Luke Nguyen
13 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
Stuart Scott

The people of Cambodia seem to share a real closeness — a sense of connection I have not seen in any other country. Perhaps it’s because everyone here has a story to tell of losing family during the Pol Pot regime. When people told me their stories of food in Cambodia, it always led back to a time of trauma and genocide. But then the conversation would slip back even further in time, and people would smile and reminisce about their childhood, of a grandmother’s recipe, or a special dish that somebody still knows the recipe for.

I loved the food in this country — and I love that by piecing together fragments of the collective memory, people are reclaiming and revitalising the country’s national cuisine.

My travels in Cambodia began in Siem Reap. The temples and estates of Angkor Wat are fascinating and beautiful; the township is charming, with its stunning French colonial buildings, and cute alleyways and back streets that open out to wider boulevards. The canals that meander through the city are being slowly restored, becoming cleaner and more appealing.

As Cambodia’s main tourist destination, the city is far more developed than other areas of the country. There was a buzz in Siem Reap, and the changes seemed to be made in good faith and in the hope of the nation prospering.

Culture, history, rural farming and inner-city cool sit side by side in Siem Reap, and it was here that I experienced some of the most memorable Khmer cuisine.

Further south, I arrived in the capital, Phnom Penh. It instantly felt more like a big city that is forging ahead as the country’s business centre. This is where you find the true Cambodia: within minutes of arriving you are confronted with old and new, poor and rich, harshness and kindness, honesty and corruption.

The food scene re­flected this dichotomy, with the most basic kerbside meals for workers on one hand, in stark contrast to the grand and exquisite surrounds of high-end restaurants serving traditional cuisine, with all the bells and whistles.

I finished my Khmer food trail by the sea, at Kampot and Kep, renowned for green peppercorns, sweet crab and tender squid. The seafood catches are getting smaller every year, but at the same time tourism is growing.

Like the rest of Cambodia, the region is in transition. I hope great things are yet to come for the Khmer people. If anyone deserves a time of peace and prosperity, it is the people ofƒ Cambodia.

Siem Reap

Siem Reap, in north-west Cambodia, is the country’s fastest growing city and serves as a charming gateway to the world-famous Angkor temples. Its name, which translates as ‘the flat defeat of Siam’, refers to the centuries-old conflict between the Thai and Khmer people. Thanks to Angkor Wat, Siem Reap has become a major tourist hub, with modern hotels, restaurants and bars. But despite all the international influences, the people have managed to preserve much of the town’s image, culture and traditions.

When I arrived in Siem Reap, I was ready to dive in head-first to discover the history of ancient Khmer food. My €first port of call was the Sugar Palm restaurant, where I met the lovely cook, Khetana. Like so many Khmer people, she lived through the genocide that swept her country, emerging as a leader in the food and culture scene of the new Cambodia. Khetana explained that Khmer food has much in common with that of its neighbours, especially Vietnam and Thailand. The subtle flavours and balance of ingredients reflect the core traits of Vietnamese cuisine.

We stopped at a roadside stall, where I was shown how to make palm sugar. Skilled climbers scale palm trees, then wedge the palm nuts between two sticks and extract the sweet juice from the nut. This juice is slowly cooked in large woks over low heat until the juice caramelises into a thick, sweet, golden syrup. After two hours of cooking and stirring, palm sugar is created. Locals use the palm sugar in its syrup form, but it is cooked for longer and formed into solid blocks for export.

The next day I found a family willing to teach me how to make my childhood favourite, lap cheong. I’d bought some fatty pork sausages in the Psa Leu market, so I was ready to have a go. The family had been making lap cheong for three generations. Their secret sat in blue plastic drums in the basement of their house. The drums were €filled with Chinese rice wine that had been infused with star anise and cassia bark for at least six months. This prized liquid was the marinade for the pork, and gave the sausages a deep flavour and aroma, and a lovely red colour.

At Kompong Phluk I saw a most unusual floating €fishing village: it was dry season, so the village was floating on a dry, dusty river bed! Quite a contrast to when the rains come. During the dry period, people spend their days sifting through cockles, catching shrimp and drying them on the river bed. Kids play cards or other games; many seem to get an education from life, rather than through schoolbooks. It was here I learnt how to dry shrimp. And came face to face with the hard lives most Khmer endure.

Phnom Penh

Once known as the ‘Pearl of Asia’, Phnom Penh was considered one of the loveliest French-built cities in Indochina. It has been the nation’s capital since the French colonised Cambodia. Located on the banks of the mighty Mekong, it is the country’s largest city, and its economic, political and industrial heart.

At a rest stop at Kampong Cham, on the way to Phnom Penh, I noticed ladies selling trays of deep-fried insects as snacks. Only when I walked closer did I realise the snacks were in fact hundreds of deep-fried tarantulas! I’m not a big fan of spiders, and as I was steeling myself to pop one in my mouth, a local man tried to put two hairy live tarantulas on my chest and shoulder. After having the live tarantulas on my chest, it was easier to eat the fried ones! They didn’t taste too bad: the legs and head were crunchy, but the body was a bit gooey, oozing a liquid resembling creamy peanut butter. They explained that during the Khmer Rouge rule, there was so little food, people ate tarantulas to survive.

I wanted to learn how they hunt and catch tarantulas, so we drove 15 minutes out of town to an open ˆfield where we were introduced to a lady known as the ‘spider whisperer’. She took us to some tarantula burrows, where she got down on her knees, put her mouth against the opening of a hole and began to hum and sing into the burrow. Her voice’s vibrations lured the spider out. As the spider revealed its head, she told me to dig the spider out of its burrow. She picked up the spider with her bare hands, then passed it to her seven-year-old daughter to hold onto, while she set o‹ff to catch some more. It was quite magical to see.

In Phnom Penh, I was hit with the heavy contrast between the old and new Cambodia. Gorgeous old colonial buildings and the golden Royal Palace sit alongside high-rise city buildings, ˆfive-star hotels and ˆfine restaurants.

In Phnom Penh, one particular chef has been working hard for decades to bring back ancient Khmer cuisine. I met Luu Meng for lunch at Malis, one of his many restaurants. Meng developed his passion for cooking from his grandmother, who had a restaurant in Phnom Penh. He said Cambodian cuisine was well established around 1965, but creativity stopped because of the war. After studying cooking in Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and Vietnam, he returned to Cambodia to revitalise traditional Khmer food. Meng is a living example of the people’s humble, enduring resilience.

Kep and Kampot

From the early 1900s to the 1960s, Kep was a thriving resort town for the French and Cambodian elite. However, many of its mansions and villas were destroyed during the Khmer Rouge years. Some say locals, in desperate need of money and food, stripped down their own buildings, exchanging all the valuable bits in nearby Vietnam for food. Today the town is known for its seafood, especially blue swimmer crab, yet some of its former splendour remains.

We arrive in Kep at lunchtime. The wide sidewalks along the oceanfront are lined with colourful hammocks swinging under wooden huts. Locals drive from all over Cambodia with their friends and family, hire a hut and devour the fresh seafood on o‚ffer. Each hut has a table that seats about twelve people cross-legged. Guitars come out, along with durian, lychees, sing-alongs, beer and lots of crab bought from the early-morning Kep crab market.

Families pay about $20 to hire a hut for an afternoon, and an extra $10 to have their freshly purchased seafood cooked up for them. It’s clearly a good business to be in, and because we were foreigners and had a big camera, they charged us double!

The town of Kampot, a mere 20 kilometres away, is famous for its fresh green peppercorns, renowned as one of the ‹finest peppers in the world. The proximity of the sea and a nearby mountain chain give Kampot a unique climate, with heavy and regular rainfall.

At the end of the 19th century, Kampot province experienced a ‘pepper fever’ with the arrival of French colonists, who intensi‹fed the pepper production, churning out up to 8000 tonnes a year.

The pepper industry declined completely during the Khmer Rouge years, but farmers afterwards returned to their land and the pepper industry made a comeback. Today it is one of the biggest exporters of quality pepper in the world.

Now there is pepper, and there is Kampot pepper, which is strong, spicy, but also delicate, sweet, ”floral and aromatic. I used the pepper in everything I cooked there: tamarind crab with kampot pepper; baby squid wok-tossed with kampot pepper, and even kampot pepper ice cream!

Through all the amazing and inspirational people I met in Cambodia, I truly feel like I left with a real understanding of the food and culture, and I really look forward to seeing how Khmer cuisine develops in the coming years.

Featured Recipes in this Chapter

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