To understand Khmer food, we must first delve into Cambodian food history.
The earliest evidence of human settlement in Cambodia dates to 7000 BC. Evidence of rice cultivation dating back to 2000 BBC was found near the Mekong Delta region. This activity led to permanent settlements near the sea and other bodies of water. Around 2nd century AD, the trading centre Oc Eo near Phnom Penh and Tonle Sap was established and became a part of the flourishing Funan Kingdom. The earliest know pre-Angkorian civilisation and origin of the earliest Khmer language inscriptions. The trading centre served as a seaport allowing the Chinese, Arabian and Indian ships to enter Cambodia. This period also marks the early stages of Indian cultural influence; the beginning of writing and amalgamation of Hindu religion, food, and culture. Traders from other parts of the world, such as Persia, Europe, and China also began to reach Cambodia and brought their own cultures and cuisines. Through time, they were gradually assimilated locally. Various spices from India were adapted to enhance the flavour of stews and meat, and are continued to be used today; for example, turmeric in somlor machu kroeung. At this point, around 400 AD, many foreign visitors had taken notice of the Indian influence on the daily lives of the nobles; in food, poetry and writing.
The Khmer Empire, Angkor, that flourished between north-west Cambodia and the northeast region of Thailand flourished from the 9th to the 15th century. Stretching over 400 km², including forested area, there are several hundred archaeological sites and thousands of stone inscriptions left by the Angkor civilisation. During this period, vast irrigation systems were developed along the Mekong River, and the remains of it can still be seen. Visible from outer space, the Angkor Wat is the largest religious complex which held both Hindu and Buddhist monuments as Theravada Buddhism was established in Cambodian in the 6th and 7th centuries AD and was revived again in the 12th century. For a more detailed explanation of Cambodian religion through the centuries, read this post.
Cambodia was invaded from the west by Siam (currently Thailand) who established their regime there. The result was an ethnic mix in mainland Southeast Asia. The Angkorian features in both the social and cultural domain permeated to Siamese society. Cambodia cooking acquired the Thai influence after the 6th century, most notably in the use of coconut and chilli peppers. By the 16th century, Portuguese and French traders had reached the shores of Cambodia, and in 1863, Cambodia became a protectorate of France. With the establishment of French rule, Cambodia was exposed to European culture and cuisine. Even today, French cuisine has had an enduring impact; baguettes and frog legs are still popular. During World War II, the Japanese occupied Cambodia, but the day to day control remained in the hands of the French.
Cambodia gained independence in 1953. The Khmer Rouge revolutionary party, led by Pol Pot, took over Cambodia in 1975. Inspired by China’s Great Cultural Revolution in the 1960s, Pol Pot and his comrades vowed to “purify the masses of the Cambodians”, outright killing or starving at least 1.5 million people. The events of the Cambodian civil war still affect the psyche of the Cambodian people. Although brown rice is healthier and abundant, white rice is eaten most often as brown rice has a strong association with the Pol Pot regime (it was consumed during the revolution). Vietnamese food influence can be seen with the introduction of rice noodles or kuy teav which can be found at marketplace stalls, roadside vendors, restaurants and in shophouses across Cambodia today.
As you can see, Cambodian food or Khmer food is very culturally diverse, and over the centuries, it has adopted some of the best qualities of Indian, Chinese, Thai, French, and Vietnamese cuisine.
Khmer Food History — The Cambodian Diet
Archaeological evidence indicates that around 200 BC, the inhabitants of this region had already settled in small communities and were growing rice and rearing animals. As early as the 100 BC, the communities along the Mekong River and Tonle Sap areas were cultivating rice and harvesting the abundant fish and other seafood from the river, lake and seas. Fish plays a pivotal role in Cambodian cuisine due to the 443 km of coastline, and is the most important protein source in the diet, with chicken, pork, beef, and seafood eaten as well. Pork and beef are expensive, and their affordability is limited to the middle and upper-class families in urban areas, so most family limit portion size for red meat. In many villages, the use of small quantities of finely chopped red meat for flavouring is common.
Meats unusual to North Americans, such as wild chicken, bird, dove, frog, organ meat, such as liver, kidney tongue, feet, and insects such as grasshoppers are also part of the Cambodian diet. Although tarantulas and large spiders are sold on street corners in many tourist areas, they are part of the Cambodian diet. Dried salted meats, fish, and seafood are consumed extensively as an accompaniment to main dishes.
Rice and products made from rice flour are common in Cambodian cuisine. Rice is eaten at least three times per day with meals. It is also used as a snack between meals. White rice is eaten most often with savoury meals, and sweet white rice, glutinous rice and black rice are used exclusively for desserts. Starchy vegetables, such as potato, cassava, and sweet potato are eaten often, either in somlar, or cooked fresh on an open fire. Fresh corn is eaten in season, but interestingly corn flour is uncommon. Most of the desserts are made from rice or rice flour. All purpose wheat flour is widely available in urban areas and used for make noodles and bread, however, whole wheat flour is not commonly used.
The Cambodian diet is high in leafy green vegetables. In rural regions, locally grown leafy vegetables or freshly foraged wild vegetables are used in soups, stir-fries, and salads. Pickled vegetables are also a part of the Cambodian diet, and is most commonly eaten as an accompaniment to meat. A large variety of tropical vegetables is available and consumed through the year. Common Cambodian vegetables are Chinese broccoli, cabbage, pumpkin leaves, watercress, long beans, potatoes, tomatoes, corn, Thai okra, eggplant, starchy vegetables such as taro, cassava, sweet potato, and various squashes such as bitter melon, summer squash, luffa, and winter squash. Many unripe fruits, such as green banana, papaya, and mango as also used as vegetables in dishes like dried fish mango salad (svay bok), and papaya salad (bok lahong).
Herbs and some leafy vegetables such as cabbages are always used fresh. The most common herbs are cilantro, Asian coriander, sweet Thai basil, garlic, shallots, turmeric, ginger, galangal, kaffir lime leaves, peppermint, cilantro, sdao, lemongrass, chives, scallions, and green onion. In most Cambodian homes, spices and herbs are freshly ground into paste every day using a mortar and pestle. Although Cambodians use chilli peppers, it is used sparingly in comparison to Thai cuisine. To add an extra layer of spice, Cambodians prefer the use of black peppers, especially Kampot organically grown black peppers. Freshly ground kroeung paste and sauces are added during cooking, along with soy sauce, oyster sauce and fish sauce.
Cambodian Food – Prahok and Usages
Prahok, a fermented fish sauce prepared by marinating black and white sweet rice with salted fish for as long as 3 months, is also one of the main ingredients in Cambodian cuisine that give the distinctly unique flavour to Cambodian dishes. It is commonly used in most of Cambodian somlar and dips. North Americans sometimes crave hamburgers or pizza when they’re abroad for a long period. Similarly, Cambodians look for their national dishes such as Samlor Machu Kroeung, Samlor Kor Kor, Tek Kroeung or Kaw Sach Chrouk.
Many North Americans use recipe books passed down from generation to generation, however, Cambodians do not use written recipes for preparing meals. Cambodian recipes are passed to the younger generation by including them in daily cooking routines from a young age. They learn to cook Cambodian food by observing, tasting and assisting their family in food preparation.
Start your Khmer food culinary adventure by trying out some of these Cambodian recipes:
Steamed fish Fried fish I hate Fish During my childhood, I avoided fish (stewed, fried or steamed fish) like Cookie avoided jalapeno peppers When she’s being a pest like ripping up toilet papers, I would hold a freshly broken jalapeno pepper in ...Read More
Everywhere I go in Asia, I always find myself surrounded by food stalls We push and pull like magnets I’m on a strict diet of NSMY (not stuffing my face), so I’m always trying to pull away, but always, it pulls me in; like Winnie to his ...Read More
Plea sach ko (khmer beef tartar) and bok lahong (khmer green papaya salad), were my dad’s favourite dishes Plea sach ko is a Cambodian dish which consists of lime-cured beef and prahok tossed with fresh herbs, shallots, finely ...Read More
Salaw machu kroeung is a staple in Cambodian cooking It literally translates to “sour soup ingredient” This is my favourite salaw (soup) because of its mixture of salty, sour and spicy with a distinctly Cambodian taste due to the ...Read More
Pumpkin pie, pumpkin spice latte, pumpkin soup Pumpkin tastes amazing no matter what format you eat it in Hell, I even love carving it for Halloween They always turn out deformed, but hey, its Halloween, deformed is good! I know it’s not ...Read More
Ginger Fish, A Great Combination I LOVE ginger; it’s tangy and sweet with a little bite However, I think ginger is one of those food items where either you love it, or you hate it I obviously belong to the former; I can’t get enough of it When ...Read More
I started living on my own since I was 18 Cooking was clumsy at first I remember being a guest at a friend’s house, and being the sweet girl that I am, I offered her some help She took up my offer and requested that I chop up some garlics So I ...Read More