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.