Never ending piles of prahok

The odour comes from a red washing-up bowl filled with grey sludge in which float pieces of silver fish. The smell is outdone only by an equally pungent pile of grey paste with bits of rotting fish poking out. The wet grey stuff is fish sauce, while the other is fish paste, although both seem to be called prahoc; they smell and look awful to the unaccustomed nose and eye.

Prahoc is a vital flavouring in almost everything savoury in Cambodia. So common is it that the national flag, which features the ubiquitous emblem of Angkor Wat, should be soaked in the stuff.

They’re both different grades of prahok. It describes a whole genre of fermented freshwater things. Journalist and blogger Ed Charles takes on fish in Cambodia and takes off with one of my jokes about prahok in The Australian newspaper. It’s a joy to read an article where a journalist doesn’t just eat fish amok.

There’s also a bit of a mix up between tuk trei (fish sauce, made with saltwater fish) and trei riel (“riel” fish – a few different varieties of small fish used to home-brew prahok) further down in the article, but it is understandable since there are no written resources where you could fact check such details.

See: The Australian’s A fishy pleasure

9 thoughts on “Never ending piles of prahok”

  1. Actually I think it was another Joke of yours I saw about the national flag (which I forget) and I thought I was being original with the soaking the national flag joke – or maybe I read it and kept t in my subconscious. You are right about the lack of online resources and multiple spellings – prahoc or prahok? Amok or Amoc? This seems to be the only place to get some solid info. Incidentally, I’m writing something else on Phnom Penh and shall give you a plug although you may not approve of my travels.

  2. I use “k” (as in spelling, not the popular horse tranquiliser). There is no standard for transliteration of Khmer and I make it worse by not being able to read Khmer script.

    I approve of most travels that don’t break international treaties.

  3. Not as far as i’m aware but I may misapprpriate it. On this thought I perhaps should make one about soaking the Australian flag in beer but peharps BBQ or sweet chilli sauce may be a better idea or I could just wrap it in prans until the smell pervades…

  4. Why don’t you guys make up a standard for translation of Khmer? It’s a good idea, so we all can have the same spelling standard.

  5. The two main ones are the “Franco-Khmer Transcription System” by Franklin Huffman, based largely on the transcription approach used in colonial times.

    Then there’s the Saveros Pou system, which many academics use, it’s quite precise. There are variants; a simplified version of the former is used by the Library of Congress.

    Much ink has been spilled on the merits of different transliteration systems, but when you go to a book of academic articles, most editors let contributors pick their transcription approach rather than requiring them to conform to a particular standard. (Too much effort to make all those changes!)

  6. I tend to follow the transcrption that I first learnt, which is close to the Library of Congress version(I think). It isn’t directly reversible, so anything that I transcribe couldn’t be directly transcribed back into Khmer. The best description as to why Khmer is so difficult to transcribe into Roman characters is at Everything2:

    The Khmer alphabet is the largest alphabet in the world (Guinness Book of World Records, 1995). It consists of 33 consonants, 23 vowels and 12 independent vowels. The 23 main consonants are separated into 2 groups: the first series (small sound) and second series (big sound). Furthermore, each consonant has two representations, regular and subscript (like upper and lower case, except in most cases the two do not resemble one another at all). Lastly, 10 of the most used consonants have a more “formal” appearance when written in titles, in advertising, on temple walls, etc. Hence, there are 101 distinct symbols.

    Each of the 23 vowels has two distinct sounds, one when it is paired with a consonant from the first series and another when it is paired with a consonant from the second series. Sometimes, a vowel takes on a third sound when the pairing is followed by a certain other consonant. Confused yet? Too bad. There is more. There are 6 accents that change all rules and add even more vowel sounds. They appear over top of words and act to either shorten, lengthen or emphasize sounds. The bontop looks a lot like a straightened out apostrophe, shortens a vowel sound, at the same time altering it. The bontop pii, which looks like two straightened apostrophes, (pii=two), changes the sound of a first series consonant to a second series sound. There is another symbol to change the sound of a second series consonant to a first series, but this only applies to a limited number. The other 3 accents occur infrequently.

    Khmer words are written without spaces in between.

    It makes me thankful that the language isn’t tonal as well.

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