Changes in the year do not arrive quietly in Cambodia. Monsoon rains of biblical proportions mark the shift from dry to wet season in May and June. Beginning in late December, the overpowering smell of fermenting prahok hangs in the air for weeks as the year’s biggest fish catch is transformed into the signature Khmer condiment.
Even if you never leave Phnom Penh, when a crop is in season in this agricultural nation, you know it. So when one of Cambodia’s best-loved fruits starts making the rounds, it is impossible to miss.
In the capital, the seasonal street parade of teetering bicycles carrying baskets brimming with bright-yellow and green mangos began in January. And while imports from Thailand and a Cambodian variety known as “wrong-season-mango” sustain fruit lovers year round, “Cambodian mangoes are the best”—even better than the imports—from January to June, said fruit seller Sun Nary, 24.
Some growers estimate that there are dozens of varieties of mango available in Cambodia, but Keo Chin and Keo L’miet are probably the most commonly consumed. Keo Chin, which is syrupy-sweet by April and May, is the trademark variety of the season.
Keo L’miet—grown widely in Cambodia, as well as imported from Thailand—is eaten for much of the year, though the flavor is best when the fruit is in season, vendors said. Keo L’miet ripens nicely, but because of its mild sweet-and-sour flavor when unripe, it is often eaten green with chili and salt.
Keo K’tis—a shapely, dark green mango grown in modest quantities in Cambodia—is also popular for its mild flavor. By contrast, most wouldn’t go near Keo Chin when it’s green, as the flavor is extremely sour.
But the experts in all things mango say it’s well worth the wait to hold out for a ripe Keo Chin.
“The mango that is most sour when it’s green will be most sweet when it’s ripe,” Sun Nary said.
According to Lor Veng Srun, who owns Lou Moy Seng fruit shop on Monivong Boulevard, an appetite for Keo Chin is also something that ripens with age.
“Old people prefer to eat ripe mangoes because they don’t have good teeth,” he said with a laugh. “The young prefer sour and salty.”
But the versatile fruit is more than a mundane crowd pleaser. Legend holds that Buddha himself regarded the fruit so highly that he reserved a grove of mango trees for meditation, while Indian myth speaks of the fruit’s sacred properties.
Vendors in the capital agreed almost unanimously that the best mangoes in Cambodia come from farms in Kandal province’s Roka Korng I and Roka Korng II communes in Mok Kampoul district, where the nearby Mekong River keeps the soil rich and hydrated but the air is hot and dry.
Touch Chantha, who owns Chantha Shop 133 near Olympic Stadium, buys most of her mangoes directly from those communes’ farmers who bring their hauls to Phnom Penh. Though prices drop at the height of the season in April and May when the fruit is most abundant, Keo Chin still fetches a premium price early in the season, costing anywhere from $3 to $7.50 per dozen depending on the size of the fruit, she said. The sweet variety usually goes for between $1.75 and $3 per dozen after Khmer New Year, she added.
Eam Sokim, 21, grows her own mangoes in Kandal on Ponhea Leu district’s Baseth mountain, and sells them fresh, pickled or dehydrated as sheets of mango leather at a stand on Phnom Penh’s Street 63. Her secret for the best yield? Make sure the trees get plenty of water and natural fertilizer, and keep small fires smoldering around trees when they are flowering-the smoke keeps harmful insects away.
Eam Sokim is a purist when it comes to her recipe for dried mango: Nothing is added, and very little is taken away. Just mash or puree ripe or overripe Keo L’miet or Keo Chin, and boil the pulp in its own juice over low heat until the syrup thickens. Then spread the mixture onto a baking sheet and sun-dry for about three days, until the dried mango is tacky. Or it can be dehydrated in an oven at very low heat rather than sun-dried, if you’re too impatient to wait.