Cambodian Food: A Culinary Adventure into Khmer Food History

Cambodian Food:
A Culinary Adventure into Khmer Food History

To understand Cambodian Food, we must first delve into Khmer 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.

Cambodian 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 making 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.

Yellow kreoung used for making Cambodian food

Cambodian Food: Prahok and Usages

Fish and rice have been key elements of the Cambodian diet for many centuries, even today, Cambodians still preserve fish by fermentation. Prahok is a fermented fish paste that provides the strongest and most distinctive flavour in Cambodian cuisine. It is probably the most distinctive flavour in Cambodian food and is certainly the most unusual for Westerners due to its strong, pungent scent reminiscent of spoiled cheese or men’s dirty sock that’s been cured in their locker room for months. In fact, due to the pungent unappetizing scent, many Cambodian restaurateurs use minuscule amounts of prahok in the food they serve westerners, or none at all, in comparison to domestic cooking where prahok is used very liberally. Beyond the scent, however, is the savoury flavour it gives to dishes –a kind of body and volume that a dish takes on that is beyond saltiness.

Much like kreoungprahok are usually freshly made in Cambodian households in rural areas. Fresh fish are cleaned, crushed and then left to dry in the sun. They are then salted and placed into baskets where the runoff liquid collected can be used to make fish sauce or tirk trey in Cambodian. After drying and salting again, the fish are then left to ferment in large earthenware, clay pots or airtight plastic containers for months.

It originated as a way of preserving fish during the long months when fresh fish was not available in abundant supply for the poor rural citizens in Cambodia –at times, it would be the only source of protein in a meal —eaten with rice. During the wet season when the fish are in abundance, locals begin making a copious amount of prahok in preparation for the dry season ahead, when water levels are at their lowest.

Over the years, however, prahok immersed itself in all parts of Cambodian cooking and found its place as a distinctive flavour enhancer in soup, side dishes, salads, and dips. In the Cambodian national dish somlar kako, if fish is scarce, prahok is used as both a source of protein and a powerful flavouring agent along with the usual seasonal vegetables.

There are two basic types of prahok, prahok trey touy is one made with small fish and prahok sach tom is made with larger fish, bone removed. Prahok trey touy is generally used by adding boiling water to some prahok and using the resulting teuk prahok (prahok water) as a flavouring agent –the solids with usually includes tiny bones are then discarded. This prahok water can be made in large quantities, stored in an airtight container, and refrigerated for several weeks. Prahok sach tom is often chopped finely and put into the dish or used as part of a dipping sauce, usually eaten with fresh vegetables —in recipes such as prahok ktiss.

Prahok can be purchased in most Asian grocery stores such as B&T, or T&T. The imported Thai brands are usually the one most Cambodian family in Canada or US purchases, with the favourite being the Siem Reap Style version –the one with the drawing of Angkor Wat and Khmer letters on the label. It is the closest to authentic Cambodian prahok, made with the preferred mudfish, and all bones removed. When Cambodians visit their homeland, they usually come back with luggage full of prahok in airtight containers wrapped tightly with newspaper —to stop the pungent scent. The amount of prahok brought over would last them for years until their next visit that is. YES —Cambodians love prahok that much.

Prahok has a very distinctive and strong taste. It is an acquired taste, and most newcomers may want to use a light touch to start their Cambodian culinary adventure.

Start your Khmer food culinary adventure by trying out some of these Cambodian Food recipes:

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Cambodian food & Khmer food history: Through centuries Khmer food has adopted the best qualities of Indian Chinese Thai Viet & French cuisine.
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