Wednesday, 5 August 2009

Cambodian Food

In August 2005, celebrating a successful end to my first year at catering college, I spent a few weeks travelling across Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand. Like most Londoners, I already had a pretty good idea about Vietnamese and Thai cuisines - but I knew absolutely nothing about Cambodian cooking. What I discovered during my brief visit opened my eyes to a truly world-class culinary tradition. When I returned home, it was Khmer food that I was talking about with the greatest enthusiasm.

Of course I didn't visit Cambodia just for the food. There was also the small matter of the remnants of a great empire that dominated South-East Asia during the Middle Ages. An empire that coalesced the best of Chinese and Indian cultures... including their food. That pinnacle of Khmer civilisation lives on today in the form of UNESCO World Heritage Site Angkor, where the temple complex of Angkor Wat draws ever-increasing numbers of foreign tourists, including me. I'm in the foreground in one of my many Portuguese football shirts!Aidan Brooks visits Angkor Wat - symbol of a great civilisation

"Cambodian cuisine, arguably long underrated", says Wikipedia, "is finally beginning to win recognition from food lovers for its subtle flavour and its wide range of unique indigenous dishes." Whoever wrote that entry has some issues with spelling, but no problem with his or her palate. Khmer food is based around river fish as the main source of protein, rice as the source of carbohydrate, a wide variety of vegetables and fruits and a unique blend of "Indian" and "Chinese" spices - turmeric, tamarind, galangal, cardamom, star anise, clove, cinnamon, nutmeg, lemongrass, garlic, coriander and kaffir lime leaves. And then there's the country's speciality prahok, or fermented fish paste, which gives so many dishes a unique flavour. And last but not least the legacy of a century of French colonialism - la baguette.

Recently arrived in my TV goody bag was the latest food travelogue - Rick Stein's "Far Eastern Odyssey" - and episode 1 is set in Cambodia. I should warn you that Rick displays some of those colonial attitudes that typify his generation and sound quaintly racist to someone of my age. But his heart's in the right place, despite his insistence on referring to things as "oriental" and "exotic" and never having seen a dragon fruit before. He certainly doesn't shy away from discussing the nightmare years of The Killing Fields and discussing the cultural impact of Khmer Rouge rule on the country and its cuisine. In these edited clips, I've removed the political discussion - not because I don't think it important, but because I'm severely limited by restrictions on YouTube. I hope you enjoy this glimpse of Khmer cooking.


Su-Lin said...

Yes, that's exactly how I felt when I watched one episode - he called that dragon fruit "Chinesey"!!!

It's still an interesting show to watch, when I do get a chance to catch it.

Karen said...

Thank you so much for posting this. Funny, just yesterday I was writing about the attention Cambodian food is garnering these days, and the sophistication with which it is presented. For so many years, it was equated with Thai food, or simply chalked up to exotic weirdness (spiders and bugs). But foreigners are finally noticing this cuisine for what it's worth, and many Khmers, I think, are discovering a newfound pride in their own culinary heritage.

I just made a huge batch of num banh chok the other day (recipe coming soon) and it really took us back to Cambodia. The entire kitchen smelled like Cambodia.

It's always a bit strange for me to see footage like this from afar, through a lens and played on a computer screen. Just thinking about those markets, I can smell them and feel the heat. They have such a pulse. By the way, the old monk at the end was priceless -- trying to talk to him, with women in the background chuckling and telling the monk, "Hey! The guy doesn't understand Khmer!" I love it! Can't wait to get back there.

Trig said...

Su-Lin, Karen - it's hard to pin down exactly what attracted me to Cambodia so much, but I think it's just the genuineness of the people. There are a good few laughs in this series, watching our man from Padstow wander round SE Asia being passed from hand to hand by a stream of "guides", rather as if it wasn't safe to wander amongst the natives without protection. I'll arrange to have the whole unedited series hosted on my server a bit later and let you have download addresses so you can see them all if you want.

JD said...

Thailand and Vietnam seem to overshadow Cambodia's culinary prowess. I ate incredibly well when I visited Cambodia for 2 weeks in 2007. I had excellent french food in Phnom Pehn... Think classic french pastries with south east asian fruit. It was an amazing time. I miss eating noodles for breakfast. This spring I had Cambodian food in Paris. And it was amazing also. The quality of French Pork was just so much better than what is available in south east asia.

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