralaubuca typus), along with prahok, has been a staple food of Cambodians for centuries.

Smoked fish can be made from various types of fish including trey riel. But villagers in Koh Chin now mostly use Paralaubuca typus which is abundant in the second week of the prahok-making season in mid-January.

Seu Mao, the owner of a fish-catching station in Koh Chin, said that Paralaubuca typus accounted for 20 percent of the catch this time while trey riel made up the rest.

He said his station can catch 300-400 kilos of fish per hour.

Due to its small size, Paralaubuca typus is less common to make prahok or pha’ak. People smoke it instead.

Fishy business

Heng Sokhim is a fish smoker in Koh Chin. She buys fish to make it twice a year according to the “knert” of the Khmer lunar month.

Knert refers to the period of the waxing moon or the first 15 days of the month. The knert in December and January are commonly called the prahok season as the fish are abundant.

The fish is first cleaned by cutting off its head and removing the innards. Up to 20 fish will be put together on a stick. They will then be put on bamboo shelves 50cm to 70cm above the ground and the fire is lit beneath them.

“We put the heat on low enough to make fish​ look red and crunchy,” she said.

The process takes several hours because the heat must be maintained at a proper level. Too much could burn the fish while too little will make the process longer and spoil the taste.

Smoked fish can be eaten directly or used as an ingredient for food such as mango or ambarella mixed salad.

Sokhim buys fresh cleaned fish for about 3,000 riel per kilo. She can make 100-200 skewers per day and sells for 1,000 riel per skewer for Paralaubuca typus. Retailers who buy from her can sell them for up to 1,500 riel.

Mean Kosal, 50, also make smoked fish every year. She can make 700-800 skewers in one season. Others with many helpers can make a thousand skewers, she said.

She sells the smoked fish for 1,000 riel per skewer in front of her house and at the nearby Oudong market. Her children also bring it to sell at the factory where they work.

She has been making smoked fish for about six years, continuing the tradition from previous generations.

Her family has previously hunted fish but this year her husband is sick and her children are working.

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