Subtle Spices

Today’s Cambodian cuisine has been puzzling culinary researcher Robert Carmack for a long time, causing him to wonder what “authentic” Khmer food might have been had the country’s history not been marked by so much upheaval.

“I’ve read that the royal cuisine of 100 years ago was more regal than the Thais’,” he said. However, since no recipe or cookbook has been found among written documents of past centuries, this can only remain a legend, he added.

Food writer and chef Robert Carmack prepares in his kitchen in Battambang City a recipe from his latest book, ‘The Burma Cookbook.’ (Geordie Hay)
Food writer and chef Robert Carmack prepares in his kitchen in Battambang City a recipe from his latest book, ‘The Burma Cookbook.’ (Geordie Hay)

But developments that took place over the past several decades have baffled him even more. Two Khmer cuisines have emerged: one the food of Cambodians in Cambodia, and the other the food of those who emigrated in the 1970s and 1980s after fleeing civil war. The main difference lies in the use of spices, Mr. Carmack said.

An American chef with several French cooking diplomas who is both a food writer and a food stylist, Mr. Carmack has also been researching Southeast Asian cuisine and leading food tours in the region for nearly two decades. He relocated from Sydney to Battambang City a year ago, attracted by the burgeoning artistic community and cultural scene.

So, what defines Khmer cuisine in the country today? “Certainly no spice…and it’s definitely much more rhizome, ‘kroeung’ paste driven: pounded garlic, ginger, galangal, lemon grass,” he said. “You also have the famous nhor leaf that is in the [traditional dish of] amok…and a lot of turmeric, even in meat dishes.”

It is a cuisine with subtle flavors but hardly any spice. “I think it represents today, the latest generation,” Mr. Carmack said of the traditional dishes in the country.

“When I see expat-Khmer-cuisine books written by people who fled the country in the 1970s and 1980s, it’s a totally different cuisine,” he noted. “The foods of the diaspora seem to be much more imbued with dry spices…. And I don’t know how much of that is authentic.”

Ingredients Mr. Carmack uses, which he found that morning at local markets (Geordie Hay)
Ingredients Mr. Carmack uses, which he found that morning at local markets (Geordie Hay)

Is it a cuisine that evolved as Cambodian refugees spent time in refugee camps in Thailand or elsewhere in the region before immigrating to Australia, North America or Europe? Or was this Khmer cuisine in the 1960s before the country was engulfed in two decades of conflicts? “I’ve never lived in a country that had such a cut in their society and in which poverty hit so hard,” Mr. Carmack said. “So I really don’t know.”

“Nowadays in Cambodia, there’s also a tendency to just overcook everything,” Mr. Carmack added. This is due to the fact that many people don’t have refrigeration: Overcooking is a safety measure to keep dishes edible so that people will not get sick, he explained.

The author of several cookbooks, his latest work, “The Burma Cookbook,” published last year by River Books in Thailand, won the World’s Best Asian Cookbook of the year during the Gourmand World Cookbook fair held in Yantai, China, a few days ago. He wrote it with his partner, textile designer Morrison Polkinghorne.

Mr. Carmack now runs with Mr. Polkinghorne a small bed-and-breakfast in Battambang City, with a kitchen that opens onto Street 119. There, he sometimes gives food demonstrations during which he may explain anything from the affinity between the cuisine of northern Thailand and Burma, to the difference between Cambodian and Thai cuisines.

“The flavor is different because the ingredients are different,” he explained during one recent demonstration. “The ingredients I get here in Battambang: The limes don’t taste sour, the coriander or the cilantro is very mild.

“But just across the border in Thailand, I’ll be getting the same ingredients” but with more pronounced flavors, he said. As a result, he added, “Here, everything is much more subtle.”

[email protected]

Related Stories

Latest News

The Weekly DispatchA new weekly newsletter from The Cambodia Daily delivering news, analysis and opinion to your inbox. Published every Friday at 11:30am. Sign up today.