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The Fish, the Hog, and Freedom

A holiday gathering of comfort foods from Cambodia and the American South.

Words: Vannary Kong
Pictures: Todd Quackenbush

What’s On Your Table?” is a series of articles exploring the relationship between food and systems of power, and how our dining tables shape global cuisine and family histories. You can find a recipe at the bottom of each piece to join in on the meal. 

In the heart of Southeast Asia, lies the Mekong River, one of the world’s most iconic rivers. For 5,000 kilometers, it winds through China, Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, and most importantly, Cambodia. The Mekong River is home to 850 fish species and over 2,000 plant varieties discovered to date. For a lot of people in Southeast Asia, the Mekong River supports agricultural development and economic development, helping both large corporations and local fishermen.

The Mekong River is also home to the Mud Fish, also known in our language as: ប្រហុក (prahok). Like the Mekong, the prahok also drives economic development, with small and medium enterprises competing in the global markets for local Khmer Fishermen.

The Mud Fish is known as the “stinky fermented salt fish” and makes its presence known in several Cambodian dishes. Two prominent Khmer dishes that I grew up eating on Thanksgiving are នំបញ្ចុក (Num Bahn Chok) Khmer Fish Curry Vermicelli Noodle Soup, and ប្រហុក (tuk prahok) Khmer Fermented Fish Dipping Sauce, normally eaten with steak and veggies with a bed of rice. Tuk Prahok is one of the most adventurous, yet rewarding, Khmer dishes —and it has survived on dining tables for many years despite upheaval. 

Like many Cambodians, my family escaped the Khmer Rouge regime. The Khmer Rouge Regime ruled over Cambodia from 1975–1979 under the Marxist dictator Pol Pot. The Khmer Rouge War was one of the deadliest genocides, killing over 2 million Cambodians. The war also killed off several Cambodian scholars, engineers, and several intellects as well affecting the future of Cambodian culture. To make the perfect dish of Tuk Prahok you need prahok; typically we buy the Vietnamese version of the jar which is called “mắm cá lóc.” The canned prahok are a major source of income for local Vietnamese fishermen that sell to large corporations that export it to industrially advanced Western countries with large Asian populations. According to the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Vietnamese Ministry of Industry and Trade exported 8.2 billion pounds of prahok to the United States in 2020 to the tune of  $4.6 billion.

If you really want to get the authentic flavor of the dish, and fully understand how this dish and its ingredients are connected to my family and the United States collectively, you need a taste of history. 


To create the perfect atmosphere of a deadly genocide, you would need French imperialism in Southeast Asia, Cambodian armies joining with Vietnamese armies against the French, Tou Samouth founding the Cambodian Communist Party in 1951, and the French withdrawing from Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam at the Geneva Conference in 1954. Other ingredients include Russia and China providing weapons beneath Cambodia to the North Viet Cong Communist soldiers (at the time), Cambodian Prince Norodom Sihanouk claiming neutrality during the Vietnam War, Pol Pot taking over the Cambodian Communist Party and plans for a rebellion visiting both China and Vietnam, the intensification of the US–Vietnam War, Prince Norodom Sihanouk breaking ties with the United States, years of secret bombings of Cambodia from President Richard Nixon, along with a government insurgency of Prince Norodom Sihanouk against US-backed Lon Nol as prime minister of Cambodia. These ingredients create the perfect conditions.

Once you have all your ingredients, add economic depression, anti-US sentiment, and defeat of Lon Nol’s army. Then, impose slavery, diminish the economic system, and start mass persecution of intellectuals and ethnic minorities. Once you have these, then add the special ingredient: escaping genocide, like my family did. You’ll need two grandparents working in the Lon Nol administration — my grandfather working in the US Embassy of Phnom Penh as a Finance Director, and my grandmother working as a doctor in the Cambodian Army. You’ll need the suspicion that comes from watching the killings of Cambodian government workers in previous administrations, hiding and protecting our family from the US bombings in Cambodia, having to hide your true identity (i.e., teaching your kids how to address the elders in the “country spoken dialects”) in order to not be killed. That might not always be enough.


My grandparents predicted the Cambodian Civil War was going to start. They had heard it through the grapevine at their jobs. My grandfather immediately began applying for visas to the United States, Australia, Canada, and France. Before my grandfather was applying for visas, he was taken into custody by the Khmer Rouge soldiers and tortured for two weeks. The soldiers asked him if he spoke multiple languages. Although my grandfather spoke French, Khmer, and English, he lied and said he was a taxi driver. They still accused him of “not being loyal to Angkor.” Fortunately, he escaped.

The first country to accept my family was the United States. My family walked through Cambodia by foot with just the clothes on their back to make it to Thailand’s border. My mother talks about having PTSD because she remembers hearing the bombing that Nixon allowed, also called Operation Breakfast, to occur in Cambodia to destroy the tunnels that China and Russia were providing weapons to the Viet Cong solders and being picked up and riding in a Thai army vehicle to the refugee camp.

If you really want to get the authentic flavor of the dish, and fully understand how this dish and its ingredients are connected to my family and the United States collectively, you need a taste of history. 

My family arrived at the Khao I Dang refugee camp, administered by the Thai Ministry of the Interior and the UN High Commissioner of Refugees right when it opened. In October of 1979, the Thai Prime Minister Kriangsak Chomanan enacted an “open door” policy, which permitted Cambodian refugees to cross the border safely and to reside in certain locations. This policy, however, ended in 1980. The Catholic Relief Services rescued my family from the Khao I Dang refugee camp where my family lived in the Philippines for a year before coming to the United States in 1981 to Chicago, Illinois. From there my family was taken to a small town called Elkhart, Indiana where a small community of Southeast Asians resides peacefully with the Amish. There, my family added new dishes to our table: Collard Greens and Hush Puppies. 

My paternal grandmother is originally from Louisiana but moved to Indianapolis when she was a child. I grew up on southern collard greens and hush puppies at every holiday meal. Collard greens became a staple mark in the African American community as African slaves in the United States wanted create meals similar to the ones they and their ancestors had made before slavery, and which included leafy greens cooked in a low broth. The broth is sometimes made of ham hock, which are pork knuckles — an ingredient that slave owners did not want, and so would give away to their slaves. Today, ham hock has gotten considerable attention as a staple in African American cuisine.    

Along with leafy greens, cornmeal features prominently in several African cuisines, but for African American slaves, hush puppies have a special meaning. On the route to freedom, escaping slaves had to escape not only their owners but also the owners’ loud, barking dogs that were trained to stop slaves from escaping the plantation. My father always told me that hush puppies were created with fried corn meal batter to “hush” the slave master’s dog as they were on their way to freedom. Since slaves had an abundance of cornmeal, eggs, and milk around, the hush puppies batter was easily available. The recipe gained popularity as the success of the hush puppies contributed to the success of runaway slaves who eventually became free.


According to a report by the US Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service, “countercycling pricing,”  —the method of lowered retail pricing during times of increased demand — have always been applied to the collard green industry. Between 2010 and 2021, the decrease of price drops for collard greens went from a 6% decrease to a 16% decrease in 2020 during Thanksgiving weekend. The pork industry, however, has fared better. In 2020, the US Department of Agriculture Foreign Agricultural Service reported that the US pork industry is now valued globally at $7.7 billion, which is an 11% increase from 2019. Since collard greens have high popularity in American Southern cuisines, the reasoning behind the lower of prices with “countercycling” is due to the high performance in demand and purchase power regardless if there are economic downturns or recessions. Although pork is another popular item in American Southern cuisine, COVID-19 and trouble with domestic supply chains have resulted in it becoming costlier. 

What does this public trade data tell us? It highlights an important connection: The oldest areas of the world, the Mekong River and Southern region of the United States, have simultaneously impacted the cultural heritage of Southeast Asian and African American communities, and influenced how each preserves its cuisine and “comfort foods.” For my family, the main theme that echoes throughout our history is the quest for freedom and the desire to preserve our heritage through food. And so, this Thanksgiving, I hope you enjoy some of the dishes my family so dearly love to eat together.


You’ll need:

  • ½ cup of canned prahok.
  • ½ cup of boiling water
  • 3 Thai Chili peppers (finely chopped)
  • ½ cup of Lemon grass finely chopped
  • 4 garlic cloves finely chopped
  • 1 tablespoon of palm sugar
  • 1 tablespoon of salt
  • ¼ cup of fresh lime juice
  • 2 green Thai eggplants
  • 2 tablespoons of the Sawtooth herb (culantro) and cilantro,
  • 2 tablespoons of Mint,
  • 2 tablespoons of Thai basil.

After all your basic ingredients are cut up, put them all in a blender on the lowest setting and gradually add in the boiling hot water.

We normally eat tuk prahok with steak or vegetables such as cucumbers and Thai eggplant served on a bed of steamed Jasmine rice.

NUM BAHN CHOK នំបញ្ចុក

Before you start making the dish, you need to make a paste called Kreoung, a lemongrass paste. To make the Kreoung paste you need:

  • 3 lemongrass stalks
  • 1 ounce of ginger
  • 4 Kaffir leaves (lime leaves)
  • 8 garlic cloves (finely chopped)
  • 1 small onion
  • 1 ounce of turmeric (or turmeric powder)
  • and ½ teaspoon of salt.

Take all the ingredients and pulse it in a blender into a paste.

To start off making the Num Bahn Chok you need 1 whole tilapia, 1 whole chicken, 1 cup of the Kreoung paste that we just made, 10 finger root (pickled ginger),1  of prahok, ½ tablespoon of sugar, 3 garlic cloves, 1 tablespoon of knorr chicken mix, 1 ½ of Fish sauce, 1 ½ of salt, 1 cup of coconut milk, 4 liters of water, 3 thai chili peppers, 1 stalk of lemongrass, one packages of vermicelli noodles, bean sprouts, cilantro, basil, and limes.

In a large pot boil 4 liters of water, crush the lemon grass then add in your whole chicken and cook for 10 minutes or when the chicken is done. Take the chicken out and put your tilapia in, cook it for 5-10 minutes. Shred the meat of both the chicken and tilapia and set it to the side. Add in the broth the prahok, let it boil out to take away the smell. In the blender, add in your fish meat, chicken meat, Thai chili peppers, garlic cloves, knorr chicken mix, fish sauce, kroeung paste, salt, sugar, and coconut milk and pulse it in a blender until it becomes a paste. Let it sit for 5 minutes for the flavors to fuse together and add it to the broth to simmer for 10 minutes. Take your vermicelli noodles and cook it for 4-6 minutes and then immediately submerge it in ice cold water to stop it from cooking. Fold the noodles the ice water into small circles layered on top of each other in order to organize the noodles for easy access.

To serve the Num Bahn Chok, take a little of the vermicelli noodles and pour the broth on top of it. Then garnish your bowl with basil, cilantro, bean sprouts, banana leaves, limes, Thai Chili peppers, and Sriracha or Samsa.


In order to make Southern collard greens you need, 3 pounds of collard greens (washed and cut), 3 ham hocks, 1 large bell peppers (diced), 2 tablespoon of Lawry’s Seasoning Salt, 1 tablespoon of black pepper, 1 large onion (diced), 2 tablespoon of garlic powder, 2 tablespoon of vinegar, 1 large carton of chicken stock and 1 tablespoon of minced garlic. In a large pot or Dutch oven, combine ham hocks, onions, garlic, and chicken stock and bring to a simmer. Cover and cook at a bare simmer until the hocks are very tender, 2 to 3 hours. In a large pot add the collard green, seasonings, and combine the ham hocks, online, garlic, and chicken stock to cook for 3 hours.

The ingredients for Hush puppies are 1 cup yellow cornmeal, 1/4 cup all-purpose flour, 1-1/2 teaspoons baking powder, 1/2 teaspoon salt, 1 large egg, room temperature, lightly beaten, 3/4 cup 2% milk, 1 small onion, finely chopped, and Oil for deep-fat frying. In a large bowl, combine the cornmeal, flour, baking powder and salt. Whisk the egg, milk and onion; add to dry ingredients just until combined. In a cast-iron Dutch oven or an electric skillet, heat oil to 365°. Drop batter by tablespoonfuls into oil. Fry until golden brown, 2 to 2-1/2 minutes. Drain on paper towels. Serve warm. I typically eat the Hush puppies with collard greens to soak up the ‘pot likkor’ or collard green juice for best results.

Vannary Kong

Vannary Kong is a graduate student at Harvard University majoring in International Relations with a concentration in National Security and a participant in the Young Professionals Program at the East-West Center. She is also a member of the NextGen Foreign Policy for America. 

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