The pungent smell of prahok—the fermented fish paste, fundamental to Cambodia’s cuisine, that elicits passionate responses from lovers and haters alike—does not seem to be wafting over the city as much this year.
Buyers of several varieties of fish used to make prahok are complaining that prices are prohibitively high; sellers are saying that there just are not enough of the fish to go around.
Say Chhun, 63, of Kampong Cham province, said she purchases fish to make prahok every year around this time—when the waters of the Tonle Sap lake and river flow back into the Mekong River and fishermen make their biggest catch of the season—but that she has not been able to purchase any yet this year because of the high prices.
“I’m afraid I cannot buy much prahok fish. I’m afraid in our country we don’t have much fish to make prahok,” she said.
Government fisheries expert Touch Seang Tana confirmed that there are fewer fish to make prahok this year, attributing it to lower water levels and a lack of sufficient flooding during the rainy season.
“The flood was reduced and it came late. Fish had no space for spawning,” he said, adding that he thinks irregular floods are a result of upstream dams.
In December, fisheries officials predicted a fish shortage for the 2007-2008 season based on the fact that the rise in water level, which usually begins in June, had come roughly 40 days late in 2007, which affected the breeding habits for baby fish.
But Sam Nov, deputy director of the Fisheries Administration, denied this year’s price hike was evidence of a decreasing catch.
He said he did not have figures on prahok fish caught this year, but that he believed the catch to be similar to that of last year, which was 15,000 tons.
Price increases in and around Phnom Penh have more to do with number of consumers than they do with the number of fish, he said.
“It sometimes raises the price because there are more people going to buy at the same time,” he said, adding that prices are still low in areas outside of Phnom Penh.
“On Friday the 18th, I went to fermented fish-paste producing areas in Kompong Chhnang [province]. The fishermen caught more fish and it cost 700 riel [$0.17] for 1 kg if we bought directly from the fishermen,” he said.
But Khiev Srey, who serves as a middleman between fishermen and domestic prahok fish buyers, said she has seen roughly the same number of customers coming to buy her goods.
“There are many people who come to buy prahok fish,” she said. “But they don’t get that much.”
(Additional reporting by Emily Lodish)
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