Prahok, a ubiquitous pungent-smelling fermented fish paste used in a wide variety of local dishes, has long beguiled aficionados of unique cuisine. However, its sometimes overwhelming odour can make it challenging to embrace for the olfactory sensitive.

Despite its distinct flavour profiles which elevate soups and sauces, many budding chefs are afraid to employ it in their kitchens.

Sometimes referred to as Khmer cheese, prahok is fermented from as long as 20 days – or even several years – to develop its complex, nuanced taste.

Although popular in its traditional form with many of Cambodian households, one budding entrepreneur has developed a less confrontational dried powder style of prahok, meaning the delightful flavours are more accessible and widely available in major supermarket.

Chan Nimol, a fourth-year food science student at the Institute of Technology of Cambodia (ITC), set herself the goal of developing a less scented, cleaner way of delivering the much-loved flavours. Her powdered prahok was recently awarded second place in a prahok processing competition, earning wide praise and attracting the attention of the judging committee and her fellow participants.

She continues to produce her unique product and market it to lovers of the pungent treat, and is considering plans to scale up production and transform it into a larger business after she graduates, providing she can attract the right investors to support and mentor her.

“At first, my team and I only intended to enter the competition, but as people found our product so unique and interesting, we have continued to manufacture it and sell it online,” she explained.

“The competition required us to devise a way of making prahok easier to store and export. The key was to find way to reduce the small and dehydrate it to a dry form,” she added.

The business has now been running for about four months and sells each jar of the magic powder for $7.

Nimol described the powder as perfect for those who do not like the smell of prahok or those who find the taste too strong. It is also suitable for customers who are very concerned about hygiene, as her production methods place a very high value on cleanliness and disinfection. In addition, the powder is easy to use – customers can simply add it to the liquid base of their soups and sauces.

“The first thing we had to do was choose the type of fish that would make the best prahok. We select ‘trey riel’ that are locally caught and then dry them and mix the powder to create our product,” she said, referring to small mud carps (Henicorhynchus entmema and H siamensis).

She explained that the powder is perfectly suited for many dishes, such as soups or green papaya salad, while conceding that some recipes still required fresh prahok in its original, sometimes stinky form.

The young entrepreneur believes that her prahok powder could have the makings of a successful business, but noted that she will require additional resources – and the input and capital of collaborative partners – in order to see it reach its full potential.