Its been another week spent in the Kingdom of Cambodia and this I week I was fortunate enough to travel outside of the Kingdom’s capital Phnom Penh and visit a local village along the Tonle Sap. I have travelled through the rural towns of Cambodia before during my overland ventures from the countries major cities of Sihanoukville, Siem Reap and Phnom Penh. However, this was the first time it wasn’t just a rest stop and I was able to have the privilege of spending a full day in a rural community.
Whilst the epicentre of Phnom Penh in 2019 has fully embraced the new capitalist way of life with a multitude of Western fast food outlets, hotel chains and malls. It only takes a 20 minutes drive away from the major cities and the country quickly changes back to its feudalistic roots.
A Few Photos From On The Ground This Week:
A typically rural Khmer lunch, with lots of different dishes eaten in little plastic plates, cooked early in the morning and left to eat at room temperature throughout the day.
Traditional Khmer houses are built on stilts, to allow for a cool place to sit underneath during the peak heat of the day. Reminding one much of a typical Queenslander.
By far the easiest way to differentiate a city and rural Cambodian women is what they wear. In the villages, ALL the women wear near-matching outfits that most resemble pyjamas, and never show off shoulders nor upper legs.
When travelling through the villages is most common to see only the very old and very young living together. As most middle-aged women work in the cities service industries and men in the factories or construction sites abroad.
As with all feudalistic societies the quality and quantity of food is placed first and foremost. However, traditional Khmer cuisine has always been competing against it’s neighbouring Thailand and Vietnam and has always played a back seat, especially on the international scene. It has only been in the last five to ten years that Cambodian restaurants have now begun to make their mark.
Hence in this weeks news and views, I will be focusing on the once lost but now reemerging cuisine. The history of Khmer cuisine dates back to first rice cultivation located along the banks of the Mekong Delta in approximately 2000 BC and is considered one of the longest continuous running cuisines in the world. However, after 4000 years the cuisine was nearly completely wiped out in only four years after the communist Khmer Rouge came to power in 1975, their Marxist leader Pol Pot embarked upon a dramatic regime of social engineering, sending people from the cities to communal farms in the country.
It wasn’t until around 30 years later when in 2006 after a long slump, Cambodia’s economy in line with China’s began to accelerate, resulting in nearly 10 per cent year-on-year growth compared to the previous annual average of 2 per cent. With this economic growth has come the financial capacity for a nation to resurrect its national cuisine.
The Resurrection of Khmer Cuisine:
Here is the definitive list of the 21 most popular and iconic dishes in Khmer cuisine:
Fish amok is held in esteem as Cambodia’s signature dish, and the creamy curry can be found in abundance on menus in tourist hubs. Diced fillets of freshwater fish are smothered in coconut milk, eggs, fish sauce and palm sugar. Kroeung — a paste made from pounded spices and other ingredients, such as turmeric, kaffir lime, lemongrass and shallots — is also added. The traditional way to cook the dish is by steaming it in a banana leaf shaped into a bowl, within which it is served.
This popular street food dish is how most Cambodians start the day. Kuy teav — or noodle soup — is made from pork or beef bones and rice vermicelli. The flavoursome broth is topped with fried shallots and garlic, bean sprouts, green onion and aromatic herbs. Pork or fish balls are added. Sides include chilli paste, half a lime and hoisin sauce.
Chicken and banana flower salad
Refreshing and light, this salad is the ideal way to stave off the midday heat. Slices of chicken breast are served amid crunchy banana blossom flower, fried shallots, garlic, chillies and lemongrass, with fresh lime squeezed on top.
Beef loc lac
Also seen as a signature dish, beef loc lac consists of stir-fried strips of tender beef served atop a bed of lettuce leaves, sliced tomatoes, cucumbers and rings of raw onions. Often, a fried egg is placed on top. The prize to this dish is the dipping sauce of lime juice and pepper — make it Kampot pepper to make the flavours truly pop.
Crab and pepper
This dish is not only reserved to the coastal town of Kep. However, it is there where you’ll find it at its freshest and finest. With the crabs caught daily and flogged at the bustling Crab Market, a range of crab shacks and restaurants include stir-fried crab and pepper — usually Kampot pepper — on the menu.
Milder and much less spicy than the curries found in Thailand and India, Khmer curries tend to use more herbs than spices, and are milder and sweeter in taste. While recipes vary, the curry normally features chicken, coconut cream and milk; fish sauce; herbs and diced sweet potatoes; garlic; shallots; turmeric and ginger. It is accompanied by rice or a baguette.
Nom banh chok
This is one of the most common street foods and is readily available across Cambodia. Made of thin rice noodles, shredded banana leaves, beansprouts, cucumber, mint and basil, topped with green fish curry, it is often made and sold by women balancing a pole on their shoulders containing the ingredients on either side.
Pork and rice
The country’s streets are full of people sitting on plastic chairs every morning, and the chances are they’re eating pork and rice, or bai sach chrouk — Cambodia’s national breakfast dish. Only available in the morning, the dish features thinly sliced pork marinated in garlic and oil that are slowly barbecued. This is served over rice with sliced cucumbers and pickled vegetables.
As the Cambodian Marmite, you either love or hate prahok — and many foreigners find it an acquired taste. Usually added to local dishes, it can also be served alone alongside rice and a side salad. The crushed, salted and fermented fish paste is used in abundance as a seasoning, adding a strong salty flavour. Its strong smell has earned it the nickname of Cambodian cheese.
Green mango salad
Cambodian salads are renowned for their refreshing feel while being packed full of punch. Green mango salad is crunchy and zesty, and features fresh chilli, fish sauce, sliced green mango, sliced tomatoes and shallots, pickled cucumber, onion, peppers and fresh basil or mint.
Featuring short fat noodles after which the dish is named, lort cha is stir-fried with beef, broccoli, beansprouts, herbs and lashings of fish and soy sauce. A fried egg is placed on top, with an accompaniment of sweet chilli sauce.
This street snack, known locally as num kachay, is fried in shallow pans by mobile vendors. The small cakes are made with glutinous rice flour and served with a sweet, spicy fish sauce.
Beef or pork skewers
In the early evening, the air is often filled with the aroma of meat being barbecued from grills that dot the streets. Sach ko chomkak is usually barbecued beef or pork on skewers that is served with pickled papaya salad or inside a crunchy baguette.
Moving onto the more unusual favoured snacks, balut is not for the squeamish. Devoured by locals, it is the fertilised embryo of a duck and is eaten whole, usually from the shell. The popular snack is believed to be nutritious and rich in protein.
While the French influence can be detected in some Khmer food, grilled frog isn’t one of them, having been munched by locals since way before colonial times. Barbecued whole on a stick, these small bites are often marinated in chilli and garlic to give them a kick.
Steamed pork bun
Another dish that can easily be picked up off the street is a freshly steamed pork bun. The hard-boiled bun is stuffed with pork and egg, and is best eaten piping hot.
These sweet snacks can also be found on the street, especially in the afternoon. Here, bananas are flattened and dipped into batter with black sesame seeds, before being deep-fried.
Snacking on this spider is another Cambodian delicacy that locals relish. Commonly deep-fried with chilli, the tarantula is crispy on the outside, with the body often containing a warm liquid centre of intestinal juice. Skuon, in between Siem Reap and Phnom Penh is where the majority of tarantulas are caught — by hand — in the jungle before being sold across the country.
Another common sight is Cambodians clutching a plastic bag packed with a variety of pickled fruit. Ranging from papaya and apple to cucumber and guava, the snacks are served with a small side bag of dipping sauce made from salt, sugar, chilli and fish sauce.
Another delicious dessert is pumpkin custard or sankhya lapov. Served after lunch and dinner, the dish is a sweet custard that is stuffed inside a pumpkin before being steamed. The tasty treat is also reserved for special occasions.
Scorpion on a stick
Another dubious bite to the Western palate is the scorpion. These can be bought from street stalls, usually along the riverside in Phnom Penh and Pub Street in Siem Reap, and are skewered before being deep-fried. If Angelina Jolie can do it, then so can you.
*This list was detailed and provided by the CultureClub Cambodia*
Photo Of The Week:
This segment is always intended as a light-hearted section of the weekly post that I hope does not cause any offence. However, acts as a conduit for discussion about the lighter side South East Asia.
This photo was sent by a regular contributor and was taken in an undisclosed location of Thailand.
The Week Ahead:
Next week I will be flying through Bangkok before my onward journey home to Melbourne and will be reflecting upon the 12-hour layover that I have planned.
Please continue to send me through emails of stories, pictures and anything else that you would like to discuss about my favourite region South East Asia.
Harrison White can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org