Would it be culturally offensive or overly dramatic to say that trei ngeat runs in the veins of Cambodians?
My relatives who come back to the states after a trip to Cambodia often returned bearing kilos of this sun dried, sweet-salty substance, which my parents frequently motion towards with eyes of glee and say, “This is gold.” You will see trei ngeat, a dried fish product, and an assortment of other dried sea critters, hanging like amber crystal curtains and stacked like pink bricks in the markets. To the unbeknownst eye the sight is startling and the smell pungent. You wonder, who killed what? Me, I simply consume the dried up fishies willingly as they make their frequent guest appearances in my food. Now I just gape and marvel at the established cultural practice of preservation in Cambodia. Perhaps it was the Khmer civilization’s innovative way to combat the hot climate and lack of refrigeration technology during ancient times. (Really though, it’s a brilliant method. The stuff will keep for years – hang a string of the filets from your kitchen window and work through them diligently from New Year’s to Christmas.)
This is my gastronomical-sociological opinion, tentative to change should further observations arise: we Cambodians dry, pickle, and dehydrate almost every damn thing we can get our hands on before it rots. We are preoccupied with the art of preservation – well, definitely the preservation of food at least. The practice of preserving other things in Khmer society remains questionable.