Small Fish in a Big Soup

This is not the fish we had for breakfast. This happens to be a fish we had for lunch last year in a village along the Mekong. It was a big meaty snakehead, straight from the river, and our host, Monin, paid a pretty price for it. The fish above was not farmed. It had swum freely through the river.

What we had the other morning for breakfast was a big steaming tureen of sour fish soup, fragrant with all the lemon-balmy goodness of paddy herbs, and a slightly green tint to the broth with copious amounts of morning glory. Whole garlic cloves and chunks of galangal simmered in the soup, over a candle flame. But the fish? Tiny, bony, sad. We slurped the broth, devoured the herbs and left the bones on the side.

Ten years ago, that fish would not have been served in that soup in that way. Ten years ago, Khmer sour fish soup routinely came with thick, fleshy slices of fish that had been caught from the river or lake that morning. Times have changed.

You might recall last spring my post on the demise of Cambodia’s great staple, its freshwater fish, upon which this culture thrives. What we’re seeing today on restaurant tables is the picture of decline. I’ve said it before (and I know some people disagree), but I stand by my interviews and observations: Cambodians are losing their lake and river fish. Talk to Tonle Sap fishermen and their wives. Read the reports. Visit with market vendors and household cooks and the owners of aquatic farms, where the fish are raised in pens and fed diets of  meal mixed with large portions of rice waste. It’s no simple task for the average shopper to find big, healthy freshwater fish for sale in the morning market. With combined pollution, population increases, changes in seasonal flooding, and reports of illegal overfishing—there simply aren’t as many fish to feed the Cambodian family anymore. Gone are the days of ubiquitous fish-dominant dinners. In fact, they may be gone entirely if and when China’s many plans for upstream dams go through.

The other night, we ate a streetside meal of ginger fried chicken and sour soup (another type, with tomatoes and pineapple). Fish wasn’t even an option. The smiling old Khmer woman had none to sell at her stall—only chicken, beef and pork.

And just now, as I type in a pleasant Siem Reap restaurant with WiFi, the Khmer couple beside me tried to order a plate of fish. The answer? “Mien moan, ch’hrouk,” the waiter said. We have chicken, pork. “Awt mien trei.”

We have no fish.

6 thoughts on “Small Fish in a Big Soup

  1. Very sad. Such nice memories of fish-with-rice dinners at a small restaurant next to the Mekong in Phnom Penh. Big chunks of tasty fish. But that was … eleven years ago? Yikes.

  2. Every time I go to Cambodia, the fish are smaller and fewer. In the roadhouses, the soup used to be full of fish, now it’s just one sad piece of scrawny scrap. Have also heard there’s plans for more fish and shrimp farms in the south. They really do seem to be following China’s lead in environmental preservation…

  3. Because this is a cooking blog- and I assume that all of you readers are creative and ingenuitive cooks yourselves, I thought to post a survey that I am administering-here on this site. I deeply covet your responses, as I am a design student working on my thesis project.

    Please and Thank you in advance for your input! 🙂

  4. Great post Karen. On a recent trip to Loei, just across the Mekong from Laos, I was pretty shocked by the lack of wild fish available in markets. It seemed that – especially on the rustic road from Chiang Khan to Nong Khai – the only <ekong fish for sale were oily minnows, sprinkled in rock salt. One evening, I ordered fried Mekong catfish. I think it was wild because it was scrawny – the backbone almost as voluminous as the meat – and I felt bad for ordering it. The fishery seems like it's fallen on tough times in that part of the world.

  5. Thanks, everyone, for your own comments and observations. There are still places to find decent fish, though fewer and farther between. Fish tends to cost more than pork, beef or chicken – another switch from years past.

    Laura, good luck with your survey, and I’d like to hear more about your thesis.

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