A Brief Scholarly History on and of the Complexly Simple Cuisines of Cambodia - Part 1 of 4
Monday, August 13, 2018 11:40 AM
Introduction to Cambodian (Khmer) Cuisine
By Evan Chorm (An American-reared boy having mixed Cambodian ancestry and heritage.)
Figure 1: KHMER’S FISH AMOK DISH
Cambodian or Khmer cuisine is millennia of a huge cultural medley of its own as well as a mixture of Indian, Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese, and French foods; all of which combined makes it uniquely Khmer. Such uniquely mixed Khmer cuisines includes: (1) Indian-influenced curry served with a side of French baguette to dip with (Fig. 4); (2) Chinese-inspired noodles served with Indian-influenced curry broth (Fig.7); and (3) highly caffeinated coffee with sweetened condensed milk served with plain French baguette to dip with.
Figure 2: GRILLED AND/OR FRIED WHOLE FISH
Both rice and fish are originally the Khmers’ unique staple foods (which comprises 60-65% of their diet; the remaining percentage being other forms of seafoods, chicken, beef, and pork) dating back to antiquity (Fig. 2). Prior to the introduction of refrigeration, the main ingredient and/or spice the Khmers use that is uniquely theirs is fermented fish paste termed and pronounced in Khmer as “Prahok” which adds a variety of flavors of various sorts ranging from sweet, to sour, to salty, and to bitter (or all of the aforementioned) in their dishes. Considering this type of food-making process predates refrigeration, like the aging process of Western cheese, marmite and vegemite as well as dried and salted fish in certain parts of Europe, the fermentation, aging, and salting process of certain foods in Cambodia are not only quite similar to their European counterparts, but the process itself would only make sense at the time! And like cheese, vegemite, and marmite, such rich flavors of Khmer’s salted fish, as well as other foods, are to be consumed lightly and little by little with white rice and fresh vegetables to keep the balance (There’s always lots of fresh greens served with many Khmer food) (Fig. 3).
Figure 3: PRAHOK KTEES CURRY: MINCED PORK MEAT WITH FERMENTED FISH PASTE.
In terms of chili peppers, they are native to Central America and was only introduced to the Khmers via the Portuguese during the Columbian Exchange, but was never a popular commodity and/or hit among the Khmers; hence why a majority of Khmer food is not spicy fiery hot, but has other ingredients and/or spices for seasoning and/or flavor.
Like western foods, authentic Khmer food is rather simple compared to its neighboring countries, but at the same time, it is arguably more complex than western foods. In many cases, the Khmers, having an understanding of various individual’s personal preferences, cater to the palates of these various individuals by serving chopped chilis and/or chili sauce only on the side, leaving the choice solely up to the individual to decide if he/she prefers his/her food to be spicy fiery hot or not; just like American’s Frank’s Hot Sauce brand!
One thing about the Khmers that is a highly noble and highly respectable characteristic of theirs is that they never stole ideas and then subsequently culturally appropriate and/or claim other groups of peoples’ foods, ideas, and/or cultures and claim or label them as their own. They always give credit where it is due in either the language of their influencers or terming the food with the ethnicity of their influencers. They don’t even self-identify their authentic foods and/or cultures! This, however, does not mean the Khmers are limited to one type of spice, i.e., Prahok, let alone do not have their own ingredients and/or spices. Kroeung is a generic Khmer term for ingredients and/or spices of various sorts, and Prahok is “a” as well as “one” type of ingredient and/or spice under the broader, more larger category and/or umbrella of Khmer Kroeung (i.e., ingredients and/or spices).
Figures 4 & 5: KHMER’S INDIAN AND FRENCH-INFLUENCED CURRY WITH TOASTED FRENCH BAGUETTE DIP (LEFT). KHMER’S FRENCH-INFLUENCED PÂTÉ SANDWICHES (RIGHT).
Figures 6 & 7: KHMER’S FRENCH-INFLUENCED VIETNAMESE CRÊPES (LEFT). KHMER’S CHINESE INFLUENCED NOOM BAHNCHUK NOODLES (RIGHT).
 Yuen Mi. “Cambodian Food or Khmer Food: A Culinary History.” ATravelDiary.com.<https://www.atraveldiary.com/cambodian-food-history/> (accessed August 2018).