Traditional crafts of Cambodia (5/7): fish paste, Battambang

“Smell like the hell, eat like the heaven”, Mr. Ola tells us with a mesmerizing smile while explaining his mother’s signature recipe for the traditional prahok, a Cambodian fish paste dish. I uncomfortably move from one leg to the other trying to carefully listen to his story but holding my breath at the same time, avoiding the offending foul smell. We are about to discover how the unmissable and key ingredient for many Asian dishes is made on the fish paste market of Battambang, Cambodia.

With the very strong fish smell in the street I can barely take, I fear for my nostrils as I follow Mr. Ola into the damp warehouse in which the precious fish paste is made by local families. I notice a young man mashing fresh fish with his bare feet like wine grapes in the old times. This is part of the process to make a traditional prahok for which the fish caught from the Tonlé Sap lake and the river connecting Battambang with the lake is cleaned, cut, mashed, dried in the sun for about a day and fermented for up to three years in large vats for the highest quality fish paste.

Leaving the Phsar Prohok market behind, I am slightly relieved that this is not our lunch spot for the day! Instead an hour later, I find myself verifying Mr. Ola’s quote: it does smell like hell, but my pho tastes like heaven with this little bit of fish paste I have just added.

Claire & Marcella

Travel tips:

  • To make the most of your visit, we strongly recommend you to take a local guide (see below) as most craft-people do not speak English and are actually working hard to make a living, so they should not be disturbed. The local guide knows the usage and will tip appropriately.
  • To live this experience and follow us on the trail of traditional crafts in Battambang, we highly recommend a tour with the knowledgeable Mr. Ola, who proudly takes you around in his tuk-tuk for a full day of discovering the real Cambodia behind the scenes! Message him on Facebook or e-mail him.
  • Check out this interactive map for the specific details to help you plan your trip and more articles and photos (zoom out) about the area!

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