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Southeast Asian Cuisine: Cambodia

In the second in a four part series, Penelope Walsh learns how the lost paradise of Cambodian cuisine is now slowly being regained

Written by . Published on July 27th 2011.


Southeast Asian Cuisine: Cambodia

THERE is a dearth of Cambodian restaurants in the UK. There is, in fact, a dearth of Cambodian restaurants in Cambodia. When I visited, the prevalent opinion in guidebooks was that there was barely such a thing as Cambodian cuisine, and if there was, it holds little difference to Thai. As such, in the largest cities, the challenge to find a Cambodian restaurant, amidst pizza parlours offering to make dishes ‘happy’ for an extra charge, is, well, high.

Ask most people what constitutes Cambodian food, and if they can tell you anything it will probably be deep-fried tarantulas and locusts. This aspect of Cambodian cuisine does exist. There are stalls selling plastic washing-up bowls full of every type of crispy, crunchy, creepy crawly you can think of. It is, however, “a sensationalist look at Cambodian cuisine,” Kanika Linden tells me.

When the Khmer Rouge took control, she explains, “anything symbolising the old regime had to be eradicated; culture, religion, arts. As such, family recipes, cookbooks and food publications were destroyed.”

Born in Cambodia, raised in France and now based in London, Kanika Linden and her mother Sorey Long are the authors of Au Pays de la Pomme Cythère, a book on Cambodian food. Published in France, the book won ‘Best Asian Cuisine Cookbook in the World 2009’ at the Gourmand awards in Paris. Kanika is currently working on a new, revised edition for the UK and US market, due to be published towards the end of this year.

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What provoked Linden and her mother to begin work on their book? The reasons are as complex as Cambodia’s history and heavily intertwined with it. When, Linden says, “I was expecting my first child, I craved Cambodian food. I was yearning to cook my mother’s dishes.” At this stage, her knowledge of Cambodian recipes was limited, and there were few satisfactory cookbooks on the market.

A distinction is often drawn between Cambodia’s pre- and post-war cuisine. Tragically, this is primarily because many consider knowledge of Cambodian cuisine to have literally died out along with the people who held it. Linden explains that this knowledge was an oral tradition, passed down from mother to daughter. The war, she adds, “broke down this verbal chain and with it, national pride and identity.”

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When the Khmer Rouge took control, she explains, “anything symbolising the old regime had to be eradicated; culture, religion, arts. As such, family recipes, cookbooks and food publications were destroyed.” The damage this has done to the Cambodian psyche has resulted for many in insecurity regarding their own culture and tradition.

Saddened by hearing of Cambodia primarily in the language of tragedy and horror, Linden affirms that there is beauty in the country and its culture. “We can choose to see the beauty,” she argues, and in doing so, restore Cambodia’s sense of self-esteem. “Cambodians,” she tells me,  “are now learning to re-establish their beautiful culinary traditions and by doing so, I believe they are slowly reclaiming their identity.”

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So, are the guidebooks’ assertions fair? Is Cambodian cuisine effectively just Thai food? “It is completely untrue,” Lindenstates. Cambodian food is often, she says, “wrongly depicted as a mix between Thai and Vietnamese,” adding that it is not as spicy as Thai, nor is it as sweet.

Instead, Cambodian food is characterised by fragrance, freshness, balance and abundance. “Cambodian cuisine,” Linden explains, ”mirrors Cambodia’s lush countryside, drawing on the abundance of fish, fruit and vegetables.” Dishes often contain a variety of different herbs and vegetables. A wide spectrum of flavours is also common, with Cambodians favouring combinations of sweet, salty, bitter, sour and pungent.

The cornerstones of Cambodian food are rice, fish and kroeung. Widely used as the starting point for many Cambodian dishes, kroeung is a fragrant paste typically made from lemongrass, galangal, turmeric, fingerroot, kaffir lime, garlic and shallots. It is, Linden comments, a “testimony to Cambodia’s abundance and diversity of ingredients.”

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Perhaps more widely known for its notorious pungency, another common paste is prahok. Made from fermented fish, it is the source of the ‘pungent’ flavour in many Cambodian dishes, and is just one of the ways that fish is used. Due to the abundance of fish, and traditionally the lack of refrigeration, Linden explains that a wide variety of preservation methods are employed, including salting, sun-drying, smoking and fermenting. The use of rice is equally varied and eaten in different forms including “plain, sticky, grilled, puffed or turned into noodles, flour and even alcohol.”

“I hope my generation get the chance to learn how to cook our authentic recipes, something that was denied us because of the war. I hope that they will pass it on to the younger generations,” Linden says. She tells me a new generation of chefs are vowing to put Khmer cuisine on the map. This is part of what Linden herself is working towards. Cambodians are slowly rediscovering their culinary culture, and with it, their pride.

 

EAT MORE

Lemongrass

Cambodian restaurant, popular for Chef Thomas’ authentic pre-war cuisine. Try the Loc Luk steak.

243 Royal College Road
London, NW1 9LT

02072841116

 

LEARN MORE
Au pays de la Pomme Cythère b
y Sorey Long and Kanika Linden

For more information on the UK version of Linden and her mother’s book contact info@nomkom.com

www.nomkom.com

 

Follow @penelopewalsh on Twitter

All photographs by White Tara Ltd

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Guy RintoulAugust 6th 2011.

Hmm, just wrote a comment but looks like it didn't save. Here goes again :)

Was interesting to read this. When I went on sababtical, all of the countries I visited (Russia, Mongolia, China, Vietnam) has defined local or regional dishes, but Cambodia didn't. It wasn't really mentioned or if it was it was an afterthought, treated as "generic SE Asian". Hadn't really thought about the impact the Khmer Rouge had in that sense.

LavenderJuly 28th 2014.

Hi there, I love Cambodian food and often visit Lemongrass restaurant in Camden London. I would like to add that the restaurant has a website and if you would like to learn more, then just please visit: www.lemongrass-restaurant.co.uk…

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