no substitute

I have not been the biggest fan
of prahok
always complained about
how it looked and smelled
when spooned out raw
how it ran me out of the kitchen
when being prepared
how it managed to stink up
and put out of commission
every piece of luggage
ever used to import
the plastic bottles
filled to the neck
with the pungent paste

so imagine everyone’s surprise
when I passionately decried
my mother’s intention
to begin replacing
prahok with western anchovies
in her Khmer recipes

prahok was the heart
of those dishes, I argued
what made them uniquely Khmer
an integral flavoring agent
that could not be replicated
without the fish and salt
and sweat and dust and heat
of Cambodia

plus
I think I would miss most
my own Khmer American ritual
of complaining about
the pervasive odor of prahok
right before sitting down
to a delicious meal
of salaw machu kreung
or prahok ktis
or nom pachok