Cambodia gets her name from the French word “Cambodge”, which is derived from the Khmer word, “Kâmpuchea”, meaning “born of Kambu.” Khmer is what the people of Cambodia are called, the language they speak and even the name of their cuisine. They gained independence from France in 1953. Both English and French are also spoken.
Located in Southeast Asia between Thailand and Vietnam, she has a northern border with Laos. Cambodia also has a coastline on the Gulf of Thailand, although the coastline is separated from the central flood plains by mountains. It wasn’t until the 1950’s that rail and roads provided access to the coastal towns. The beautiful landscape is a sea of rice paddies and sugar palms, with numerous rivers and until recently, areas outside the flood plains were heavily forested.
The population is roughly 90 percent Khmer, five percent Vietnamese and one percent Chinese. The official religion is Theravada Buddhist. Cambodia has the only flag in the world with a building on it. It depicts the ancient Khmer temple, “Angkor Wat.” Discovered by French explorers deep in the jungle in the 19th century, the iconic temple was built by King Suryavarman II, who reigned from 1131 to 1150. The word “Angkor” is derived from the Sanskrit word “Nagara”, for city and “Wat”, derived from Vatthu, means temple grounds. The temple is aptly named, as it has recently been concluded by researchers, that Angkor was the largest pre-industrial city in the world; sprawling 1150 square miles and populated by up to a million people. Huge reservoirs and canals were built by the Angkor kings to provide water for irrigation. Today it is one of the most important archaeological sites of Southeast Asia. The complex, houses the entire range of Khmer art, from the ninth to the 14th centuries and is also a UNESCO World Heritage site.
UNESCO has also listed Cambodia as the third most land-mined country in the world. It is estimated that four million landmines are still strewn across the country causing a high number of casualties. These mines were left by the communist party of Kampuchea, known as the Khmer Rouge regime, led by Pol Pot. Under his reign, was one of the top ten, worst genocides in the history of the world. Between 1975 and 1979 somewhere between 1,000,000 and 3,000,000 people were brutally tortured and killed.
The Khmer Rouge regime, took control of the capital city, Phnom Penh, on April 17, 1975. They already had control of 85 percent of the country for the previous two years. They then began to implement their radical ideology; a Maoist and Marxist-Leninist transformation program. They wanted to turn Cambodia into a rural class society in which there were no rich people and no poor people. In order to accomplish this, they abolished money, free markets, schools, private property, foreign clothing and medicine. There was no public or private transportation.
Everyone had to wear black uniforms, considered to be revolutionary clothing. People were forced to produce three tons of rice per hectare throughout the country. This required the people to work every day of the year for more than 12 hours per day. They eradicated religious practice and any Khmer traditions. After all the books were burned, the public schools, churches, mosques, shops and government buildings were turned into prisons and places to torture the people. People were not allowed to gather. If as many as three people were found together, they could be accused of being enemies of the state and arrested or executed. The Khmer Rouge actually documented their torture and killings as the regime massacred thousands of military personnel, civil servants, minorities and especially, intellectuals. One prison that was previously a high school, known as “S-21”, held 14,000 prisoners and only seven of them survived. It is the site of a museum today.
The torment ended in December of 1978 when Vietnamese troops fought their way into Cambodia and retook the capital city. One can only imagine, the scars left behind from this tragic and horrific time. So many were left orphaned and widowed. Many suffered from mental illness caused by the loss of their loved ones, torture and broken spirits.
Khmer Cuisine struggles to make a comeback after so much tradition was lost during the reign of the Khmer Rouge. I heard one story about a place in Cambodia where a survivor claimed the best Chinese noodles in the world were made. All the Chinese in that area were slaughtered and no one has been able to recreate the special noodles, simply gone without a trace, along with the lives of the Chinese who thrived there.
Today Cambodia is slowly but surely recovering. Even after all the tragedy, the Cambodians are a friendly and warm people. The Khmer cuisine, considered one of the oldest in the world, has rice as a staple, which is eaten with every meal in a variety of forms. Her rivers and lakes provide an abundance of freshwater fish, which is also a staple in their diet. The French left their mark on the cuisine and French baguettes are commonly eaten there. In fact, Cambodians eat more bread than any other Southeast Asian country. The influence on their cuisine also comes from Vietnam and Thailand. Although Khmer cuisine does not use chilies in their recipes too often, they always put them on the side so the consumer can add the appropriate amount of heat. They are known for eating their meals with at least three dishes, each having a unique taste of being sweet, sour, salty or bitter. Soup is very commonly served. They also use a few ingredients in their cuisine that are a bit different to a Westerner’s palate. One is “Prahok”, a pungent fermented fish paste used in many of their signature dishes. They also use a milder fish sauce in many dishes, with black pepper generously used. Today, as the pepper industry is being revitalized, they introduced the Kampot pepper, revered for its floral and eucalyptus flavor. Cardamom and tamarind are also widely used spices in the Khmer cuisine.
Their cooking style has been influenced by India, where Cambodians learned the art of blending spices into a paste. This spice blend is called “Kroeung” and is made with ingredients like lemongrass, galangal, garlic, shallots, cilantro and kaffir lime leaves along with spices like cardamom, nutmeg, ginger and turmeric. The result is an amazing, aromatic mixture that is the essence of Cambodian cuisine.
So let’s eat:
We set the low table with the colors of the Cambodian flag; blue, red and white. Cambodians typically eat on a mat on the floor or at a low bamboo table. We decorated with a Buddha statue, banana leaves and lemon grass. We began the meal by placing our hands together near the heart, in a prayer position and gave a bow. This is how you would greet someone in Cambodia. The higher the hands and the deeper one bows, the more respect that is conveyed. Elders are always served first. In my case, that meant my husband (ha). It is customary to eat with chopsticks, which we did.
We began the meal with Kuy Teav, a pork and seafood noodle soup. This can be enjoyed with or without added broth. We ate it with the broth and savored every delicious bite. We were both blown away by how absolutely incredible this soup was. We added the condiments; bean sprouts, cilantro and the spicy chili sauce. This is the type of meal we could eat every day, for any meal. Awesome!
Next we had the squid and mango salad with the sweet fish sauce dressing. The fish sauce is a bit of an unusual flavor but quickly becomes somewhat addicting. It is another fantastic recipe and one we will make often.
After salad, we served Cambodia’s national dish called Trey Amok, which is typically steamed in banana leaves. I made a modified version in a pan instead of the banana leaf. However, we did make cute little banana bowls out of the leaves for serving the Amok. I used a very mild, white fish filet and added curry and coconut milk. It was light but full of flavor. I would love to visit Cambodia to get an authentic version of their national dish steamed in the banana leaf and served with the local freshwater fish found there. This course (as well as the others), was enjoyed with steamed, white rice and a typical Khmer drink of soda water with a squeeze of lemon.
For dessert, we had a delicious, deep fried banana nugget that was wrapped in a crispy spring roll, sprinkled with powdered sugar and topped with vanilla ice cream; a fabulous way to end our Cambodian feast. We both put this country, called Cambodia, and especially the noodle soup on our list of favorites.
As we say goodbye, I leave you with a few Cambodian proverbs and a hope that they are on the fast track to recovery and will experience all the good that life has to offer. If you care to learn more about their history, there is a documentary called “S-21” about the tragedy that occurred there. As you can imagine, it is not for the faint of heart.
Cultivate a heart of love that knows no anger.
The immature rice stalk stands erect, while the mature stalk, heavy with grain, bends over.
Sow good and you’ll reap good, sow bad and you’ll reap bad.
You don’t have to cut down a tree to get its fruit.
Until next week,