A Taste of Cambodia's Cuisine
By Darrin DuFord
Hidden among Apsaras and multi-armed Vishnus on the eight-hundred-year-old temple walls of Angkor are carvings of cooks holding skewered fish over a fire.
That’s right, barbecues side by side with celestial maidens and gods.
Cambodia has carried its penchant for barbecue and other glorious forms of cooking through dark times, enduring war and genocide a generation ago, and has emerged stronger than ever.
My wife and I always find ourselves reverse-engineering new dishes in our travels to uncover what they are made of. While ingredient hunting in Cambodia, we began to learn how the country is both enjoying and reinventing its culinary pride. Do I hear the sound of eight-hundred-year-old spirits licking their lips?
The Edible Skyline
At first glance, the Angkor Archaeological Park might not seem like a place to meet living residents.
But the four hundred square kilometers of the park are so spread out that several communities live on the roads connecting the ruins. And with communities comes commerce. We stopped at a roadside vendor and peeked into a giant wok swirling with sweet, bubbling sap.
As the vendor stirred the boiling juice, her sister was busy knocking the freshly cooled sap out of little palm-frond rings, revealing disks of palm sugar. They serve as a main element in Cambodian cookery, used in everything from curries to stews. About three million sugar palm trees punctuate the countryside of Cambodia, and serve as a national symbol of the country -- appearing on several of the country’s banknotes.
Palm trees are just as much a part of the skyline of the Angkor Archaeological Park as the towers of the ruins, and just as important to Cambodians because they provide a renewable source of sweetness.
And sweetness is just one benefit of the tree. The deep roots protect against erosion, the leaves are harvested for weaving roofs and hats, and the sugar is fermented into palm wine. Sold in tourist markets and drugstores (the price in the latter about half what it costs in the former), the palm wine comes in various strengths.
With its rustic flavor somewhere between apple cider and sake, the eleven percent alcohol variety went down smoothly, although I didn’t feel as deserving of the drink as the farmers who have to climb up the trees every morning to harvest the sap.
The Pond That Gives Back
In a country in which flooding is both a perilous and life-bringing feature of the seasons, Cambodians have put their water, dirty or otherwise, to good use. I was reminded of this when we sat down at a bustling bus-stop restaurant in the city of Kampong Thom for a dish of stir-fried water spinach. Less bitter and more stalky than regular spinach, water spinach (also called morning glory) is a fast-growing vegetable that is high in potassium and iron and is often grown in ponds and rivers around the lowland Cambodian home.
The crop even grows well in dirty water. A cab driver told me that Cambodians feed the water spinach grown in dirty water to pigs, and save the clean-water plants for people. In case the bundles at the market had become mixed up, I was glad my dish was well stir-fried.
While many Americans enjoy paying a fat water bill to feed an ornament known as the front lawn, many rural Cambodians -- whose houses line the road in the same coziness as suburban houses in the States -- utilize that valuable real estate between road and front door for growing and raising food.
If a house’s front door doesn’t overlook a troupe of roaming chickens, turkeys, and cows, it often opens up to a shallow pond used for growing tasty plants such as water spinach in the wet season. The ever-versatile aqua-lawn also doubles as a kiddie pool.
I’m not recommending that Americans should start planting water spinach around their mailboxes just yet. Its vigorous growth that makes it a blessing for Cambodians is the same vigorous growth that has earned it status as an invasive species in the States. Better hold off on planting those seeds until water spinach coleslaw catches on at the all-you-can-eat buffet.
The Urban Sophistication of Livestock
When we entered the traffic free-for-all of Phnom Penh, our tuk-tuk driver somehow merged into a stream of two, three, and four-wheeled vehicles, some of which balancing live piglets or chickens on wooden racks. A jousting of snout and beak. We were left wondering if our to-be dinner had just deftly passed us on a motorcycle. Just about everything in Cambodia, at one time or another, has dangled off the side of a motorbike -- from bed frames to one-hundred-pound sacks of rice to entire families of four.
A single eighty mile-per-gallon motorcycle can transport two-dozen live chickens tied upside down to bamboo beams, putting a gas-abusing pickup to shame. Such cleverness and efficiency is remarkable, but I would guess that the unlucky chicken whose head hangs right in back of the tailpipe would end up tasting a little funky.
We played tailpipe roulette and won, scoring tender, egg-battered strips of chicken that we grilled on a hubcap-like contraption known as a chhnang phnom pleung, a tabletop Cambodian barbecue pot at Frizz Restaurant. We also saved room on the grill for strips of steak. And speaking of steak, Phnom Penh apparently has its beef supply covered too.
In the city’s outskirts, any vacant lot between buildings may become a plot to graze a cow. Both cow and owner, recent transplants from the countryside, adapt to city life together. Where there are no fences, the cows make like monks and cross the streets at their own pace, blissfully unconcerned about the oncoming barrage of combustion engines that must weave around them.
Syrup? We Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Syrup
Soon after arriving in the southern town of Kampot, My wife and I ducked into the covered market for relief from the sadistic Cambodian sun. We navigated a visual cacophony of pig heads, piles of dragon fruit, cigarettes in bulk like an addict’s honeycomb, motorcycle parts. We tried -- but failed -- to act like we’ve seen it all before.
But between the doorknob and drill vendors: a woman making a fresh batch of coconut waffles? There was no use in disguising my giddiness; the sweet scent of grilling batter had disarmed me. The Kampot market would not be complete without such a tantalizingly perverse twist of cultures, brought to you by a past bout with colonialism.
It has been over fifty years since the French colonial period ended in Cambodia, but a few culinary elements of the era have taken root, like fresh baguettes in the morning and a penchant for red wine.
The coconut waffles, however, seem to embody how the country has chosen to digest its colonial past. Shaking up the standard waffle recipe by using coconut milk instead of dairy milk and placing the griddle over a barbecue pit -- either out of creativity or necessity, or both -- the Khmers have successfully one-upped the common breakfast staple.
Thanks to palm sugar, the Khmer waffle does not need syrup or butter to make it tasty. The waffle vendor just puts the 1,000-riel (25-cent) waffle in a to-go plastic bag and you eat it like a candy bar. She opened up an almost toothless grin at my creative pronunciation of Khmer numbers. I realized that I had just been ruined for regular waffles.
I haven’t heard of any Cambodians chiseling out narrative friezes anymore, which is unfortunate because this updated barbecue scene, with charred waffle iron and all, would create a refreshing slice of life image next to bas-reliefs of motorcycle-riding monks.
Rebirth of the Kampot Pepper
The tranquil beach town of Kep is often overlooked except for two local specialties: crab and peppercorns. Exploiting a serendipitous combination, the town unites them in the same dish.
At Kimly, an over-the-seaside restaurant recommended by our young guide Pari (a guide in Kep is generally a local with a car who wants to make a few extra riels that day), we discovered how the fiery fruitiness of the fresh green peppercorns mingled with the sweetness of the fried crab (26,000 riels, or $6.50), caught that morning.
The irritable rain pelting the Gulf of Thailand just outside the window failed to sour the lingering rumble of lust and spice in our mouths.
The meal was a mood changer; with the crab and Kampot pepper in front of me, the rain became enchanting ambiance. I even found myself saying things like, “A monsoon season would be kind of lame without monsoon rains, wouldn’t it?”
Before we had eaten, Pari, eager to illustrate the intimacies of Kep’s food supply, had grabbed our crabs from the crab market next door and brought the frisky fellows into the restaurant to prove the critters’ liveliness. The green peppercorns -- soft, fresh, and still on the stalk -- enlightened us on what we have been missing throughout all of our dried-peppercorn lives, bringing us closer yet to the short paths that our lunch took from sea and farm to table.
But we were about to get closer. Dodging cattle that weighed as much as his 3-cylinder Tico SX, Pari drove us to a nearby pepper plantation.
“Don’t cry,” he commanded through a half-cracked grin as he offered us green peppercorns that he just picked off a vine. French chefs have been extolling the peppercorns, known as Kampot pepper, since the colonial period, when pepper production was much higher than today.
The oppressive Khmer Rouge regime, when not busy torturing and killing their fellow countrymen, uprooted the pepper vines in the 1970s to make way for rice. (That was part of their failed agrarian-state plan that ended up starving the country instead).
Since the Khmer Rouge’s ouster, several farmers from the area have begun replanting the prized crop to take advantage of the seaside climate and mineral-rich soil that gives Kampot pepper its unique spicy sweetness.
Chewing up a peppercorn, Pari squinted and remarked, “They should be called ‘Kep peppers.’ I’m jealous!” He was referring to the fact that the neighboring province of Kampot ended up scoring the spice’s name, even though the pepper grows in both Kampot and Kep provinces. A little neighborhood rivalry is just what Cambodia needs to increase awareness of the crop’s revival. Visitors can support the farmers’ entrepreneurial spirit by buying bags of peppercorns straight from the plantations.
Experiencing Cambodia’s modern cuisine led me to reflect on where our food in America comes from, and how not to be wasteful. I was not about to start grazing a cow in New York’s Central Park. I would, however, be interested in the reactions of New Yorkers if I carried a cow on the subway. Better yet, I’d love to see the reaction of an archaeologist digging around in Cambodia, far in the future, and unearthing biker-monk-and-waffle carvings.
Hungry to Go?
Blue Lime has double rooms in a modern concrete décor starting from USD$40 for a double. Frizz Restaurant serves the oil-based (not the broth-based) chhnang phnom pleung for USD$5.75 per person.
The Auberge Mont Royal hotel offers doubles from USD$60 per night on a quiet side street. The appropriately named Cambodian BBQ Restaurant serves the broth-based chhnang phnom pleung in a comfortable dining room near Pub Street.
The Beach House is located in a killer spot for watching sunsets on the Gulf of Thailand and offers double rooms for USD$40 per night. Kimly Restaurant is one of the best waterfront restaurants serving crab near the crab market. Any hotel in Kep can arrange a tour to one of the nearby pepper plantations.
Darrin DuFord has also written travel and food articles for such publications as Perceptive Travel, The Panama News, and World Hum. His book Is There a Hole in the Boat? Tales of Travel in Panama without a Car won the silver medal in the 2007 Lowell Thomas Travel Journalism Awards. Find his latest articles and recipes on his website, Omnivorous Traveler.
Darrin DuFord has written food and travel pieces for BBC Travel, the San Francisco Chronicle, Gastronomica, Vice, World Hum, Narratively, and other publications. His debut book, Is There a Hole in the Boat? Tales of Travel in Panama Without a Car, won a silver medal in the 2007 Lowell Thomas Travel Journalism Awards. His narratives appear in the anthologies Stories of Music Volume 1 (Timbre Press, 2015), Adventures of a Lifetime: Travel Tales from around the World (World Traveler Press, 2015), and The Best Travel Writing Volume 11 (Travelers’ Tales). He lives in Queens, New York, America’s most diverse county.