Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat in Cambodia
the world's largest religious monument built in the 12th century
now a world heritage site
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Introduction to Food Culture

Angkor Wat by Night

When I first arrived in the UK, I was told that I could buy fresh fish in any supermarket.  So I went to my local supermarket and despite looking in every aisle, I couldn't find fresh fish anywhere. I plucked up the courage to ask a shop assistant  who looked at me, turned round and pointed at white trays containing fish covered with cling film. I looked at him and muttered to myself:  'but, that is not fresh'. The shop assistant stared at me as though I was mad ... and walked away. Of course, I now realise that he was not to know what I meant. You see, that's cultural difference for you. In my culture, fresh fish are ones that are still swimming around or at least still alive. They don't have a fishy odour; and when you look at them closely, their scales look shiny, gills are pink, eyes are still bright; and when pressed, the flesh is still firm - that's what we call 'fresh'.

In Cambodia as in most Asian countries, fresh ingredients are a priority. Again we are talking about different levels of freshness. Most housewives do food shopping daily even though some may possess a fridge. However, very rarely you may come across a minority of people who buy only dead fish, or rather fish that is not alive. Those are the people who are very strict Buddhist who regard any killing even of a little ant as sinful. 

Khmer cuisine consists of small quantities of meat, plenty of vegetables, fish and, of course, a lot of rice and noodles. Traditionally, lunch and dinner are eaten at home. For middle class people, these meals consist of steamed rice accompanied by 3 or 4 dishes which are shared among the family. The dishes are usually a bowl of soup or curry, a grilled meat or fish dish, a salad or dip and a stir-fry. It goes without saying that the poor and the countryside people don't have such elaborate meals. This is due to the fact that they either can't afford it or have no time to prepare it.  They would have boiled rice washed down with a bowl of soup;  or, with grilled fish served with some pickle; or, with a dip (tik kroeung) or steamed prahok or pa-ork (see page 20) with lots of vegetables freshly picked from gardens around the house or from a little pond nearby.  They do however cook curries or other Khmer fancy dishes for special occasions.

I like countryside dishes. Not only that they are delicious, they are also very healthy indeed. When I was a child, I would get very excited when my parents announced that we would pay a visit to our family in the countryside. There was a lake behind my grand-mother's house. We, my sibling and I would go down the steps of the water bank, get on her tiny boat to go fishing using a rod under watchful eyes of our parents. But, much to my brother's annoyance, I would spend most of my time picking 'pkar snao' - a type of aquatic plant with beautiful yellow flowers (photo on the left) used as vegetable to eat with dip / tik kroeung. My parents would swim to pull 'pralit' flowers - a kind of water lily (photo above) - its stem is also used as a vegetable.

As you may have noticed, so far, I have only mentioned about fish in the Khmer diet.  As David Chandler wrote in his book ‘A History of Cambodia’, from prehistoric times until now, Khmer diet includes a good deal of fish. They also eat shrimps, crabs, snails, frogs, mussels, clams, etc…  Besides, like other early inhabitants of the region, the Khmers keep pigs, chickens, cows and water buffalo; and grow varieties of rice and root crops for their diet.

Cambodia is blessed with Tonlé-Sap or the Great Lake, the largest and perhaps the richest lake in Southeast Asia. According to Wikipedia, this freshwater lake is one of the most productive inland fisheries in the world – which accounts for 60% of the total national freshwater fish catch.  There are 10 times more fish per cubic kilometre in this lake than in the Atlantic Ocean. 

Come to think about that … I wonder why we were left to starve (some, to death) during the Khmer Rouge regime ….