Putting Cambodian cuisine on the map

Overshadowed as it is by two of Asia’s most famous and distinctive cuisines – Thai and Vietnamese – and beset by reports of spiders on the menu -- what Cambodia eats has long been overlooked, not least because in the wake of the devastation wrought by the Khmer Rouge a generation ago, there was virtually nothing to eat.

But today things are starting to change. Cambodian food is beginning to win an enthusiastic following among gourmands for its freshness and subtle flavors as well it should. Cambodia’s gastronomic oeuvre draws influences from both of its bigger neighbors, as well as from China and even France, but it is growing in importance in its own right.

It is often said that Khmer food is similar to Thai, although generally not as spicy, and this is largely true. But Cambodia’s cuisine retains its individuality. Balance is important. A meal, for example, will usually include a soup or samlor served alongside the main courses.

Another distinctive feature is the liberal use of the pungent fermented fish paste prahok (known in Vietnam as nuoc mam). Prahok is much-loved by Khmers and is widely used in many dishes, giving them a salty tang, or as a dipping sauce.

Rice is the staple food, served with a wide range of soups, stir-fries and curries, and noodles are also a mainstay. Popular dishes include green curry, loc lac (marinated beef) and amok, a steamed fish curry considered by many to be the national dish.

France, which ruled Cambodia as a colony from the 1880s to 1953, left its mark on the national palate through baguettes filled with egg, locally-made pate or tinned sardines – which are popular and are often eaten at breakfast, washed down with strong coffee served with condensed milk.

Fish, mostly freshwater, is eaten at most meals, and some excellent seafood can be had in the coastal areas. The seaside resort of Kep is famed for its crabs, while the pepper from nearby Kampot was said to be among the best in the world before years of war, destruction and occupation took their toll. Nowadays, a local NGO is helping farmers revive the industry and Kampot pepper looks set to once again adorn the tables of top restaurants.

Cambodia is also blessed with a wide variety of fresh vegetables and exotic fruits including mangoes, mangosteens, rambutans, papaya, dragonfruit and durian – many of which find their way into popular dishes.

So it is no surprise that foodies are venturing timidly out of their western hotels and discovering Khmer cuisine. Plush restaurants in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap now serve classic Khmer dishes to well-heeled diners, cooking classes are opening in tourist areas and there is even a popular blog about Cambodian food, run by an Australian expatriate.

Phil Lees, the man behind the blog Phnomenon, says he enjoys eating and writing about Cambodian food “partly because Khmer cuisine is delicious, and partly for the sense of discovery that I feel when I come across foods that are new to me.”

He adds: “Khmer food gives me something in common with every Cambodian and it is a meaningful way to connect with any of the locals, rich or poor.’’

Lees, who works in marketing for a microfinance organization, says Cambodia’s culinary traditions are underrated compared to those of Thailand and Vietnam ‘’because Cambodia is a much smaller and poorer nation, coupled with the more general misconceptions about Cambodian food driven by misinformed media coverage.

“Largely, media coverage focuses on less representative Khmer foods like spiders, as well as being covered by journalists who have never before eaten Khmer food and have no real drive to discover more about it once they have filed their spider story. Serious food journalists don’t come here and, prior to my website, nobody has ever written about Cambodian food in a sustained manner,” he added.

As to those spiders, the Cambodians turned to them when the Khmer Rouge were starving them to death. With the return of normality, they became a local delicacy for Cambodians. The town of Skuon is famous for them, fried. But westerners are extremely unlikely to find them appealing.

One man who shares Lees’ passion for Khmer food is Frits Mulder, who runs the Frizz restaurant in Phnom Penh. The restaurant, on the city’s attractive Tonle Sap riverfront, serves a range of traditional Khmer dishes. In response to demand from customers, Frits also began offering cooking classes around two years ago, led by knowledgeable and experienced Khmer cooks.

“People came in and said ‘This is good food, is there a cooking school to learn about this?’” Frits said The classes have proved popular, with participants showing up almost every day during the tourist season.

“It’s growing,” said Frits. “The first few months were really quiet but you can see that it’s growing and growing and growing. Even more expats are doing it, and I didn’t expect that.” Indeed, he says, about 25 per cent of the participants are expatriates who want to learn the secrets of the Cambodian kitchen.

Cooking schools have also opened recently in Siem Reap, Battambang and Sihanoukville, and it is likely that more will open soon in popular tourist areas.

Phil Lees says there are several reasons why visitors to Cambodia may be put off by the local cuisine. For a start, he suggests, they may order the wrong balance of dishes.

“A great Khmer meal is about attempting to balance sweet, salty, sour and bitter across a range of different dishes instead of having them all in a single plate. Khmer cuisine is also designed to be eaten as a group and so often does not tend to translate as well when diners eat alone,” he said.

Secondly, westerners often make the mistake of ordering the wrong meats. ‘’Freshwater fish are central to the Cambodian diet, with all other meats taking a back seat. While pork and chicken are popular, a Khmer meal without fish isn’t really a meal. There is also a concomitant tendency for travelers to order one of each meat without considering what flavors are added to the sauces or soups, or even the texture of each dish,’’ he says.

Finally, most westerners are unfamiliar with Cambodian food, and Lees says this “tends to drive people to order whatever is most familiar to them, which in Cambodia tends to be the local versions of Thai, Vietnamese or Chinese foods”.

He adds: “There is also a huge amount of misinformation from the media and from the travel guidebooks, which are not updating as rapidly as the growth in Cambodia’s dining scene.”

Although Khmer cuisine is finally beginning to win recognition, Lees advises visitors not to hold overly high expectations. “Cambodia isn't the lost food utopia of Asia,” he says. “It might be when it gets much richer, but for the moment a large proportion of Cambodians eat for survival rather than purely for pleasure.”