Samui Wining & Dining
What’s it Got?

A look at the evolution of Cambodian cuisine.

 A look at the evolution of Cambodian cuisine.At first glance, the four neighbours of Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam seem to have a great many things in common. But the closer you look, the more each one becomes defined by its differences. Thailand stands out because it’s never been invaded and colonised. Vietnam has evolved towards a more multicultural identity than Cambodia, even though both were French colonies for a long time. If anything, only Laos seems the odd one out. Its big drawback is that it’s landlocked, so even though it also was a French colony in Indochina, very little development or investment took place during the French occupation, leaving it quite definitely the poorest of the four nations.

Since the turn of the new millennium, Cambodia has developed rapidly, with certain areas, such as Sihanoukville, becoming something of a playground for expats and tourists alike. Additionally, the historical heritage is complex and diverse, with the mystical ruins of the now commercialised ‘Angkor Complex’ remaining one of South East Asia’s top attractions, with in excess of two million visitors each year. This means that, one way and another, Cambodia seems to have a great deal going for it!

Again, when it comes to points of comparison, it’s interesting to look at rice. Rice is the staple of all these countries yet, delving deeper, each country has a very different attitude towards it. Thailand, for example, prides itself on being the most modern and forward thinking of the four nations. And yet it’s almost impossible to find anything other than plain, de-husked, bleached steamed rice. However, further to the north-east, coming closer to Laos, you’ll find lots of sticky rice around – and indeed it’s universally found across the Thai nation when it comes to sweet-dishes and snacks, usually eaten in combination with fruit.

But, when it comes to rice, then it’s Cambodia that can brag the loudest. No doubt due to a more cosmopolitan outlook, stemming from both the French influence and the large numbers of foreigners living and working there, Cambodia is the rice king of the region! You’ll come across a great number of cooking styles and techniques, and amazingly, there are over a hundred words and phrases for rice in the Khmer language, as well as an equal number of varieties of indigenous Khmer rice. The most commonly found is the ubiquitous sticky rice, eaten everywhere, Laos-style, with the hands, both accompanying a meal and (Thai-style) as a dessert. Boiled rice, both brown and white, abounds, and it’s common to come across the health-food favourite of wild rice being offered as an alternative in many small restaurants.

Much of this plethora of rice is due to the climate, which Cambodia shares in some part with Vietnam. Most of the storm-weather emanates from the direction of the Philippines, hitting Vietnam hard from the east (but being buffered into Cambodia); additionally the two long tropical monsoons (which Thailand isn’t affected by) mean that both these countries have a long rice-growing season.

So there’s lots of rice. But what do we have to go with it? Again, it’s hard to talk about Cambodia in isolation – there’s so much both shared yet contrasted with its neighbours to the east and west. Historically, rice and freshwater fish are the traditional elements of the Cambodian diet. The Mekong River runs right through the heart of the nation, there are tributaries, lakes and reservoirs throughout, and consequently a huge variety of freshwater fish. So, not surprisingly, when ‘fish and rice’ is on the menu, you can expect a-hundred-and-one quite different presentations of this seemingly simple dish.

Both Thailand and the neighbouring Laos share a historical overlap: traditionally both evolved from a nation of farmers and peasants with not much more than rice and fish to sustain them. As a result, when European traders introduced spices and chillies into their cuisine, hundreds of years ago, both countries seized upon them to enhance their bland diet. This didn’t happen in either Vietnam or Cambodia. Thus the cuisine today in Cambodia is milder, has less chilli and spices, little in the way of coconut cream, and notably less sugar than their neighbours to the west

The French colonial empire drew upon influences from the dishes of both France and China, including curry dishes, and flavourings from India, too. The Spanish and Portuguese also made their contributions to Cambodian cuisine, introducing peppercorns, saffron, cardamom, cloves, anise and nutmeg, and unique items such as preserved lemons. But another huge difference is the prominence of bread. Whereas, right up until just a few years ago, the Thai nation only ate a highly-sugared form of bleached white bread as a sweet dish, many forms of traditionally baked and seasoned breads have now become a basic element of the Cambodian diet. Interestingly, the typical Cambodian breakfast consists of a baguette, filled with sardines and/or eggs, together with a strong cup of fresh-ground coffee.

So there you have it! For decades, Cambodia suffered terribly under the regime of the post-Vietnam upheaval and the cruelties of an oppressive political regime. But things began to change in the 1990s. And today it’s not only become one of the most welcoming nations in South East Asia, but it has one of the most varied and cosmopolitan of cuisines, too!

          

Rob De Wet


 


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