In Defence Of Cambodian Cooking (With Apologies To George Orwell)

Posted on by Alex Watts


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There has been a lot of talk over the years about the need to attract more foreign visitors to Cambodia. But there is something its people could bring a much-needed change to – and that is cooking.

It is often said, sometimes even by Khmers themselves, that Cambodian food is nothing to write home about. It is supposed to be not only cack-handed at best, but also poorly imitative of Chinese, Thai, Indian, and Vietnamese cuisines. And I have asked many expats what they think of the local food only to be greeted with “not much”.

Now that is a terrible disservice. As anyone who has travelled overseas much will know, there are a whole host of Khmer delicacies that are impossible to get abroad. So much so, that the state-owned postal service says 70% of all parcels sent from here are filled with specialities like prahok, smoked and dried fish for home-sick Khmers. No doubt the list could be added to, but here are some of the things that deserve much wider recognition.

First of all, prahok, a fermented fish paste used in dips, soups, stir-fries and stews that tastes of blue cheese and is the backbone of Cambodian cooking. Then there is Kampot pepper – the country’s first product to be granted Geographical Indication status – which makes a splendid dip with salt and lime for freshly-boiled crab.

New marketing campaign for prohok

Or chestnuts roasted with coffee beans, or wedding parcels of rice, lentils and brined pork steamed in banana leaves. Or spit-roast calves, stuffed full of lime leaves and lemon grass. Or Cambodia’s delicious breakfasts like chicken porridge soup topped with singed garlic, and grilled pork with rice and julienne strips of pickled carrot, cucumber and daikon. And in the evening, beef broths and sour fish soups you cook at the table yourself.

And what about ‘frying’ with water, and the absence of cornflour, making Cambodian stir-fries far less greasy and gloopy than the Chinese food it borrowed from. Or green mango salads pounded with smoked fish, and the wide variety of paddy field herbs, many of which don’t have English names, giving traditional Khmer dishes a taste that is hard to replicate. And then there is the custom of balancing the overall flavour of a meal with shared plates of the five sour, bitter, sweet, salty, and umami tastes rather than blending them together – a feature common in cuisines that haven’t been refined.

What else? Cambodian curry made from long-stewed pieces of meat and bone, with root vegetables added in later. When you get the right place, somewhere that doesn’t throw in a wheelbarrow of sugar and MSG, and still makes its own traditional kroeung curry paste rather than buying in processed Thai pastes, it is outstandingly good.

Or Cambodia’s light, crispy baguettes – one of the few legacies the French left behind. Vietnam’s banh mi gets all the attention among sycophantic, trend-seeking foodies in London and New York, but Cambodia’s version is just as good with its pate, pork belly and pickles.

And finally I would like to put a word in for Cambodian fruits. I fancy that its dwarf bananas, durian fruit, and green oranges from Battambang are the best fruits of their type in the world.

Skip the bacon and eggs…chicken porridge soup

Some of the things above can be found in other parts, just as it is possible to buy Colman’s mustard and Marmite here. But outside Thailand and Vietnam, you would find it hard to buy Cambodia’s best produce – innumerable kinds of freshwater fish from its fast-flowing rivers and ocean-like Tonle Sap lake. Its pork is also excellent. They are scrawny devils but delicious, and it is a shame most of the pork sold here now is from intensively-farmed pigs in Vietnam.

Hopefully, it will be seen that Cambodia has no cause to be ashamed of its cookery, so far as the quality of ingredients go – which any chef will tell you is the secret of good cooking. But there is a major problem for changing tourists’ perception – and that is you practically never find good Cambodian cooking outside family homes. If you want, say, one of the country’s finest traditional dishes – ‘soup cooked outside the pot’, where raw vegetables and herbs are put in each bowl with chicken stock flavoured with dried fish and spices poured over, then you will get a far better version in the poorest Cambodian home than a restaurant.

Eateries that are distinctly Khmer and also sell good food are almost impossible to find. Tourist restaurants, with their apsara decorations and basalt walls, instead showcase what for some reason (blame Lonely Planet) have become known as the country’s two most famous dishes – the very lacklustre amok, and the utterly revolting beef lok lak, which is actually Vietnamese. The rest all try to imitate foreign food without having the knowledge or ingredients to pull it off.

Cambodia will not succeed in attracting hordes of tourists while it is thought of as a country with bad food. It is fast rising from the ashes of its past, and it is time for its national cookery to revive. It is not a universal law, scrawled long ago into the temples of Angkor Wat, that every restaurant in Cambodia should be either foreign or bad, and a major step forward would be for the Cambodian public to have more pride and confidence in promoting its own food.

Alex Watts

Alex is also on twitter.

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12 Responses to In Defence Of Cambodian Cooking (With Apologies To George Orwell)

  1. Bacon says:

    I’ve tried BBQ dog and tortoise here, and what about the yummy deep fried spiders? Or the favourite of many of cooked duck foetus???

    • Allroy says:

      Dog isn’t a Cambodian dish, it was brought over by the Vietnamese, but there are places that serve it here. Fertilized duck eggs are region wide, everywhere from the Phillipines to China to SE Asia. Tortoise I’m not sure. Turtle is eaten in most countries where it is available… The Terrapin turtle was eaten into extinction in the American Northeast I believe.

      I’m not sure if Tarantulas are purely Cambodian or a regional thing. They are eaten here, not found in the city proper so much as in the country (well, go to a crossroads market outside of PP and they’ll have them.) They are also becoming scarce from over-harvesting apparently.

      So, are you done trolling about how they eat gross icky foods here now? Ok, good job.

  2. Siddo says:

    Nice article Alex.

    The interesting thing was when my brother in law came out to Australia, I took him to Cabramatta (the Australian Long Beach) to the “Battambang Restaurant”, and we ordered the usual suspects of Khmer cooking, sour soup, ginger chicken etc.

    It was his sincere belief that this was some of the best Khmer food he had ever eaten. The reason being the quality of the meat and fish that went into the dishes. So, I absolutely agree with your ‘ingredients maketh the dish’ contention.

    As an aside, Phnom Penh has quietly become one of the best kept secrets for international cuisine in the region. I am constantly impressed with the depth, bredth and price of the food on offer here. I dont know whether this is linked to lukewarm perceptions of the local food or not, but I would definitely say that Phnom Penh is a destination for foodies.

    I wonder how long it will take for the Lonely Planet to pick up on this?

  3. flurk says:

    Stuffed frogs!

  4. Username Taken says:

    Aside from the corner Beef Soup places, there are a lot of great Khmer restaurants selling some awesome foods. The food court at Soriya Shopping Center is not one of them.
    These places are not on the tourist trail and rarely do you see a couple or group of foreigners there, however it is not uncommon to see one foreigner with a group of Khmer.
    You need to get out with a group of young, upwardly-mobile locals. Tell them that you would like to try something other than Beef Soup in a clay pot, or Phnom Pleung (Bbq on the table). Find a clean, modern-looking place with no foreigners. Let the locals do the ordering.
    There really is a lot of great Khmer food that foreigners miss out on. I’m not going to name restaurants, and I’m definitely not going to tell Lonely Planet about them!

    I expect that the late Sunsan would have known about many of these gems.

    • Sateev says:

      You’re not going to share because you’re a dick, who wants to be able to think he knows something everybody else doesn’t.

      Right, you don’t want the place to become popular, the owners to enjoy the fruits of their labor, or the great unwashed to learn of the good food…

      “I expect that the late Sunsan would have known about many of these gems.”

      And *I* expect he would have been more than happy to share them…which is at least one major difference between you.

      Oh yeah, and he wasn’t a dick. So that’s two…

      • Username Taken says:

        Wow! Thanks Sateev. You’ve clearly had a ‘good day’!

        Thanksgiving – a day to give thanks. Let me give you the opportunity to do so, Sateev. If you want to contact me, you know how, I would be more than happy to take/send you to one of these places.

        Sateev wrote: “Right, you don’t want the place to become popular, the owners to enjoy the fruits of their labor,”

        They already are! They already do!

        Sateev wrote: “You’re not going to share because you’re a dick, who wants to be able to think he knows something everybody else doesn’t.”

        It’s really sad that you choose to make such of a ‘dick’ of yourself, Sateev. I’m just going to put it down to the ‘good day’ that you’ve had today.

        • Sateev says:

          Actually, I had a great day – it’s just that people like you annoy me. If I could discern any plausible reason for your childishly making a point of not naming the place, I would be happy to retract my characterization of you as a dick.

          Until then…

          Cheers.

  5. Post-American says:

    fermented fish? uh, the more I hear about that paste stuff the more I want to just order happy happy pizzas… probably the only way you’d get me to even consider trying that.

  6. Jay says:

    If you can eat snails you can eat prahok; real Roquefort cheese is nothing great to look at either, and only the real cheese gourmets find it delicious; and don’t think this is anything like blue cheese.

    Sadly, in my experience Khmer home cooking is not as delectable as described in the article (my own wife excepted, of course). Visiting the country side people there mostly make the simpler dishes that probably have earned Khmer cuisine the attribute of being ‘dull’ or ‘bland’.

  7. Ima Surfer says:

    Nice article. I disagree with almost every part of it! =-)

  8. Nick says:

    I like Cambodian cookery better than I like Thai food… though no-one’s ever accused me of good taste. I find that the food here is based around the flavours of all its’ ingredients rather than chili. I’m alright with chili but I’m bored of bland rubbish being disguised by being turned into an inferon. Great article.

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