by Catherine Fancher
When was the last time you picked up Cambodian food for dinner on your way home? Never, you say? Me neither. Cambodian food has never been on my radar screen. Sometimes I crave Thai takeout or a steaming bowl of Vietnamese pho. But I haven’t ever hankered for the cuisine of Cambodia, that nation squeezed between Thailand and Vietnam, the culinary giants of Southeast Asia.
It’s ironic, really, that the food of Cambodia isn’t more widely known or appreciated. As I learned on Grantourismo’s October 2016 Cambodian culinary retreat, Cambodian food is the contemporary expression of the cuisine of the mighty Khmer empire, which flourished there until the mid-15th century. Our host, veteran food and travel writer Lara Dunston, explained that Cambodia’s ancient Khmer cuisine influenced the culinary traditions of Thailand and Vietnam, not the other way around. With her co-host and husband, fellow writer and photographer Terence Carter, Lara introduced us to the flavors of the country that they call home.
A Tie to the Past
If you walk or ride down any village road in Cambodia, you’ll notice smoking coal or wood fires. And you’ll smell the delicious aroma of grilled meat. Cambodians certainly enjoy their barbecue. We sampled pork cubes grilled on wooden skewers for breakfast, and fire-roasted beef marinated in a fragrant paste called “kroeung” for dinner. Any meat is fair game for a Cambodian grill, even the plentiful, snack-sized frogs which are popular with tuk-tuk drivers around Siem Reap.
People in Cambodia have been barbecuing the same way for almost a thousand years. To demonstrate, Lara and Terence took us to Bayon, a mesmerizing temple in the heart of the fortified ancient city of Angkor Thom, near modern day Siem Reap. Bayon is known for its towers displaying over 200 enormous stone faces of legendary Khmer king, Jayavarman VII. But the photo op for foodie tourists is below the stone faces on the outer wall of the temple’s first level. Here, the daily life of the Khmer people in the 12th century is chronicled in detailed bas relief panels. Some of the best stone carvings show villagers grilling meat squeezed between long wooden sticks, just like they still do today.
A Respect for Craft
The Bayon bas reliefs also reminded us that fish and rice have been key elements of the Cambodian diet for many centuries. Cottage industries based on these dietary staples survive today in Cambodia’s developing economy, supporting artisanal producers and promoting traditional, regional recipes.
For example, Cambodians still preserve fish by fermentation. In Battambang, Lara took us to a “factory” where locals produce prahok, a fermented fish paste that provides the strongest and most distinctive flavor in Cambodian cuisine. At the factory, fresh fish are cleaned, crushed, dried, salted and fermented in barrels or large clay jars.
After fermenting for as little as 3 weeks or up to 3 years, the pungent prahok can be mixed with rice as a source of protein in a basic, home-cooked Cambodian meal. The paste is also used as a salty seasoning to give dishes a typically Cambodian bitter and sour flavor.
Most other examples of artisanal food production in Cambodia are based on its primary agricultural commodity: rice. Lara introduced us to two women in Battambang who produce up to 2,000 rice paper wrappers for spring rolls each day. They steam and dry the wrappers in their palm-thatched workshop, using only a mixture of rice flour and water.
In and around Battambang, we saw rice treats known as “kralan” for sale all along the roadside. Locals mix sweet rice with coconut milk and black beans, then stuff the mixture into short bamboo tubes. They roast the tubes over hot coals and slice off the blackened, outer layer while the bamboo is still hot.
We bought the warmest tubes, then our local companion, Sokin Nou, showed us how to break them with our hands and peel back the bamboo to reach the sticky rice treat inside.
My favorite rice treat, however, was the fresh, fermented rice noodles served everywhere from restaurants to roadside stands. In the village of Preah Dak outside Siem Reap, Lara and Terence found a family that still makes the noodles by hand. To pound the fermented rice into a pasty dough, three people power a giant, wooden mallet with their feet while another carefully kneads the dough beneath the moving mallet in a stone basin.
Another member of the family then fills an extruder with dough and sits atop a giant wooden lever, using his weight to squeeze thin noodles directly into a pot of simmering water.
The fermented noodles are commonly served at room temperature with a deliciously mild, green fish curry in a breakfast dish called nom bahn chok.
A Living History
On our retreat, we saw Cambodians preserving traditional, artisanal methods of food production in their own homes or in small workshops and factories. But Cambodian culinary traditions are still on display in local markets (away from the stalls selling elephant-print pants and Angkor Wat snow globes) and in restaurants (on the opposite side of the menu from spaghetti Bolognese and nachos.) Lara and Terence showed us how to shop and how to order like locals.
A Cambodian food market is not suitable for the shopper who gets woozy at the sight of butchered meat or from the smell of fish. It’s nothing like a quaint European marché, or even a grittier South American mercado. A Cambodian food market is a keen blitz on the senses. We walked through noisy, crowded markets in Battambang and Siem Reap with local chefs, tripping over plastic colanders filled with still twitching skinned frogs, waving off flies hovering above stacks of raw chicken, and stepping carefully beside bowls of crispy insects and plastic bags pulsing with live eels and snakes.
We sought out redolent lemongrass and kaffir limes among baskets full of leafy and fragrant produce.
We marveled at the spectrum of ripening bananas, colorful dragon fruit and regional green-skinned oranges.
And we sampled sweet-looking treats, discovering the surprising sourness that both young and old Cambodians love.
The Cambodian markets were the liveliest possible expression of the “farm to table” practices that we now treasure in our own home countries.
After our market tours, the local chefs taught us how they use ingredients from the markets to prepare traditional Cambodian recipes. In Battambang, the chefs at boutique hotel Maisons Wat Kor gave us a hands-on lesson in preparing Cambodia’s national dish, fish amok. A key ingredient of this steamed fish curry is a fragrant kroeung paste made from pounding a blend of spices including galangal, turmeric, kaffir lime zest, lemongrass, shallots and garlic in a stone mortar.
In Siem Reap, the chefs at upscale Malis Restaurant demonstrated their method for preparing Saraman Beef, a rich and thick dish which combines palm sugar, coconut milk, and peanuts with a distinctive curry paste. The curry paste, prepared behind the scenes, included ingredients such as roasted coconut, coriander, cinnamon, kaffir lime zest, lemongrass, galangal, and garlic.
Looking Ahead & Giving Back
I celebrated my birthday during our Cambodian culinary retreat, and Lara and my fellow foodie travelers surprised me with a spectacular cake. The figure atop the cake, a doll with a camera and suitcase, looked remarkably like me.
We all wondered: where in the world did a bakery in Siem Reap find a brunette, female, white-skinned doll with both a camera and suitcase on such short notice? Then it hit us. The doll was made entirely of sugar, and the artisans at the bakery had crafted it that very afternoon based solely on Lara’s description of me. We simply had to visit the bakery to learn how they did it and to say thank you.
Bloom Café and Training Centre in Siem Reap (formerly Blossom Café) is a café and cake art gallery that provides vocational training and employment opportunities for Cambodian women. We met Melissa Stock, one of the General Managers, who showed us samples of the colorful and intricately decorated cakes, cupcakes and cookies produced at the bakery.
Melissa explained that the Bloom Café students are trained on-site, where they may ultimately work as employees receiving additional mentorship and support.
Bloom Café was only one of the Cambodian enterprises we encountered that is using culinary arts to assist underprivileged segments of the community. In Siem Reap, we also visited the Bayon Pastry School, which provides vocational training in pastry to women from villages around the Angkor temples. Proceeds from baked goods sold in the school’s coffee shop are used to help finance the program.
In Battambang, we dined at Jaan Bai, a social enterprise restaurant of local NGO, the Cambodian Children’s Trust. Jaan Bai, which means “rice bowl” in the Khmer language, sources its produce from local farmers and buys from the same markets we visited in Battambang. Lara introduced us to her friend Tara Winkler, Managing Director of the Cambodian Children’s Trust, who explained that the restaurant trains and employs youth participating in their programs.
Through Jaan Bai and Tara, we learned about the ongoing work of the NGO to help children escape the cycle of poverty. The Cambodian Children’s Trust promotes education and advocates family preservation and deinstitutionalization for Cambodian youth.
About the Author
Catherine Fancher is a Dallas-based attorney who decided to take some time off in 2012. She sold her house, put everything in storage and traded her high heels for hiking boots. More than 30 countries later, she is still traveling. Catherine’s photographs and stories about the places she has seen, the dishes she has eaten and the things she has learned along the way are collected on her website GreatTaste.Travel.