Dispelling Cambodian Cuisine Myths — It’s Not ‘Mild Thai’!
Dispelling Cambodian cuisine myths seems to have become our part-time occupations. Not that we mind. No other Southeast Asian cuisine is so misunderstood and so under-appreciated — nor deserving of more attention. Let’s set a few things straight.
Most visitors to Cambodia’s Siem Reap that we meet know little or nothing about Cambodian food and what they think they know is often incorrect. You can’t blame them, of course, because most travel and food stories unfortunately also get it wrong.
Journos on junkets learn what they know from hotel cooking school instructors — and they don’t always get it right either. At a recent cooking class that Terence observed at a newish five-star Siem Reap resort, the young instructor was guilty of all sorts of Khmer cooking crimes, including adding oyster sauce to a red curry.
Hotels and restaurants here are also guilty of doing little to educate diners about their food. A short intro to Cambodian cuisine from the restaurant manager or a paragraph at the beginning of a menu would go a long way to educating guests so that they form realistic expectations.
As for cookbook authors, during our last few years’ researching Cambodian cuisine, we’ve learnt that most Southeast Asian cookbook writers simply overlook Cambodian food or lump it in with other cuisines. Charmaine Solomon in her Complete Asian Cookbook has separate chapters on the gastronomies of Vietnam, Thailand and Burma, yet bewilderingly combines the cuisines of Cambodia and Laos into one flimsy chapter.
For the Thailand chapter, Solomon covers pastes, rice, noodles, starters, mains, vegetables, accompaniments, and desserts. Yet for the Cambodia and Laos chapter she only covers noodles and rice, and mains. The Thai food chapter is 63 pages, a third of her book, while that Cambodia-Laos chapter is just 30 pages long.
The rich cuisines of Cambodia and Laos, while sharing common elements are also quite distinct, just as the cuisines of Thailand, Vietnam and Myanmar are “same same but different”, as the t-shirts say. Who knows why Solomon thought they weren’t worthy of more research and more pages.
While Solomon’s first edition was published in 1975, when the Khmer Rouge seized control of Cambodia, the edition we have was published in 2011, so she certainly had time to return to Cambodia to do some research, and from her introductions to two dishes it sounds like she was here at some stage. Maybe she simply doesn’t like Cambodian food.
Solomon is not alone. Most Southeast Asian cookbooks simply leave Cambodian food out altogether. Culinary historians are no better. Most food history books bewilderingly ignore Southeast Asian cuisines. Cambodia’s famous Kampot Pepper, the world’s finest for most connoisseurs, astonishingly doesn’t even get a mention in Marjorie Shaffer’s book Pepper, A History of the World’s Most Influential Spice.
Yet we learn in The Customs of Cambodia, an account of “Angkor at the height of its splendour”, by Chinese emissary Zhou Daguan, written during his year here from 1296–7, that pepper was grown and used in cooking. “It grows twisted round the stems of the rattan, fastening on like a hop vine. Pepper that is fresh and blue-green has the most savour,” he wrote.
We also know from records that pepper was cultivated and traded in the Kampot area in Chinese villages in the early to mid-1800s and that during French colonial rule (1863–1953) it became the world’s most sought-after pepper, served in the finest Paris restaurants.
So why does Cambodian cuisine receive such little attention? Well, we have our theories, which I’ll share in another post on Cambodian cuisine history. But it’s the lack of information out there that explains why so many travellers are so ignorant.
Despite their lack of knowledge, visitors to Siem Reap are quick to grumble in restaurants about the food put on their table. Most have no hesitation sending barely touched plates back to the kitchen with messages for the chef like “This is off!” (a typical complaint about any dish featuring the fermented fish, prahok; one of our favourites, prahok k’tis, must be one of the most-returned dishes) or “This is not what a green/red curry should taste like!” (making that judgement based on Thai green/red curries, which are different to Cambodian curries).
As a result, chefs at the tourist restaurants in Siem Reap, particularly in and around Pub Street, adjust their recipes to taste more like Thai dishes, creating a sort of Thai-Cambodian fusion that locals don’t recognise, and which leads travellers to come to those sort of conclusions. So let’s get on with dispelling Cambodian cuisine myths for you…
Dispelling Cambodian Cuisine Myths
Myth: Cambodian food came from Thai food
Time for a history lesson: the Funan Kingdom, the first Khmer state, is Southeast Asia’s oldest empire. Culturally influenced by India, it rose to prominence in the first century AD. Funan’s cosmopolitan capital Oc-eo, south of Cambodia’s current capital Phnom Penh, was already an established international trading port between India and China when sailors and merchants arrived from the West, from Greece, the Roman Orient and Persia. Archaeologists have unearthed everything from Greco-Roman jewellery to Persian coins there.
Funan was absorbed into the Khmer-speaking Chenla Kingdom (550–802AD) and then Khmer Empire (802–1431AD), established near Angkor in 802 AD. Khmer kings ruled a massive area of what we now call Thailand — the whole northeast all the way down to what’s now Bangkok, then inhabited by Mon-Khmer and Chinese merchants. Angkor remained Southeast Asia’s greatest civilisation until the end of its decline in the early 1400s (its ‘abandonment’ is now disputed), when the capital shifted in 1434 close to where Phnom Penh now lies.
Comparatively very little was happening in the area we now know as Thailand until 1238 when the Angkorian outpost of Sukhothai was occupied by Tai-speaking tribal chieftains and the first Thai Kingdom (Siam) established. The Tai people originally came from southern Yunnan in China. Many worked as slaves, building the temples of Angkor, some rising to administrative positions in the royal courts of Angkor, becoming senior advisors to the Khmer kings.
When the Tais sacked Angkor in 1431 (the last of many raids), they ransacked the palaces and carted back to Sukhothai huge numbers of Khmer people, including Angkor’s princesses, engineers, architects, master craftsmen, Apsara dancers, musicians, artists, and… its cooks. In A Travellers History of Southeast Asia, authors Barwise and White state that “the traditions of Angkor were to be continued at Phnom Penh and reinvented in the context of the most powerful of the Tai kingdoms, Ayutthaya.”
I’ll tell you what people ate during these periods in another post on Cambodian culinary history.
Myth: Cambodian food is a mild form of Thai food
No, it’s not. But can we blame people for thinking that Cambodian cuisine is a mild for of Thai if they’ve only eaten Cambodian food at tourist restaurants around Pub Street, where chefs have diluted the more challenging flavours – the bitter, sour, salty, pungent notes that Cambodians love so much – so they don’t get fired for all those uneaten dishes returned to the kitchen. It’s not the diner’s fault if the chef has adjusted his Cambodian food so that it tastes more Thai, because he thinks that’s what they want.
Or is it? Because that’s what they generally do want. Most tourists to Siem Reap have come via Thailand, and even if they haven’t their experience of Asian food has probably largely been Thai food. So their idea of a curry is a Thai-style curry. There are countless curry recipes, of course, and Thai and Cambodian curries share similar ingredients in Thai cuisine, less but there are certain ingredients that set them apart. One ingredient, for example, is turmeric, found much more in Cambodian food than Thai.
Myth: Cambodian food is not spicy / Cambodians don’t like spice
Spices, such as cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, and star anise are widely used in Cambodian dishes, however, there’s a preference for roots/rhizomes (turmeric, galangal, ginger, finger root/Chinese keys etc), herbs (t’chi in Khmer) and leaves (sleuk in Khmer). Cambodians love their greens and there’s an infinite array used, from herbs familiar to Western palates such as basil, mint and coriander (cilantro) to lesser-known herbs (outside Asia) like fishwort and flowers and leaves, such as neem (sdav). But when people complain that Cambodian food isn’t spicy, they tend to mean it’s not hot and fiery as Thai food can be. That’s true.
Thai curries always contain chillies, whereas Cambodian curries don’t and when they do it’s not the fiery birds-eye chilli, but a larger chilli with less kick. However, it’s wrong to say Cambodians don’t eat chillies. Not all Cambodians eat chilli, just as all Thais don’t. Thai food, like Cambodian food, is regional. Central Thais prefer mild and, increasingly, sweet food. Thai cuisine is fiery in the Northeastern Isaan and southern Thai regions, including Phuket. There’s also the matter of individual taste, which is why Cambodians usually serve birds-eye chillies in a small side dish, so people can add heat as they choose. I’ve seen Cambodians pour entire dishes of these into soups and curries.
Myth: Cambodian cuisine was very simple during the Khmer Empire
While some claim that the Khmer people would have eaten very simply — little more than rice and fish — evidence suggests otherwise. We know from Chinese records that there was an abundance of everything and that it was traded, cooked and eaten: fruit, vegetables, spices, herbs, roots, leaves, and flowers; fish, seafood, sea turtles, and crocodiles from the lake and ocean; cattle, chickens, ducks, geese, swine, and sheep. There were indigenous noodles as well as rice, and an array of fermented wines and spirits. The scenes depicted in the temple bas reliefs support this. We see hunting, fishing, livestock sales, market scenes, and preparation of feasts, with wild animals thrown into cauldrons, fish smoked and grilled, and noodles extruded.
The Khmer Empire was culturally rich. Its magnificent architecture was sumptuous, covered in gold tiles, decorated with intricate carvings and bas reliefs, friezes, and mirrors, and furnished with fine sculptures of stone and wood, gold Buddhas and lions, bronze elephants and oxen. The sophisticated sense of aesthetics extended to strong traditions of dance, music and martial arts, silk textile weaving, embroidery, and ceramic production. Royalty and apsara dancers wore flamboyant gold headdresses, jewellery and accessories. Temple bas reliefs and statues show that even the costumes worn by men, as far back as 540AD, were beautifully detailed and changed with fashion over centuries.
Whenever a king left his palace, there was a procession of horse-drawn chariots and elephants adorned in gold, palanquins holding wives and concubines, and bearers of flags and parasols with flounces in gold, silver, scarlet, and white. Ceremonies were accompanied by thousands of dancers and musicians. It’s improbable that that the king, his wives and dignitaries would then sit down to a banquet of… fish and rice. In fact, Zhou Dhaguan writes of a great feast that accompanied the celebrations of lost ‘maidenhood’ and we know that there was a Royal Khmer Cuisine.
Myth: Cambodian cuisine is influenced by Thai and Vietnamese Food
This influence can’t be disputed in recent centuries — Siam and Vietnam have both occupied parts of Cambodia at various times — however, it should first be acknowledged that before current borders, southern Vietnam and massive part of Thailand were part of the great Khmer Empire, so that influence would have first come from Angkor.
A more accurate way of looking at all of this is to acknowledge, as Barwise and White do in their Travellers History of Southeast Asia, that Southeast Asians were “extremely adept at absorbing, manipulating and adapting external cultures and technologies to maintain their own cultural autonomy and distinctiveness”. They quote historian Tim Harper who points out that a key Southeast Asian characteristic is a “willingness to embrace and act upon new things”.
Examples: the ‘Indianisation’ of Khmer culture during the Funan period, thanks to Indian merchants and Brahmins (the religion of the Khmer Empire was Hindu before it was Buddhist) and the influence of China through the Chinese traveller – refugees, labourers, diplomats, sailors, and merchants — felt across the whole region. Many forget that the first refugees from China’s Southern Yunnan were the indigenous Tai people, who became labourers on Angkor’s construction sites, helping to build the Khmer Empire’s great temples, before working their way up into more influential court roles, later establishing their own chieftains and the first Thai Kingdom of Sukhothai.
Let’s also not forget the cuisine of the Khmer Krom people, who straddle the border of Vietnam and Cambodia, considered Cambodians by the Vietnamese, and Vietnamese by the Cambodians. Their food is indeed a fusion with dishes recognisable from both cuisines.
Myth: Cambodian cuisine is all the same
Cambodian cuisine is in fact incredibly regional — just as Thai and Vietnamese food is. While you’ll find a lot of the same dishes all over the country, each region — and sometimes each province and town — has its own variations of dishes and in some cases a different name. In the coastal towns of Kep, Kampot and Sihanoukville, there’s a greater use of seafood, especially crabs. In Siem Reap and Battambang Inland, they prefer pork and freshwater fish. Muslim Cambodians use beef, chicken and goat in their cooking.
Living in Cambodia, we’re reminded of this regionality almost daily. Discussing a restaurant’s rendition of a dish at a photo shoot last week, the restaurant owner said, “But X restaurant does it the Phnom Penh way, in Siem Reap we do it differently.” Siem Reap chefs will often bemoan the fact that the food of Battambang shares similarities with Thai food because the city was part of Siam (as was Siem Reap!) the first point that Cambodian refugees who’d been living in refugee camps in Thailand for a decade arrived at and settled in.
Myth: “All Cambodian food is weird and gross”
That quote courtesy of a conversation I eavesdropped on amongst a group of 20-something backpackers. I blame Andrew Zimmern’s Bizarre Foods for this but that’s another post. It’s true that some, maybe many, but certainly not all Cambodians like to eat insects, silkworm larvae, tarantulas, scorpions, and even rice paddy rats. I have to admit that on several occasions I’ve seen market vendors in Siem Reap gather excitedly around a box of fresh tarantulas that have arrived from the southern spider capital of Skuon, reaching in to get their share of the delicacy.
Cambodians also like to eat things considered ‘weird’ and ‘gross’ by some foreigners, but normal to others, such as stir-fried frog (the French have always eaten frogs, but somehow their food is not considered weird/gross; I haven’t even touched on the French influence yet), quail (“Eeewww, they eat those tiny teensy little birds!!!”), and their fermented fish called prahok, which dates back to at least the early Khmer Empire years, perhaps earlier.
Rats, scorpions, spiders, and insects (which I have to admit are pretty tasty) are more of a recent phenomenon, initially consumed through sheer starvation during the Khmer Rouge period in the late 1970s when there was very little to eat of anything. Red ants, also pretty scrummy, have long been eaten by the indigenous tribes of eastern Cambodia, but that’s yet another story…
Myth: Cambodian dishes are balanced like Thai dishes
Cambodia just can’t escape the comparison with Thailand – even from its own people. Young Cambodian cooking class instructors (who have usually trained under Thai chefs at a resort on Phuket or Koh Samui) have a tendency to tell you that every Cambodian dish must be balanced and will repeat the mantra of Thai cooking teachers that each dish must be spicy, sour, sweet, and salty.
However, older Cambodian chefs and the oldest generation of cooks still alive will argue that there should be a combination of savoury, bitter, sour, pungent, and sweet, however, the balance must be achieved on the table, not in the bowl. It should be attained across a whole spread of dishes that might include a salad, soup, stir-fry, curry, vegetables, rice (there should always be rice), and, after the meal, fruit in place of desserts, which are often eaten during the day as a snack.
That means it’s perfectly acceptable to have a sour soup, a pungent relish, and bitter greens. In fact, sour, pungent and bitter tend to be preferred by most Cambodians. Although increasingly everything is becoming a little sweeter, due to the changing tastes of the younger generation, something being felt right across Southeast Asia. And that’s another post too.
If you’re keen to learn more about Cambodian cuisine, consider our Cambodia Culinary Tour or Cambodia Travel and Food Writing and Photography Retreat (last minute discounts available on both!), or my bespoke ‘Savour Siem Reap’ itineraries.