How Cambodian Food Made My Life Better

Now is the time to enter your Cambodian food era.

Ready for the best cuisine you haven’t heard enough of? Looking for an incredible comeback story full of unexpected flavours? I’ve got your next obsession right here.

I don’t remember which dish began mine but I know all the reasons it continues. The smoky smell of the fish the street vendors are grilling. The perfect bite of num pang pate holding crispy baguette, smooth, sweet, and salty pork pate, and crunchy pickled green papaya. A herby, medicinal, slightly spicy bite of stir fried chicken with local herbs.

…and so much more.

But first it’s Australia, 2017. And it’s me, falling in love with a Cambodian.

After dating for two and a half months we decided to get married, two weeks later got engaged, and five months later were married. As I prepared for the biggest commitment of my life, I was also discovering another love. This one was culinary. Before I met my husband, Cambodian food was basically unknown to me. Thanks to my in-laws I began exploring the magic that is Cambodian cuisine and there was no turning back.

I’ve devoted hours to studying the Khmer language and practicing cooking Cambodian food, with a lifetime still to go. What I’m learning is too good to keep to myself. I want to share the incredible Khmer voices I’m learning from, like Chef Nak, reviver of Khmer recipes and author of cookbook Nhum, and Sreymom Hok, effervescent entrepreneur and my Khmer language tutor of more than two years. 

Cambodian food itself is too deliciously blissful to keep quiet about. It’s never one note. It perfectly balances sweet and salty, sour and bitter. Chili is more of a complement than an aggressive palate-predator. Ingredients like lemongrass, long and black pepper, galangal, and lime leaf create lovely fragrances. Plants you’ve never heard of create herbaceous flavour. Palm sugar creates a rich depth that white sugar alone cannot.

Sour soups are the lunch I never knew I needed in hot, tropical weather. But I do. And we all do. And in all kinds of weather. Salads of green papaya or green mango are the dishes I never could have conceived of pre-Cambodia days, but now I crave them on the regular. Until Cambodia entered my life, I didn’t know that a rainy season afternoon could be so well spent at a buffet of pickled fruits with spicy, sweet, or salty dips.

Reject new things and you miss out on the flavours of a lifetime. That’s gotta be some kind of life lesson, right?

Respect the past, walk brightly into the future.

Ancient Cambodia’s greatest years were during the Angkor empire from the 9th to 15th centuries. At their peak, trade, construction, and expansion made them one of the most powerful empires in history. In the 1950s Cambodia experienced a “Golden Age” of art, music, and film and Phnom Penh was known as the Pearl of Asia. Soon after, the most horrific years in Cambodia’s history – genocide and the attempt to utterly decimate modern Khmer identity – understandably left a painful scar.

Heaps of Cambodian recipes were hidden from memory or purposely destroyed during the genocide years, since the Khmer Rogue didn’t approve of anything that could be remotely perceived as foreign. Skilled workers, including chefs, were at risk of losing their lives. Many did. As those old-time dishes emerge again – thanks to people like the incomparable Chef Nak – history, family favourites, and traditionally medicinal and delicious recipes do, too.

Those histories and more influence what we’re here for. They do not, however, define the entirety of what the children of Cambodia are today. Food reflects the history of the Cambodian diaspora, and of those who never left the Motherland, but it also reflects the incredibly bright, forward-walking personality of all Cambodians today. That’s what I love about food. It holds memory and potential, all on a plate, with rice.

Cambodian food is multi-cultural, clearly influenced by Indian, Chinese, and French food, but unquestionably its own. Of course, it’s only natural to compare the new with the known, but I’m here to stand up for Khmer culture on this one. Every single cuisine is influenced by others. No man is an island, says John Donne, and no cuisine is an island, says I. Don’t tell me Cambodian food is basically Thai food. It is not Vietnamese food, either. At the time of writing Cambodian food may not have the same level of global marketing of the others but that doesn’t make it second best. It’s ancient and it’s sparkling new, all at once. How can that be ignored?

Now, as it slowly grows in popularity in countries like Australia, New Zealand, and America (and further still) it’s the perfect time to get acquainted. Cambodian food encompasses all those histories of changing hopes, those futures trying to balance respect for tradition and new ways forward…and because of the powerful flavours and fragrances that are a part of daily life in Cambodian markets, restaurants, and households.

There are plenty of reasons to love food.

We need it to live. It evokes good, complicated, and comforting memories. Food can be fun. It can bring us together. The reason I love to eat interestingly and adventurously is because flavour ignites my creativity. It says so much about the culture from which or where it's served, and it makes me curious.

To me Cambodian food is worth knowing because of the man I love; because of the small contentment of sitting quietly on a busy residential street in Phnom Penh with his Grandma, watching people go by; because of the two tables pushed together back in Australia, covered in plates of fresh lettuce and cucumbers, pork belly, rice noodles and sweet and spicy sauce. All of that food, just waiting for family to come and eat. Some of us eat because it’s just what we have to do to live. But a few of us can't help but to dissect and discuss every part of it, and somehow, make a new step forward. To me Cambodian food is worth it because of memory and history, flavours and ingredients, sustenance and brilliance. I hope that this blog brings you to agree.

When in America, I write from anywhere between Texas and Pennsylvania. I’m always on the lookout for Cambodian restaurants and the chance to practice cooking Cambodian food for my friends as yet unacquainted.

When in Australia, I write from Melbourne, where I experience Khmer culture and food from my in-laws and a small Cambodian community.

When in Cambodia, I write from Bak Tuk. Bak Tuk is the Phnom Penh suburb where my husband grew up and the place we go back to every year. It’s the place with my favourite breakfast and the place where I learned to ride a motorbike. It’s where I first cooked Cambodian food in Cambodia, and it’s the name of this magical food blogventure.

Ready to begin? Let’s eat!


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *