When Cambodian Food Is More Than Food

Church potlucks are more than picnics. They're symphonies.

In south-central Pennsylvania, where I grew up, chocolate cake with peanut butter frosting made regular appearances at our church meals. At the small multicultural church that we attend in Melbourne there is always an Indonesian curry next to a tuna quiche. And at Cambodian-Australian church there are crunchy spring rolls, papaya salad with sliced pork loaf and pickled crabs, and massive pots of Khmer curry.

Like all of Melbourne, for much of 2020 and 2021 Tonga and I were stuck indoors, not allowed to go more than 5km from our house. There were very specific exceptions. When would we be able to resume our annual trips to Cambodia? Or to anywhere, for that matter? It was anybody’s guess. I missed a planned visit back to the U.S. and my grandfather passed away without one last visit from me. Then we missed precious time with Tonga’s family in Cambodia. We wanted to be back with Khmer people and Khmer culture.

“What if we tried visiting a Cambodian church? Just once in a while.” I suggested to Tonga. “Most of our Cambodian friends are in Cambodia. It would be nice if we had more Cambodian community in Australia.”

We'd heard about a Cambodian Christian church not far from us. Churches weren’t allowed to meet in person during that stage of the pandemic but we got the contact details for Lokkru (teacher, or in this case pastor) Phirom and he and Tonga chatted over the phone. He told us that the church was meeting online at their normal meeting times every Sunday and welcomed us to join them.

We spent many Sunday mornings virtually attending our regular church and the afternoons virtually attending Cambodian Christian Community Australia in Dandenong, Victoria. During the pandemic I also began studying Khmer language online. I liked listening for words I knew, and Tonga loved singing worship songs in his native language. Once the lockdown lifted, Lokkru Phirom invited us to join the church in person for the Christmas service. Ever since, we've been visiting when we can.

Our favourite part is getting to know other Cambodian Christians who share our Australian experiences. An added bonus is all the amazing food. Special times of the year like Christmas, Mother’s Day, Easter, or the visit of Lokkru Barnabas Mam, a prominent Cambodian pastor from Phnom Penh, warrant a typically Cambodian response. That is, a massive potluck.

When the meal is at church, the setup is down to a science.

Everything has its place in this great ecosystem of flavour. Two rows of multiple trestle tables are placed end-to-end. At one end of each long row is The Big Pot and at the other end are Aussie Treats. The Big Pots have borbor (rice porridge with a hit of umami), or Cambodian red curry, or num bahn chok (rice noodles with yellow fish curry and heaps of herbs). The Aussie Treats are often stacks of pizzas or trays of Costco sandwiches.

While Tonga goes straight to The Big Pots I usually skip to the middle. That’s where you will often find a couple varieties of bok lahong (green papaya salad) and cold rice noodles with toppings. The dressing or herbs vary depending on the cook. These dishes are a lot easier to load onto a plate and eat standing up while simultaneously socialising, which is why they’re my go-to. For the Cambodians, though, it’s all about the wonders in The Big Pots. Flavourful comfort food triumphs over convenience.



Why do we need our familiar foods? Why do we need certain flavours when we're far from home?

Of course, a multitude has been written on the subject. That's probably because we eat to live but food also shapes our lives. It firmly attaches itself to our memories, good and bad. In my own experiences of being continents away from home, sometimes the sight of a food I didn't even like to eat when I was there can make me nostalgic. One time I ate a single bite of an imported ice cream bar from the U.S. and tears sprung to my eyes. That was a little embarrassing. You may love your new country, your new home, but you can still find deep meaning in foods from your first one. I imagine it's much the same for my Cambodian family and friends. Sometimes papaya salad is more than just papaya salad.

Sometimes Cambodian church meals don't happen at church. 

Sometimes they're in the form of a BBQ at the pastor’s house. There are fewer people but still heaps of food. Since the guest list is shorter, it’s easier to share dishes that are less easily made in bulk.

One firm similarity between Aussies and Khmers is the need for barbequed meats and seafood. And a fish stuffed with lemongrass, if you’re Cambodian. At the BBQ we last attended, there were a few types of nyoam, or crunchy salads that must be lightly massaged by hand with dressings that balance sweet, sour, salty, and sometimes a little spicy. There was the classic Khmer tamarind sauce for the fish, prahok sauce for the sliced steak, and grilled asparagus for an Aussie touch. For dessert big pots made an appearance, featuring creamy, sweet, and slightly salty plae-chake ktiss, or coconut and banana tapioca. Plates of prettily cut fruit make the "healthy option" appealing, too.

In the more personal setting of our pastor's home it's easier to find out who's made which thing. When Tonga and I exclaimed happily over the coconut and banana tapioca, one of the Khmer grandmothers of the church beamed.

"Did you make this, Grandmother?" Tonga asked her in Khmer. She nodded enthusiastically and passed us the ground roasted sesame seeds.

"Hey!" I nudged Tonga. The papaya salad tasted as if it had come straight from Cambodia. "This is REALLY good."

One of the pastor's wives heard me talking. "Do you like it?" she asked, looking pleased. Later she gave me the details on where to buy the little crabs that lend it that signature flavour.

"Here, try this." Someone hands me a small package wrapped in banana leaf. The smell is promising. "We eat it a lot in Cambodia. You will like it."

I taste it and I'm delighted. I can see the shy joy in their eyes; their delight that even a stranger can recognise how good Cambodian food is.

When you're far from your first home, soup is not just soup. Cake is not just cake. Papaya salad is more than just papaya salad. These things connect you to memory and introduce another part of yourself to new friends. These aren't new ideas and they will be said by many others in years to come. And they're still worth repeating.

Hob bai. Let's eat.


  1. I so love and miss the community meals after church when I lived in Korea. You go and pay your 500 won (like, 50¢) and get a full, hot tray of rice, soup, and side dishes. Everyone comes and goes but somehow all eats *together*. There is still an element of that in church potlucks here; but I feel like that communal, cultural expectation is often missing, especially in the larger churches I've attended.

    ...and I may have also cried the first time I ate Cheetos 😅

    1. Wow that sounds so nice! Yes, agreed. I think church potlucks by their nature don't work so easily with large western churches. Our small church here in Australia has monthly community lunches but the large churches do not have them.

      ...thank you for sharing that Cheetos story, I feel seen.

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