Making Fish Paste ~ Phsar Prohok, Battambang, Cambodia

File this one under: “Not-so-pretty” pictures, and “Jobs I’m glad I don’t have to do.”

Just outside Battambang, Cambodia, there is a huge, warehouse-like building where fish-paste is made. You can imagine it, can’t you? Hot, dark, damp, and – yes – smelly. Surprisingly, this place is a fairly routine stop on the day-trip circuits. It certainly gives the visitor an insight into local lifestyles and the work that goes into “simple” meals: fish sauce and fish paste are absolutely essential ingredients in many dishes in this part of the world and sit as condiment staples on most tables.

Phsar Prohok (The Fish Paste Market) is certainly NOT the sort of place I would have sought out for myself! I don’t usually even eat fish. But, this stop was pre-arranged. It was all part of a tuk-tuk tour of Battambang’s surrounds – cultural villages and ancient temples – with a number of keen photographers, under the guidance of Karl Grobl, Gavin Gough and Marco Ryan.

Chunks of red fish lying in the sunshine on wooden slats.

Not surprisingly, the first thing I noticed (after the smell) was fish drying in the sunshine.

Two khmer women in cotton dresses sitting in a large warehouse-like building.

Many people at the the "factory" work for themselves. They work long hours ~ but they are always prepared to have a rest, of a chat, or some time out.

Clay pots, wooden beams and wicker baskets in a khmer fish-paste factory.

Clay pots, wooden beams and wicker baskets are scattered throughout the workspace.

Plastic tub of fish pieces in red liquid.

Plastic buckets of briny, fragrant fish pieces are scattered all around.

Close-Up of fish gills.

Almost abstract: Fish gills.

Two Khmer males sitting along side a brightly lit lane way.

People are often cautious of the "foreigner" at first...

Portrait: Young khmer man in a cap

... but it's not usually long before my camera and I are rewarded with a smile.

Making the fish paste is a slow, labour intensive process. Many different varieties of fresh fish arrive and are cleaned, chopped and sun-dried or otherwise treated before being smoked or soaked. Large wooden, stone or steel vats are filled with bits of fish mixed with herbs spices, and heaven-only-knows what else, and sit quietly fermenting in the shaded alleys of the factory/market. These pungent smelling stews are occasionally stirred with large wooden paddles, then pounded with a wooden plunger before being forked into bags for weighing and marketing.

White plastic bucket, wooden masher and other containers.

Still life found: Fish-paste containers and the wooden plunger used in the vats.

Grey cat walking along the edges of concrete vats.

Where there is fish, there is bound to be a cat!

A woman in a face mask using a three tined pitchfork to put mashed fish into a plastic bag

Although this woman was wearing a mask, there was not a hairnet or pair of gloves in sight.

Detail: a three tined pitchfork being used to put mashed fish into a plastic bag.

After stirring and mashing, fermented fish paste ~

Detail: a pitchfork being used to put mashed fish into a plastic bag

~ is forked into bags for weighing.

Silver fish in a large rusty pot.

More fish of a smaller variety ~ I guess the rust adds to the flavour!

A woman crouching on the floor sorting through fish pieces.

Sorting through dried fish pieces.

Detail: Dried fish pieces

Dried fish pieces.

A man sitting on a floor with his back to the camera, writing in a notebook.

Keeping the books.

A man in a flannel shirt tying white bags of fish up with strings.

Tying up the bags ~ notice the old green scales behind.

Wicker baskets lying at the side of a sandy dirt road.

Wicker baskets lying outside the fish-paste factory.

Text: Happy TravelsIt was actually quite interesting, and is worth a wander through. Still, I was happy that we didn’t stay too long.

And, I’m very happy NOT to be the one working there!

Visit and Photos: 23 July 2011

  • Kevin Dowie - April 19, 2012 - 7:18 am

    Mmmm, rust as a flavouring! I travelled there several years ago, I’m tempted to go back. Lovely people in spite of the country’s wretched history. Interesting photo series Ursula, thanks for enduring the smells! 🙂ReplyCancel

    • Ursula - April 19, 2012 - 3:23 pm

      Hi Kevin!
      A wonderful place indeed. I’d go back any time! Thanks for your visit. 🙂ReplyCancel

  • kevin dowie - April 19, 2012 - 7:20 am

    Interesting photos Ursula.ReplyCancel

  • Signe Westerberg - April 20, 2012 - 2:54 am

    WOW… I love eating fish, however only eat it fresh and rarely use fish sauces etc… so glad now I tell you.

    Great photos as always and interesting to see how the other 2/3rds live, and their willingness to offer a smile when a camera is produced. Thanks as always.ReplyCancel

  • Anna :o] - April 20, 2012 - 5:47 pm

    Lovely story told in pictures – don’t think I could have coped with the fish aroma. Did notice the rust too – perhaps it does add to the flavour…

    Anna :o]ReplyCancel

    • Ursula - April 21, 2012 - 6:54 am

      Thanks, Signe and Anna! Always pleased to have my two Liverpudlians along. 😀ReplyCancel

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