Indochinese Cuisine

There’s a lot that’s the same

Curious about Cambodian cuisine? Take the up-coming Khmer New Year to find out about it and Cambodian new year traditions as well.

GASTRONOMICALLY speaking, Malaysians are truly a lucky bunch. Not only have we inherited culinary traditions from the diverse ethnic groups that make up the country, our geographical location also makes it easy for us to enjoy the bounties of our South-East Asian neighbours.

For example, dishes such as tom yum, pho (beef noodles) and gado gado would probably require no introduction. But apart from Thailand, Vietnam and Indonesia – where these dishes are from – there are also other countries with yet to be discovered offerings.

One of them is Cambodia, an agricultural country bordering Thailand, Laos and Vietnam, which has, until quite recently, been under the radar.

This is no longer the case, however. Along with the popularisation of its ancient Angkor Wat temples, more people are interested to know what else this historical hotbed has to offer.

According to Princess Norodom Arunrasmy, ambassador of Cambodia to Malaysia, the staple food in her country is rice, which is no different from many Asian countries.

“A Cambodian meal without a cloud of snowy white rice is unthinkable,” she states.

Besides that, Cambodians also consume a lot of fish, which is caught from the sea or from the Tonle Sap, a major lake and river system that is integral to the sustenance of the people.

“A meal consisting of rice and grilled fish topped with shredded mangoes and soy sauce is good enough for me,” says Princess Arunrasmy, noting that there are some similarities between their grilled fish and our ikan bakar.

And during times when the fishermen have caught an excess of fish, villagers will turn them into prahok, a fermented fish paste made of just fish and salt.

This process, according to Princess Arunrasmy, takes months and once done, the paste can last for some time.

“This versatile ingredient is definitely something that you can find in most Cambodian households,” she reveals, adding that the strong-tasting condiment can be added to just about any dish, including soups or ground meat, to give it a distinct flavour.
Bounties: Even the poorest households will give away food as an offering to the temples during the Khmer New Year.

“If I could equate it to something that we’re all familiar with, anchovies would be the closest. In fact, this was what I used as a substitute when I was living abroad in the United States,” she says.

She does offer a word of caution, however. “This is something that would be difficult for most people to accept because their palates are not used to the strong taste.”

For example, she adds, an anchovy pizza is agreeable to her but it may not be the topping of choice for a lot of people.

During the Cambodian New Year – or Chaul Chnam Thmey, which translates literally to “Enter Year New”, many people, including the poor, will also prepare dishes that include prahok to be given as offerings to the temple.

“First thing that they do in the morning is to cook,” says Princess Arunrasmy of the three-day celebration that takes place from April 14 to 16. It marks the end of the harvesting season, when farmers enjoy the fruits of their labour before the rainy season commences.

The first day of the celebration is when the official reception to receive God takes place. “People will light candles and pray at a specific time,” she says.

There’s no set time for this and it changes every year. “It could be as early as 4am or it could be in the afternoon but whatever time it is people will make sure they are available then.” This year, it is 1.12pm.
Broccoli and Avacado Salad from Tamarind Springs.

The second day, which falls on a full moon, will be the time when the King of Cambodia will personally bathe a monk as a gesture of gratitude.

On the third day, Cambodians will offer something to the king – usually a package comprising candles, flowers and scented water.

For this occasion, each household will strive to prepare the best food that they can to be offered to the temples, no matter how poor they are, according to Princess Arunrasmy.

As this is also the time when they visit cemeteries, they may also prepare food in accordance to what their late relatives liked to eat.

“It is like the Hari Raya, where it is all about sharing and offering. People will buy new clothes, spring clean and beautify their homes for the celebration.”

It is also a time for communal activities. “People get together and play games and there will be music and some joget,” says Princess Arunrasmy.

However, there’s neither a specific reunion dinner nor a convention of handing out ang pow. “But the ang pow thing has changed recently; probably due to globalisation,” she jokes.
Tamarind Springs’ Stir-Fried Scallop with Mango and Tomato.

Nowadays, it is common practice for Cambodians to hand out small cash bonuses to their employees during the occasion.

However, it doesn’t have to be in a packet of a particular colour or even be in a packet at all. “It’s okay to hand just the notes,” she says.

Back to Cambodian cuisine, Princess Arunrasmy agrees that there are Thai, Vietnamese and Chinese influences.

“It has been strongly affected by fluctuations in its geography, politics and economy.”

However, she notes the one element that has remained constant. “The vital part of the formula to our cuisine has always been the kreuang (rempah), an herb paste that requires a few hours of preparation.”

To make this, she says, skill and experience are essential. “Everything must be cut, sliced, chopped and then pounded in a stone mortar in a certain way to produce the right texture and smoothness.”

The royal version of this paste comprises nine basic ingredients: garlic, dried chillies, galangal, turmeric, shallots, kaffir leaves, lemongrass and the roots of Chinese parsley.

But she does believe that Cambodian food has the potential to garner wide acceptance. “If you look at it, our food is very international – there are stir-frys like Chinese dishes, barbecued ones like those in the West, and salad and vegetable dishes that are similar to Thailand’s kerabu.

She continues: “We even have food similar to Malaysian dishes such as the amok, which is like otak-otak; and beef saraman, a curry dish that can be mistaken for rendang if not for its tamarind base. There’s also a fish curry noodle called nom banhchok namya, which I refer to as Cambodian laksa.”

Unfortunately, there aren’t any Cambodian restaurants in Malaysia and one may actually have to visit the country to get a true taste of its culinary offerings. For this reason, Princess Arunrasmy confesses that she has often toyed with the idea of setting up one in the 12 years that she has been here.

“But I’ve been too busy to do so. I still, however, introduce friends and colleagues to Cambodian dishes that are prepared in my own kitchen when they come to visit!”

A place that you could go to, if you’re interested to sample a taste of Cambodian food, is Tamarind Springs at Jalan 1, Taman Tun Abdul Razak, Ampang where traditional Indochinese cuisine (encompassing Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam) are served. To find out more, visit its website at http://samadhiretreats.com.

~News courtesy of The Star~