Time-consuming but straightforward, all in nuances and yet simple to prepare—this is how chefs describe Cambodian cuisine.
The difference between Cambodian cuisine at its finest and everyday Khmer food is subtlety, said Yorn Kimleng, a former restaurant owner who started cooking at ceremonies in 1960 in her native Kompong Cham province.
The art of Cambodian cuisine is not so much in the ingredients as in the way of combining herbs and seasonings, she said.
Going back more than 1,000 years, Cambodian cuisine has incorporated foreign dishes along the way, such as curry from India and noodles from China, coloring them with ingredients and flavors that made them unique.
“[Cambodian] curry looks spicy, but it’s actually sweet,” said Dickson Foo, executive chef for Sokha Hotels and Resorts whose Sihanoukville resort is scheduled to open in April. “The redness comes from mkack seeds that you find at the market—it’s not chili oil. If you look at other Asian curries, potatoes are used as starch. But in Cambodia, they use sweet potatoes, and that’s why it’s sweeter,” he said.
Above all, what gives the food its unique flavor is prahok, Yorn Kimleng said. Made of fermented fish, this paste is used in an array of dishes, from soups to omelets.
Nevertheless, prahok’s strong flavor—not to mention aroma—has kept numerous foreigners unused to the fish paste away from dishes which use prahok.
This is just the pungent prahok of street-corner restaurants, said Eric Blomeyer, food and beverage manager for Hotel Le Royal, which serves Cambodian cuisine based on recipes used at the Royal Palace.
“High-quality, mild prahok is night and day compared to that product,” he said.
In her Cambodian cuisine cookbook, “The Elephant Walk,” published in 1998, Longteine De Monteiro said that in her Cambodian upper-class family of the 1950s and 1960s, it was unthinkable, even disgusting, to eat smelly prahok uncooked.
Her Cambodian husband, Kenthao De Monteiro, a diplomat before the Khmer Rouge era (with Portuguese ancestry dating back to the 16th century), tasted raw prahok only once and hated it, she said.
But unlike her husband—and like many other Cambodians—Longteine De Monteiro loved prahok in any shape or form. As a child, she would hide from her parents and eat green papaya or star fruit dipped in the fish paste. “It was wonderful,” she said.
The best quality of prahok is pure fish paste, smooth and grayish, said De Monteiro. “There is really no substitute for prahok,” to create the true Cambodian flavor in food, she said.
But some traditional dishes don’t require prahok, Foo said. For example, amok, a Cambodian-style curry that he considers the country’s signature dish, is prepared with a variety of kroeung.
Kroeung is an herb paste that contains an array of ingredients, ranging from lemon grass, turmeric, galangal and rhizome to shallots, garlic and zest of kaffir lime. The best method to make it is to pound the ingredients with a pestle in a mortar as Cambodians have done for centuries, Foo said. “This is the best way to retain the original flavors. With a blender, the heat of the motor cooks the raw ingredients,” he said.
As a rule, “[Cambodian cuisine] is very healthy, natural food,” Foo said. “For instance, Cambodians don’t use vinegar; they use fresh lime juice for acidity,” he said. “Appetizers are light and fresh, made with fresh herbs.”
However, local restaurants and food stalls have developed the habit of using monosodium glutamate, called MSG, in large quantity to enhance flavor, said Foo. They even serve it as a condiment along with other sauces, he said.
Although dishes are fairly simple to make, they take time because of the number of ingredients involved, Oliver Stadelmann, the chef at Hotel Le Royal, said. His list of basic herbs, spices and ingredients contains 34 items, including lemon grass, kaffir limes, coconut juice, tamarind leaves, durian, palm juice, bird’s eye chilies and Kampot province green pepper.
Then, the skills of the chef must come into play to turn those ingredients into fine Cambodian cuisine, Yorn Kimleng said. It’s the techniques for selecting and blending flavors, for cooking vegetables so that they retain their freshness and colors that make a dish delicious, she said.
The Khmer cookbooks that Yorn Kimleng has seen only give ingredients; they fail to explain cooking methods, she said. Yorn Kimleng, who ran a restaurant in Poipet in the 1990s and continues to cook for special occasions in her neighborhood, plans to write a cookbook in Khmer to share her techniques.
The origins of many Cambodian dishes and their rituals have faded away over the centuries, especially during the last decades of turmoil. But a few have survived, such as the tradition of serving the specialty desserts, num korm and num an-sam, at weddings.
As Nusara Thaitawat mentioned in her cookbook, “The Cuisine of Cambodia,” published in 2000, the two desserts symbolize manhood and womanhood, respectively. According to legend, they were served by a deity to the first couple on Earth to prompt intimacy and inspire them to populate the planet after a deluge, Nusara Thaitawat said.
Dishes also have disappeared since the Khmer Rouge era. But Royal Household recipes were preserved with the publication of “The Cambodian Cookbook” in the 1960s, Nusara Thaitawat said. It was written by Princess Kanitha Norodom Rasmi Sobhana, King Norodom Sihanouk’s aunt, and published by the American Women’s Club, she said.
Moreover, during the King’s exile in China and North Korea in the 1980s, he and his aunt, Princess Mom Ket Kanya, experimented in the kitchen and published their recipes in the King’s Monthly Bulletin.
The Royal Cambodian cuisine served at Raffles International’s Hotel Le Royal and Grand Hotel d’Angkor in Siem Reap is based on recipes supplied by Princess Norodom Bopha Devi, minister of Culture and Fine Arts.
When Singapore-based Raffles started renovating the two hotels in 1997 and decided to feature Cambodian cuisine in their dining rooms, Princess Bopha Devi passed on Royal Palace recipes to Richard Helfer, who at the time was the company’s chief executive officer, Blomeyer said.
So, in early 1998, armed with the recipes and the newly published “The Elephant Walk,” Foo, who was the hotels’ executive chef, went about designing a Cambodian cuisine menu. He and his staff toured local restaurants and ate at the homes of Cambodian hotel employees, he said, “to capture the feel and taste of Cambodian food.” This was followed by one month of testing during which both Westerners and Cambodians were asked to sample the food to make sure that it would appeal to foreigners but remain truly Cambodian, Foo said.
After the cuisine was launched at the hotels, adjustments still had to be made. For instance, Westerners shrank from the serpent head dish; once the name of the fish was changed to fish serpent, they started ordering it, Blomeyer said. Tourists’ interest in Cambodian cuisine has been such that Raffles has published a small cookbook of easy-to-make traditional recipes, he said.