Cambodia is losing its fish and rice. We’ll be investigating this further in the coming weeks; it’s a story that spells a sad future. The country’s great, nourishing rivers and lands are vanishing for many reasons — land grabbing, land sales, over-fishing, upstream dams, diminished waters, new hotels, villas in the countryside. Meter by meter, farmland turns to something else. One by one, fresh-water fish disappear. One friend tells me the majority of fish sold in the market these days are farmed. He can taste the difference, and he doesn’t like it.
Yesterday, we had the good fortune to eat lunch the way Khmers have for ages. Our friend, Monin, took us home to T’aek village on the sandy edges of the Mekong. He phoned his aunt ahead of time, asking her to cook rice. Along the ride, he stopped to buy a snakehead fish, trey diep (Channa micropeltes), for his aunt to fry. He specifically asked for a river fish. “The river fish is best, very best,” he said. “The farm fish — not good taste. I don’t know why.”
Aunty Ngim scraped off some of the scales with a cleaver, then rubbed the fish in salt and rinsed it in water. She put the whole fish into a smoking black wok over a fire burner on the dirt floor beneath her nearly 80-year-old (!) house on stilts. The fish sizzled in oil as she prepared the dip: salt, smashed garlic and tamarind water from the pods that grow on her tree. She removed the fish, chopped it in half and returned it to the wok, flipping occasionally until it cooked all the way through.
She prepared seats for us on a slat platform, then set the meal before us: fresh fish, sweet and salty tamarind, a bowl of fragrant basil and rice from the family paddy. â€œI wanted a papaya with the fish,â€ Ngim said, â€œbut I could not find.â€ The lunch reminded me of years past, of many meals with friends, and the fish flavors I always associate with Cambodia. The farther you live from these riversâ€”the Mekong, the Tonle Sapâ€”the slimmer your chances of tasting a fish such as this. Sweet. Meaty. Perfect, without a hint of mud or muck. Itâ€™s no longer easy to find.
But no matter where you live, you might get your hands on a few tamarind pods, a clump of garlic and a pinch of sea salt. Soak the pods and use that water to mix with the garlic and salt. Itâ€™s a simple concoction that adds life to any thick, white fish — and zest to any village meal.