Honestly, my first attempt was clumsy.

The veggies and the textures were wrong, but my husband politely soldiered through his lunch of cha lok lak. Before I married Tonga, I knew almost nothing about Cambodian food. I’d never tried to make it before. Despite a lifetime of fascination with cooking and what happens when different flavours and ingredients meet, I’d never heard much about it. Falling in love with a Cambodian guy had made me keen to learn more.

“Well,” Tonga said after I asked for his honest feedback. “It tastes like a western person made it.”

That day commenced my Khmer food era.

Is the meat sliced too thin? Are the vegetables overcooked? Is it sour enough? Is it sweet enough? Should the prahok be more prominent? As Tonga learned how to give details, I learned what tastes to expect from each new dish we made together. Sometimes we recreated recipes he already knew. Sometimes we used recipes from other Cambodians as a starting point. We adjusted for what tasted familiar to him and equally delicious to me.

Each trip to Cambodia, and every meal with my in-laws in Australia, deepened my adoration. I’ve explored and loved Chinese food, Vietnamese food, Thai food, Italian food, Greek food, and much more. Cambodian food hit different. It balances sweet, sour, bitter, and salty with spice very much available but not overwhelming. It’s more than street food. There are also royal dishes presented with subtle scents and international influences. There are cozy, homey foods with flavours derived from native ingredients that have thrived in Cambodia since before living memory. The best dishes are simple, but even the simple ones have complex backgrounds.

I realized that I saw Cambodia with too small of a lens.

As I explored the intriguing depths of Cambodian food culture, I realised that my own keywords were limited to "Angkor Wat," "Khmer Rogue," "Pol Pot," and "genocide." As I shared what I learned with our friends, I found that most of them had those same associations. And most of them hadn't tried Cambodian food.

Tonga and I started BAK TUK as an Instagram and as a blog to join the burgeoning movement of Cambodians, “Khmericans,” and other 2nd generation Cambodians all over the world who are using social media and the internet to bring their culture into a brighter light.

When you read BAK TUK you’ll find restaurant reviews of Cambodian places in Australia, the U.S., and Cambodia. There are recipes that Tonga & I have developed, often from our family. We also feature musings on Khmer culture; there will be highlights from today's great Cambodian voices.

Welcome to your Cambodian food era!


Tonga is from Cambodia. Emily is from the U.S. We met in Australia, where we currently live. When we're not eating, making, or talking about Cambodian food, Tonga builds things and does photography & videography. Emily organises her skincare products neatly (a subjective term) on the bathroom shelves.