Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat in Cambodia
the world's largest religious monument built in the 12th century
now a world heritage site
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Food is Culture



  Mee_Bamporng_-_thumbnail     Mango_Custard__Sticky_Rice_-_thumbnail
            Crispy Noodles                Sticky Rice and Mango Custard

 Nothing is more fundamental to human survival and satisfaction than food. In normal situations, eating food is a pleasurable activity especially during social or festive gatherings such as dinner parties and wedding receptions.  Not only does food convey cultural and culinary identity, it is also the vehicle by which people bond together. While food and tastes differ from one country to another, the cultural importance of food exist the world over.  

Food is everywhere. I cannot imagine any social event, formal or informal, where food is not involved in Cambodia. It plays a crucial role in our society. Apart from keeping us alive, food represents level of knowledge, economic status, social classes and individuals’ pride. It is a social seal to any event as it is the heart of Khmer culture.

Here are some examples that demonstrate how food is a transversal element that affects almost all aspects and stages of everyday Khmer life.  

My Mother
In 2001, I was invited by the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) to participate in their first ever ‘Holocaust Memorial Day’ programme. During this televised event, I was asked onto the stage to talk to the audience about my life during the Khmer Rouge holocaust. Afterwards, I and the other speakers were asked to stand in a row to be thanked by the dignitaries who attended the event.

Mrs. Cherie Blair – wife of the then Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, asked me about my partly blind mother who had been living with my sister in the USA. I told her a few things about my mother and added: ‘My mother has now returned to Cambodia, because she said there was nothing to eat in America’. Upon hearing this, everyone including Prince Charles, the heir to the British throne, burst out laughing. The Prince then turned to me and jokingly asked: ‘Do you have enough to eat here in England?’ They laughed because it was funny to hear that there was nothing to eat in the richest country in the world. Then Dr Carey, the then Archbishop of Canterbury, smiled and kindly reassured me, ‘I think I know what your mother meant …’. To my mother, it was not a question of food per se, it was about ‘her food’ with all the traditional surroundings and the culture which she had become accustomed to at home in Cambodia.   


‘Bai’ or Cooked Rice
Although ‘bai can be literally translated from Khmer as ‘cooked rice’, it also has other meanings.  It appears in everyday phrases such as:  

Nhamm bai’          literally means ‘eating rice’, used as ‘having a meal’
‘Klean bai’              literally means ‘being hungry for cooked rice’, used as ‘being hungry’
‘Ptaeh bai’              literally means ‘house of rice’, used as ‘kitchen’

Rice plays a fundamental role in the lives of the Khmer people. Not only is it their staple food, it also features in rituals, religious ceremonies, festivals as well as in songs, dances and theatrical plays.  read more ...   


Food, Belief and Society
a - Infant Feeding Practice – Breast feeding used to be the only way of feeding infants in Cambodia. However, bottle feeding using cow milk formulas has become fashionable amongst some mothers.  This is due to factors such as:
- being too busy with working full-time; or
- feeling embarrassed and concerned about breast feeding in public; or
- due to health problems; or
- cannot cope with the tediously tiresome job of breast-feeding; or
- simply having succumbed to powerful commercial marketing of formula milk     read more ...

Food, Religion and Superstition
Food consumption is a vital part of ritual celebrations. Feasts are held during weddings, funerals, festival of the Ancestors, New Year, religious ceremonies and other rituals. The most popular feast items are fish, pork, chicken, and vegetable dishes served with rice and noodles. Liberal amounts of alcohol are also served, in rural areas locally-produced rice wine or spirits, whereas in the cities beer, wine and imported spirits are preferred. Food is therefore culturally important for people to maintain good social relations. 
read more ...  


Fun Food
'Chav-Horn' - Khmer fondue / hotpot - My family has such a fondness for this dish. Although it is supposed to be a dish for cold months, we eat it at any occasion such as family gatherings and birthday celebrations. This is a hotpot containing boiling broth placed in the middle of the table, surrounded by plates of raw beef, seafood, fish, noodles or rice, raw vegetables and salad. It is a very sociable meal as people would constantly interact with each other whilst taking turn to place their own food in a little basket then into the hotpot to cook. Sometimes food would float out of the basket and somebody else would steal it … that’s when fun starts. The origin of this dish is told through a tale of a poor man who worked for a Sethei’or tycoon. He was so poor that he only possessed one pot to cook and eat from. One day, the tycoon who happened to walk past the poor man’s shack could smell a lovely aroma of cooking. He stopped to look and saw the man cooking and simultaneously eating from the pot. He then ordered his cook to get the recipe from the poor man and to cook the dish for him. He enjoyed it very much; and from then on, the dish has found its place on all rich men’s table. Now, although there are many variations to this dish, the concept remains the same – cooking and eating from the hotpot. 

Ko Laeung Phnom’ - Grilled marinated beef -  The thinly sliced beef is grilled on either a charcoal stove or a special barbercue machine placed in the middle of the table to individual doneness. The cooked beef is then served with sauces, pickles and/or salad and steamed rice. It has basically the same concept as the Khmer hotpot ‘chav horn’ but this one is without the broth. It truly creates a lively fun atmosphere. Drinking cold beer, wine, chatting, reminiscing, telling jokes, laughing and cooking for and serving themselves as they like and when they want to, generates a fun time together.

'Prahok Chraluok' - Prahok and palm sugar dip with fresh fruits - I have fond memories of this special snack of fruits and vegetable dip which we, Khmer women, would enjoy when we occasionally get together during a hot summer afternoon. This consists of one bowl of a concoction of minced raw prahok (fermented fish), fish sauce, chopped red and green chilli, lots of palm sugar and lemon. Into which we dip slices of the following fruits: green mangoes, star fruits, Kantuot (Othaheite gooseberry), Kwett (wood apple), green banana, green papaya and a lot more according to what is available at the time. (Thinking about this makes my mouth water). This enjoyable gathering allows us time to catch up with each other’s news as well as being useful for sharing ideas and tips on cooking, child rearing, and even comparing notes on fashion. 

 ‘Prahok’ - Salt-Fermented Fish and Khmer Culture


The cornerstone of Khmer cuisine is ‘Prahok  – a salt-fermented fish paste which, apart from the smell,  is similar to the preserved anchovies used in the West. Prahok is believed to have existed since the pre-Angkorean period.  It is made from big fish usually trei roh’ - ‘snake head fish’, and from small fish such as ‘trei Kamplienh’ - ‘gourami fish’ and most commonly from trei riel’ or Siamese mud carpwhich even the national currency is named after it Riel.  The method of making Prahok’ is similar to that of ‘garum – a Roman preserved fish paste which only the upper classes of the Roman Empire could afford.

Prahok is used both as a dish in itself with fresh vegetables, or as a condiment in a variety of Khmer dishes. Its grey colour with strong aroma and intense flavour can be overwhelming to some Westerners. Yet, like fish sauce and asafoetida’- a type of herb native to India which is known as ‘devil’s dung’, after the smell have dissipated during cooking, ‘Prahok’ can transform a dish that can be appreciated by all – East or West.

Prahok, Please! I remember being told by my brother about the food aid given to the Khmer people in the early 1990’s. The NGO (Non Governmental Organisations) and other international relief workers who distributed food such as corned beef, biscuits, and sardines to the hungry Khmers were surprised to see their distributed food was on sale in the markets instead of being consumed. After some investigation, they found out that what these people wanted the most was rice and prahok. These two ingredients together with the vegetables they grew around the house, they could produce many dishes which they would enjoy.  Although they were very grateful to have received any aid, as already mentioned, rice and prahok were the most important foods for their survival; and a kilo of prahok went a long way. So, all changed - surely enough, a package of this smelly fish paste and a bag of rice brought about many happy faces.


Attitude Towards Prahok - Some rich Khmers condescendingly associate prahok with peasant food – cheap food and only the poor eat it. In my opinion, there is nothing wrong with being a peasant. All our ancestors were peasants. After all, agriculture has been an important feature of Khmer civilisation for centuries (Angkor and its sophisticated irrigation systems created for agriculture prove it), whereas 'urban' lifestyle of today has only been around for about two hundred years or so in Cambodia. In addition, the annual bulk production of prahok which has been practised by most Khmers, is a very effective way of using up natural resources – fish, when they are plentiful – they would otherwise go to waste. And, what could be better than having a yearly supply of this high protein food available at anytime for the family?  

Prahok and its Counterparts - Some other Khmers like eating prahok but would deny having it in public because they are ashamed of this food - their Khmer heritage and their roots. Although I can appreciate that, for some reason, some people don’t eat prahok, but it is their attitude towards it that makes me sad. Prahok has fed Khmer people for centuries, and, apart from the smell, there’s nothing wrong with it. In fact, it contains good protein and numerous vitamins.  With regard to the smell, if you look around you, almost every country has some kind of smelly food. The list is endless but, as an example, here are a few smelly/stinky foods from around the world: Kimchi and hongeo from Korea, surströmming from Northern Sweden, Kiviak from Greenland, Natto from Japan, ‘stinky tofu’ from China, and Vieux-Boulogne cheese from Northern France.  However, prahok that is made in Siemreap (Khmer Northern Province) is famous for it superior quality and taste, and above all, for its mouth-watering aroma (Chnguy!). So, there you are, not all the prahok are smelly. Recently, I have been told that there is a machine which does the gutting and cutting of fish heads - which speeds up prahok production and enables it to be more hygienic.

I hope that the method of making prahok could be further improved to keep up with the international food hygiene standards. I would like to see prahok, a highly nutritious food, exported and marketed for Westerners’ consumption just like kimchi has been.