In Defence Of Cambodian Cooking (With Apologies To George Orwell)November 15, 2012
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.
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.
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.
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