Cambodia’s Great Loss

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. “I wanted a papaya with the fish,” Ngim said, “but I could not find.” 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 rivers—the Mekong, the Tonle Sap—the slimmer your chances of tasting a fish such as this. Sweet. Meaty. Perfect, without a hint of mud or muck. It’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. It’s a simple concoction that adds life to any thick, white fish — and zest to any village meal.

22 thoughts on “Cambodia’s Great Loss

  1. You are seeing up close what we read is happening everywhere. The wild things are disappearing. Of course the farmed fish don’t taste as good because they being fed a man-made fish meal. Looks delicious.

  2. Is that beautiful fish something like a northern pike? Northerns are called “snakes” in da U.P. and Minnesota.

  3. Thanks for your comments, everyone. Ed, it is true–the food and environment of a farmed fish do not make for great flavor. It tends to taste dirty. JRR, snakehead fish are native to Asia but some forms have invaded North American waterways, much to the discontent of fishermen. The snakehead apparently first surfaced in California in the 1970s and has since spread across the country — da U.P. included: http://www.enviroliteracy.org/article.php?id=1473&print=1

  4. As they say around here, “Same same but different.” Monin drives a tuk-tuk, and he has a new moto, both of which he bought with a loan. He lives with his wife and three little kids on the edge of Phnom Penh. His youngest, a son, suffered a head injury after falling from a hammock when he was very small, and he still cannot walk. He goes to therapy every month. When I asked Monin the other day whether things are better for average Cambodian people, he said maybe a little bit. But maybe not. He said his life is better because now he has three kids he loves very much. But he and his wife still struggle to pay the bills, and of course they worry about the future.

  5. Karen,
    Thanks for the update. Am going through pics for website to be made in a few weeks to a month. Saw old Monin photos..
    Glad he’s doing ok.
    Hope you two are too.
    A

  6. In response to the above link:

    Higher yields do not necessarily mean more rice or more money for the average farmer. While some large-scale farmers will benefit from better irrigation and growing techniques, the poorest subsistence farmers are those who are losing their land. Others are selling their fields, only to rent that same land from a larger, wealthier land owner — a scenario that offers little security for families in the future. A farmer without land has nothing to bank on. I call it a loss when a small-scale farmer has to buy his own rice back from a rich man.

    It would make sense that small fish yields are not declining, as fishermen report large trawlers with tightly woven nets scooping up the tiniest creatures in the lake. What happens if the small fish are not allowed to grow big? Fishermen are looking ahead, and they don’t like the future they see. They also report a distinct lack of law enforcement on Cambodia’s waterways, which indeed could account for seemingly stable numbers in the annual fish catch. For now.

  7. Regarding your leading statement I would say this is a gross generalization not borne out by hard facts. Though you promise to investigate this further, I can only recommend that you back up your further statements by a few facts, unless you indeed want your blog seen as just ramblings. Yes, we can see all those negative things you described but it certainly has not led to the disappearance of rice and fish. One needs to consider certain factors, e. g. increase in population, different fishing techniques, etc. Just like grouper has been overfished in the Gulf of Mexico, and elsewhere, certain species of fresh-water fish have been overfished in Cambodia as more people were able to afford them, more was sold for export, and so on, and so forth. I am a fisherman myself and I can tell you that there is an abundance of saltwater fish out in the Gulf of Thailand, although that is reported to be overfished as well. Fisherman still bring home a nice catch in the morning. And actually, rice production has increased manifold in the past 10 years, in part due to better planting methods, widespread introduction of irrigation, etc. And contrary to your last statement, the small farmers have benefited from that too. So, it is quite misleading to say that rice and fish are disappearing.

    Whether it’s unfortunate or not, the industrialization of agriculture is one aspect of the economic development of a country. You saw small farmers driven off their farms by the big conglomerates in the U. S. in the 30ies. You can see part of that in Cambodia now.
    (I came upon your blog via DAS.)

  8. Thanks for your comments, KJE. In the last couple of weeks I have interviewed farmers in the field, land owners who have sold and/or lost their land for a variety of reasons, farmers who now rent their former lands from the new owners, owners who have bought villagers’ fields, fishermen, fishing lot owners, prahok factory owners and workers, fish-sauce factory workers and villagers across the board. Certainly, stories need numbers. But having had 20 years of what you refer to as “the Cambodia experience,” I’m sure you realize that numbers are as sketchy as details in this country. More important, I tend to view the world and its issues in terms of people rather than statistics.

    Please don’t look here for a conclusion in the coming few weeks. This is not a story that can be finished so quickly, and that’s not how I report. I’ll be working on this for a long time.

  9. Numbers indeed are sometimes sketchy, but if you don’t have a yardstick you can’t measure anything, can you? In that sense, statistics do serve a purpose and are the only means to gauge ongoing social and economic problems. After all, all your individual stories will end up in a statistical number. So people in charge of implementing guidelines, regulations, and laws must more or less go by those numbers. Certainly, viewing the world in terms of people and statistics is not mutually exclusive. I personally just don’t like blanket condemnations or misleading generalizations. After all you publish this in the public domain and people reading this might get a wrong impression about the country – and I do know there are many wrongs in Cambodia but let’s not add any more to the public perception.

  10. KJE, please return to the Details are Sketchy post that originally led you here. Look at the automatically generated links, which lead to a DAS post on “the fall of the Tonle Sap,” and a related Time article. That DAS post contradicts the DAS post this week in saying “fish populations in Cambodia are at an all-time low.”

    I probably won’t say too much more on this issue in this venue, as I am in the middle of reporting this story. The above is what I have found thus far.

  11. Karen, if you read some of my commentaries you’d know where I am coming from. I do my own research. So, if you are reporting on this story, please dig deeper, don’t rely on human interest stories. Take care.

  12. mmm…..my family cooked like them when ever when we have our hmong family reunion…
    the research is in our lives….no need to research.. .

  13. this story isn’t horrible….it’s life…what are you suppose to do when youre poor?? my antsister’s live like this before….back in Thailand and laos, people are still like this….there’s food is a work of art and life!

  14. Shana, thanks for your comments. You’re absolutely right. Good, bad, right or wrong, this is life. Food is a work of art, and a reflection of people’s lives.

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