There is a saying in Khmer, “mien tuk, mien trey”, which translates as “where there is water, there is fish”. Suffice to say, Cambodia has a lot of water. There is first of all the extensive river system, including the legendary Mekong, criss-crossing the country nourishing everything in its path. And then at the heart of it all, there is the Tonle Sap lake, a vast waterway whose unique “pulse” makes it the most productive inland fishery in the world, accounting for one quarter of the world’s global freshwater catch and feeding tens of millions of people.
Right now, as the rainy season slowly peters out, the Tonle Sap is at the height of its capacity. At around 16,000 km², the lake is bigger than the French departments of Landes and Gers combined or the American state of Connecticut. But as the monsoon recedes and the Himalayas face up to the coming winter freeze, the power of the Mekong will fade too, and the forces that drive the Tonle Sap River to reverse its own flow and inundate Cambodia’s floodplains will give way. This month marks the beginning of the process that will see a change in focus from land and rice cultivation to water and the rich harvest beneath the waves.
Unsurprisingly, Cambodians eat more freshwater fish per capita than any other population in the world. That “pulse” system driving the Tonle’s Sap water levels up and down results in a wondrously food-rich environment for migrating fish who take the opportunity to reproduce with abandon. There are not only millions of fish, but also hundreds of varieties of fish (as many as 500 different species) in those waters, and they are vital to food security in the country, and also to the vibrancy of Cambodia’s cuisine.
Nature’s abundance is rewarded with Cambodians’ creativity when it comes to preparing and cooking this silver-skinned bounty, which can be pickled, salted, dried or smoked. Then there are the fermented preserved preparations such as prahok, and not just that, but a variety of similar pastes flavoured with spices, vinegar or sugar. Fresh fish can be grilled, fried, barbecued, prepared in a soup, curry or stew.
It is no surprise that the nation’s most iconic dish, or at least that most recognised to tourists, is a fish preparation, but so too are its most loved noodle soups, and it is impossible to imagine a day trip that doesn’t involve picking apart a freshly barbecued fish.
Our menu at Malis offers a vibrant reflection of the importance of fish to Cambodia’s stomachs, and hearts. You’ll find a smoked fish and green mango salad, roasted bang kang river lobster, smoked fish soups, the classic fish amok, steamed fish with noodles, baked fish with mango, a prahok ktis (of course!), and plenty more besides.