The really cool thing about being in the third quarter of culinary school is that we have to research different topics related to the material we’re studying. We started the quarter in Southeast Asia, and my country was Cambodia. I was really moved by the country’s history. When my parents worked in Hong Kong, they were working with Vietnamese refugees who were fleeing Vietnam for better lives. It made sense that other Southeast Asians, like Cambodians, would also attempt to enter Hong Kong by boat, the way the Vietnamese refugees did. By knowing this, I felt that the Cambodian history was even more tragic; the people felt that their own country was in such a state that it would be better to be a refugee in a compound than to live at home.
I’ve decided to include my papers on the blog, because I think the information is very important. You might wonder if future classes run across this blog and are tempted to use the material, but since it is posted for the public, the instructors would also know that this exists. It’s also not likely that other students will focus on the same materials that I do, because I continue to look at my world through a nutritionist’s lens. So here’s my perspective about Cambodia.
Country – Cambodia
Geography – Thailand to the northwest, Laos to the northeast, Vietnam to the east, and the Gulf of Thailand to the west.
Terroir – Cambodia is 181,040 square kilometers. It is located on the Indochina peninsula sandwiched among Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam. In addition to the Gulf of Thailand, it has a large river, the Mekong river, and a large lake, the Tonle Sap or “Great Lake.” Most of the seafood and fish consumed in Cambodia come from the river, the lake, and the gulf. It is a tropical region, existing just 10 degrees above the Equator. As such, it has a very monsoonal climate, seasonally switching between periods of wet and dry seasons. It has high temperatures and high humidity almost all year around. Two-thirds of the land was covered in forest, but deforestation and slash-and-burn farming have decimated the trees. 75% of the region is lowlands, ideal for growing rice. The Mekong Delta is also rich in nutrients and makes growing a steady crop possible. The Cardamom Mountains, the Elephant Range, and the Dangeck Mountains also dot the land.
History – The Khmer people group existed in present-day Cambodia on the edges of the Chinese Funan Empire as Chenla. The Chenla was the first unified Khmer Republic. This unification didn’t last very long, and it split into Land Chenla and the Water Chenla. The two areas quickly became absorbed into the Empire of Angkor. The empire also included present-day Vietnam, Laos, and the Malay Peninsula. While part of the Angkor Empire, Theraveda Buddhism became a popular religion. In the mid 1200s, the Thai also began migrating to the Chenla area.
Around 1430, the Angkor Empire fell, and there was a large amount of migration by Vietnamese into the Khmer lands. The Khmer people switched from focusing on commerce and began focusing on agriculture. In that time, the capital was established at Phnom Penh. In 1863, the Khmer lands became part of the French Protectorate along with Vietnam, and the French tried to expand even further. After the Siamese French War, valuable farmland was ceded to Thailand after the French lost. Cambodia remained a French Protectorate land through World War I.
In 1941, Prince Norodom Sihanouk was established as the monarch of Cambodia, and he was treated like a pawn by most of the other nations in the area and by the Imperial powers that controlled much of Southeast Asia. In March 1945, the Japanese swept through Southeast Asia and took control of that region. The 1940s and 1950s were marred by struggles for independence, and the 1960s were a decade of political and economic unrest. In the 1970s, the prince was ousted after a rebellion led by the Khmer Rouge. In the new regime under the Khmer Rouge, a period of “self efficiency” became the justification for murders and deaths of one to three million people. Attempts to regain the strength of the Chenla republic were mostly unsuccessful, and Cambodia remains a relatively poor nation in the present day.
Culture – The Khmer culture is heavily influenced by India, Thailand, Vietnam, and France. The cuisine, religion, and social structure represents an assimilation of each of the different cultural groups, and distinctive features drawn from each culture can be found. For example, the Vietnamese-style fish sauce, nuoc cham, also includes chopped peanuts, like in Thai cuisine, in the Cambodian version of the sauce. Buddhism, Islam, and Christianity are some of the major religions that have influenced the culture.
Economy – Agriculture makes up for approximately 90% GDP as of 1985, and 80% of the work force is occupied by agriculture. Rice is the primary crop, but rubber is also a significant export. In 1967 the production of rice was sparse, and assistance from the UN’s FAO was needed. Typically, there are two crops of rice harvested during the January through March period. In addition to rice and rubber, Cambodia also grows maize, cassava, and sweet potato.
Effect of Imperialism and Conquests – The Khmer culture reached its peak around the same time as the Funan Empire. Each period after that seems to be dominated by a different empire or people group. While interacting with the Funan Empire, the Khmer focused on commerce and appeared to become wealthy from that. After Chenla was absorbed by the Angkor Empire, the Thai, the Vietnamese, and the Indians migrated freely throughout the Khmer lands. With the ease of travel, cultures and religions intermingled. Buddhism and Islam became significant religions. Because these religions have specific behavior and culinary rules, their influence can easily be identified in the culinary culture of the region. For example, water buffalo and oxen are commonly consumed over pork products. Vegetarian dishes are also popular, and this falls within the Buddhist food restrictions.
According to the Asia Recipe website, the multiple conquests and subsequent wars have had a dramatic negative impact on Cambodia. The writer believes that Cambodia will not be able to draw itself out of its impoverished existence without significant assistance from foreign nations. Education and food are scarce, but not due to lack of availability but due to the inappropriate or inefficient distribution. After the 1970s Khmer Rouge Republic fell, the population was composed of roughly 65 percent females. However, because education of women is not prioritized, the population remained relatively uneducated. In addition, since resources were distributed unevenly, farmers in the regions focused on subsistence farming rather than farming for profit.
Characteristic Ingredients – Except for Cambodians following Muslim or Buddhist diets, common ingredients found in a Cambodian kitchen include rice, fish, vegetables like Takuon, fermented fish, hot peppers, lemongrass, mint, ginger, sugar, rice noodles, bananas, mangoes, papaya, rambutan, palm fruit, beef, pork, poultry, and eggs. Animal meat is typically reserved for special occasions, but fish is eaten more frequently. According to a recent CNN blog report, Kampot peppercorns used in traditional Cambodian cooking is one ingredient that set Cambodian spicy dishes apart from related dishes in Thailand. The writer describes the pepper as citrusy and nutty and has a range of flavors. This spice has potential of gaining popularity and becoming an exportable product. And “raise the profile of the nation’s cuisine.” The World Wide Gourmet also shows that coconut milk is a significant and “essential ingredient of Khmer cooking.” Flavor profiles focus on balance among sweet, salty, bitter, and sour – often in the same dish. This is a common characteristic of Southeast Asian cooking. Use of colorful and fresh ingredients is also characteristic of Khmer cooking, as it is with Vietnamese cooking.
Borrowed Ingredients and Sources – The evidence of other cultures is evident, such as the usage of lemongrass common in Thai cooking and mint from Vietnamese cooking. The cuisine is pungent and full of flavor, which is a characteristic of Southeast Asian cooking, such as Thai and Indian cooking. Tea is not commonly consumed, according to Charmaine Solomon, and hot or warm water is the usual meal accompaniment. There was no explanation for why hot water was preferred to tea or cold water. The Worldwide Gourmet says that Cambodians prefer cold tea to hot tea, which is more commonly consumed in Chinese cuisine.
According to the author of “Flavors of Cambodia,” authentic Cambodian recipes were rarely written down and were pass from mother to daughter. With the influence of multiple countries and cultures, “authentic” cuisine is pretty difficult to find. Soy sauce and wheat and rice noodles were brought from China, and Indian curries are found to be “authentically Cambodian” as well.
Fuel and Cooking Equipment – As is common in Asian cooking, a wok placed over a large open flame is the cooking utensil of choice. No discussion as to the type of fuel is given in the cookbooks referenced for this project. In the Khmer language, the wok is called a chbang khteak. Most of the ingredients in Cambodian cooking are fresh, but fermented fish products, fish sauce, coconut milk, and some curry pastes can also be found in the typical Cambodian kitchen.
Nutritional Concerns and Food Security
Food insecurity is high in Cambodia. According to the World Health Organization, 50 percent of children live with diarrhea and require medical care. 7.8 percent of women 15-19 years old are mothers or are pregnant with their first child. 39.5 percent of children suffer from stunted growth due to child malnutrition. 3.7 percent of the female population has a BMI of less than 17, and only 16.1 percent of the population has a BMI in the normal range. Anemia affects over half of the population women and children of all ages. These are all indicators of poor nutritional care, poor food distribution, and poor healthcare. It is possible to link these deficiencies to the history of the country that has been decimated by wars. The traditional diet of the Khmer people would have helped address iron intake, because vegetables, especially the green leafy ones, are a large part of the diet. Seafood contains calcium and other nutrients and would also help to prevent anemia and stunted growth. Because the traditional diet would be adequate, it is safe to assume that the population struggles more with food distribution than with composing an adequate diet.
Three Dishes – The following recipes are three examples of Cambodian cooking that clearly show influences from their surrounding countries and from Chinese cooking. I chose them because they sounded tasty and doable.
Barbecue Beef Skewers (Sach ko tro gnouit) Recipe
Preparation time: 10 minutes
Marinating time: 1 hour
Cooking time: A few minutes
For 4 servings
– 400 g (14 oz.) beef
– 1/2 tsp. black pepper
– 1 stalk of lemongrass
– 3 cloves of garlic
– 2 shallots
– 2 tbsp. soy sauce
– 2 tbsp. palm sugar or honey
1. Cut the beef into small cubes. Peel and chop the lemongrass, garlic and shallots.
2. Marinade – Mash the pepper with the lemongrass, garlic and shallots until a smooth paste is formed. Add in the soy sauce and palm sugar.
3. Skewer the beef pieces onto bamboo skewers and marinate for 1 hour in the marinade (step 2).
4. Cook the meat on the barbecue or under the broiler, basting regularly with the marinade, and turning halfway through the cooking time.
Braised Pork with Coconut Milk and Pineapple (Samlo kti) Recipe
Preparation time: 15 minutes
Cooking time: 75 minutes
For 4 servings
– 600 g pork or fresh ham
– 4 tbsp. Khmer curry paste
– 4 tbsp. neutral-flavored cooking oil
– 300 ml coconut milk
– 1 small pineapple
– 4 round eggplants or 1 long eggplant
– 1 tbsp. tamarind pulp
– 1 small bunch Thai basil (or substitute cilantro)
– 3 tbsp. fish sauce
1. Cut the pork into large cubes. Peel and quarter the pineapple, remove the core and cut the flesh into 5 mm thick slices. Cut the eggplant into large sticks.
2. Bring the tamarind pulp to a boil with a little water and strain it, collecting the juice. Remove the basil leaves from the stems.
3. Heat the oil in a saucepan and sauté the pork and curry paste. Once it is lightly browned, add the pineapple, tamarind pulp and fish sauce.
4. Add a small glass of water, cover and cook for 1 hour at very low heat.
5. Add the eggplant and continue cooking 10 minutes longer.
6. Add the coconut milk, bring to a boil for an instant and correct the seasoning to taste.
7. Sprinkle with Thai basil and serve.
5 cups water
1 lb chicken cut into bite size pieces
3-4 garlic cloves, lightly crushed
½ tsp chicken powder
1 Tbsp sugar
3 tbsp fish sauce
3 cups chopped pickled mustard greens
Bird’s eye chile to garnish
Bring water to a boil, and add chicken and garlic. Return to a boil and skim off frothy scum. Lower heat and simmer with lid on until chicken is cooked, about twenty minutes. After chicken has cooked, return to a boil and add remainder of ingredients, except the cilantro and chiles. Stir to combine and then taste and adjust accordingly. Ladle into bowls, top with cilantro and chiles. Enjoy!
Ross, Russel. Cambodia: A Country Study. Washington, DC: Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication, 1990.
Solomon, Charmaine. The Complete Asian Cookbook. Sydney: Lansdowne Publishing Pty Ltd, 1999.