Food is a never-ending exploration, and the latest before us is the food of Cambodia with these pahut or fish cakes.
Cambodia is a land of rivers and lakes, bordered by the Gulf of Thailand, and nestled between Thailand, Vietnam and Laos. The cuisine is lighter and features more vegetables and fish than Thai or Vietnamese. The curries are more watery and delicate, less sticky and strong than in Thailand.
Cambodian (or Khmer) cuisine is an exotic fusion of Chinese, Indian and French influences. The food is light, delicate & healthy. An emphasis is placed on freshness of ingredients & simplicity in cooking, allowing the complex aromas, textures & flavors to shine. The core flavors are subtle, utilizing lemongrass, galangal, lime leaves and turmeric.
The fish cake known as pahut, phahut or pahet is one of Cambodia’s favorite food items. It is made using boneless white fish that is cut into little chunks. The fish cake consists of lemongrass, turmeric and garlic cloves as the main ingredients. The cake is made in the traditional Cambodian style but there are many variations to this special recipe according to each region.
A fishcake (sometimes written as fish cake) is a food item similar to a croquette, consisting of filleted fish or other seafood with potato patty, sometimes coated in breadcrumbs or batter, and fried.
The fishcake has been seen as a way of using up leftovers that might otherwise be thrown away. In Mrs. Beeton’s 19th century publication Book of Household Management, her recipe for fishcakes calls for “leftover fish” and “cold potatoes”. More modern recipes have added to the dish, suggesting ingredients such as smoked salmon and vegetables.
Fish cakes in mythology
According to Chinese folk tales, fish cakes have had more than 4000 years’ history. In ancient times, an emperor called Shun travelled to Southern China with his two wives. After a long period of travel, his wives were tired and had bad appetites. This caused Shun to worry, and he searched for ways to resolve the problem. A fisher called Bo came and gave Shun his fish cakes. Shun’s wives really enjoyed them, and their appetites returned to normal. Shun was so pleased that he asked the fisher Bo to teach other people how to make fish cakes, so everyone can enjoy food even when they have bad appetites. Fish cakes then became popular in China and throughout other Asian countries.
Later in the history, a famous version of fish cake occurred during Guangxu Emperor’s reign in the Qing Dynasty (1875-1908). Guangxu Emperor’s wife, Zheng loved fish cakes. She brought the fish cakes’ recipe into the Forbidden City, where the royal family lived. With Royal cooks’ improvement to the recipe during practice, Zheng’s fish cakes eventually became famous. However, the fish cakes also disappeared after Zheng was murdered.
Fish cakes in various forms are eaten throughout the world and have a long history, dating back to ancient China nearly 4000 years ago. Every country has its own variation but the classic Western fish cakes consists of fish, potatoes, eggs, onions, seasoning, herbs and often breadcrumbs.
In the Caribbean on the island of Barbados, Bajans are known for making their salt fish cakes using salted cod fish and flour batter, then deep fried in oil.
In Japan, white fish is puréed and steamed into a loaf called kamaboko. Fried fishcakes, such as satsumaage, are also popular. Fishcakes in Japan are commonly made from surimi, a paste made primarily from freshwater fish meat and starch, egg whites and spices.
In Thai cuisine, the fish is first mashed and then mixed with chopped yardlong beans, fresh cilantro (including stalks), fish sauce, kaffir lime leaves, red curry paste, and an egg binding. Those fish cakes called tod man pla are deep fried and usually served with a sweet chili dipping sauce.
Fish cakes are a great way to enjoy fish if you’re generally not particularly crazy about it. The other ingredients help camouflage the flavor, especially if you’re using a mild white fish like cod or haddock, and even the pickiest of eaters may surprise you when you serve these.
Cambodian fish cakes tend to have a chewy, gummy, bouncy or even rubbery texture. These aren’t typically flattering words when it comes to food. That is, they’re not traditionally complimentary in the Western world. In Cambodia and often in other parts of East Asia, it’s a different story. These adjectives describe a beloved texture, a food quality sought after, not shunned. It’s called the “Q” texture, or the mystery food characteristic you didn’t even know you were missing.
If you’re scratching your head over the letter “Q” and its place among the Chinese characters, you’re not alone. “Q” is something of a recent slang term. When and how the letter was adopted isn’t entirely clear, but you’ll see it today on packaged food, like noodles and mochi, on menus and even in shop names.
One popular food that embodies the texture is the fish cake. In Cambodia and other parts of East Asia and Southeast Asia, fish cakes are not the flaky or chunky ones Americans picture when they think of crab cakes or salmon patties. They’re smooth and chewy. If they’re done well, they’re “Q”! Getting the hang of it yet?
Prahok is a crushed, salted and fermented fish paste (usually of mudfish) that is used in Cambodian cuisine as a seasoning or a condiment. It originated as a way of preserving fish during the months when fresh fish was not available in abundant supply. Because of its saltiness and strong flavor, it was used as an addition to many meals in Cambodian cuisine, such as soups and sauces. A Cambodian saying goes, “No prahok, no salt”, referring to a dish that is of poor flavor or bland thus highlighting its essentiality in Cambodian cuisine. Prahok has a strong and distinct smell, earning the nickname “Cambodian cheese” among food writers. It is one of the main ingredients in Cambodian fishcakes and yes, the smell in your home after using this in your fish cakes will knock your socks off!
Cambodians use a mortar and pestle to pound fresh, boneless, skinless fish fillets and spices, which can be time consuming. In modern times, home chefs have turned to the food processor as a means of saving on time.
In North America, it is common practice to pan fry the fish cakes and they are often served as appetizers whereas in Asia, they are often served boiled in soups or as an accompaniment to noodles. Some common dishes in Asian countries that include fish cakes are udon, fish cake soup, fish ball noodles or just served individually as a side dish.
Fish cakes have risen to new horizons, even being served in upscale restaurants with modern twists and gourmet ingredients like smoked salmon and truffles.
These fish cakes, when served as an appetizer, go great with something acidic to help bring out the flavors.
Pahut is a traditional Cambodian fish cake that is typically prepared with fish pounded and mixed with kroeung in a mortar and pestle.
- In a food processor or with a mortar and pestle, mix fish, garlic, and scallions. Add the lemongrass, fish sauce, sugar, black pepper, chili, prahok, and 1 tablespoon oil to this mixture.
- Knead for a few minutes.
- Take the equivalent of a tablespoon and form a small patty.
- Renew the operation until exhausted.
- Place the patties on a sheet of parchment paper.
- Heat a frying pan or wok over medium-high heat.
- When the pan is hot, add the remaining oil and fry the fish patties until they are cooked and browned on both sides.
- Serve hot or warm with steamed white rice or as an appetizer.