The flavors of Southeast Asia need no introduction to Western diners thanks to popular dishes such as green curry, pho, banh mi, and pad Thai. But there’s something missing among the roster of inventive street-food staples from Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, and elsewhere—a whole country, in fact: Cambodia.
It should come as no surprise that the civilization that built Angkor Wat can also cook, but Khmer cuisine isn’t just unsung; it has been systematically erased. A millennium of cultural knowledge—an entire way of life—was nearly lost in the late 20th century. Not just to foreigners, but to Cambodians themselves.
“The Khmer Rouge killed anyone with any knowledge,” says Phnom Penh–based Rotanak Ros, better known as chef Nak. “People fled to other parts of the world. Documentation was destroyed. People were not allowed to cook the way they used to cook. Our rich cultural food became survival food.”