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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Chamney Ahar, Sah-snaa & Chum-noeur

Food, Religion and Superstition

Food Customs at Ceremonial Occasions - Food consumption is a vital part of ritual celebrations. Feasts are held during weddings, funerals, festival of the Ancestors, New Year, religious ceremonies and other rituals. The most popular feast items are fish, pork, chicken, and vegetable dishes served with rice and noodles. Liberal amounts of alcohol are also served, in rural areas locally-produced rice wine or spirits, whereas in the cities beer, wine and imported spirits are preferred. Food is therefore culturally important for people to maintain good social relations.

Food and Religion

Cambodia is a Buddhist country. In common with other religions, Buddhism in Cambodia depends on the support of all the 'Ubasork - ubasekaa'' - the lay devotees all across the country. Everyday, except during the rainy season, the monks leave the temple carrying a pot and walk the streets. They stop in front of every house and wait quietly for alms-offerings which most of the time takes the form of food. During the rainy season when it is difficult for the monks to go out and collect alms, people organise ceremonies such as ‘chaul voah-sar’ (Buddhist lenten practice) and ‘pach-chay bourn’ (essential goods offering) in order to raise money, food and goods to help the monks get through that season.

For centuries, most ceremonies in Cambodia, religious and non-religious, such as New Year, weddings, funerals, housewarmings, 'pchum ben' (Ancestors Festival), ‘vissak bochea’ (celebration of the Buddha’s birthday) always involve the monks performing religious rites, and the people making food offerings. In the countryside, the most traditional dish for these occasions is nom banh-chok’ (Khmer rice noodles) with samlor Khmer’ (fish green curry), or kari moan’ (chicken curry) or kari nam-yaa’ (fish red curry); and accompanied by an array of fresh herbs and vegetables.  In town,  more elaborate dishes such as  ‘amok’ (steamed fish curry), saraman’ (beef curry), moan tim’ (stuffed chicken), mee bamporng’ (crispy noodles) and a variety of sweet dishes are prepared for these occasions.

Ceremonial Cakes - Celebrations
There are two Khmer traditional cakes which particularly associate with wedding ceremonies.  A legend goes that at the beginning of time, a man and a woman were living together in a platonic relationship. God felt the need to populate the earth, so he brought:

  1. the man ‘Nom Korm’ (sticky rice cake with sweet coconut filling) which is triangular, soft, moist and sweet – which symbolises womanhood; and he handed
  2. the woman Nom an-sorm chrouk’ (sticky rice, mung bean and pork savoury cake) which is round, long, firm and savoury representing manhood. It is said that eating a little of the two cakes provided the couple with the inspiration to passionately appreciate each other …

However, nowadays these two types of cakes together with the other three traditional cakes:

  1. Nom an-sorm chek’ (sticky rice and banana)
  2. Nom batt’ (sticky rice paste with yellow bean filling)
  3. num chial’ (steamed sticky rice and palm sugar)

are also prepared for other celebrations such as ‘Chaul Chhnam’ - (the New Year) and Pchum Ben’ - (the Festival of the Ancestors). As people are busy with many other preparations during these occasions, these cakes prove to be convenient.  They can be made beforehand and then stored for a few days in a cool, airy and dry place. As they are wrapped in banana leaves, they are also well protected from dust and flies.  To consume, people just peel back the banana leaf and eat it as it is or warm it up as they wish.

Food and Superstition
Most Khmer people are superstitious. So, when someone falls ill, they believe that it is the work of bad spirits. In order to restore health, they organise a ritual known as ‘Leang Arak’ (some Khmers call it Banh-chon Arak) meaning ‘feeding the spirit’. This ritual is designed to communicate with the spirit via a medium; and to try to bribe it to leave the patient alone. Accompanied by the sound of a drum, the medium invites the spirit to possess him/her so the family can negotiate the healing of the patient. The spirit would then make its demands. To respond to this, the family of the patient gives them food and other things as requested. On the other hand, with no particular reason, the Khmers would give an offering such as a bunch of banana to ‘neak taa’ - another type of spirit who is known to live in a fixed location (either under a particular tree or in a small hut), and pray for happiness, health, prosperity, finding a partner or even winning lottery numbers.

Superstition in Action
This takes me back to when my family and I were evacuated from Phnom Penh (the capital of Cambodia) by the Khmer Rouge in April 1974. After a hard day pushing a cart (with kids and a few belongings) and walking under the burning sun, we decided to stop and settle for the night at the side of a road located in a remote area. While some of us started to cook, others tried to clear the place to make our bed. Darkness fell as soon as we had finished our meager meal which consisted of rice and salt. Despite being exhausted, we didn’t seem to be able to sleep. To make matters worse, for some reason, my little baby daughter kept crying non-stop – nothing we did could calm her down. At one point, my mother rushed to me, took the baby from my hands, and asked that I give her (my mother) half-a-tin of our precious rice. Having detected that I was reluctant to part with the rice, she whispered to me that there were some spirits around us and she had to do something to chase them away. She held my baby in her right hand; and with the left hand holding some rice, she made ‘pushing away’ motions from the baby, and said something like: ‘Spirit, please don’t get angry because we have invaded your space, please take this rice and go away from this baby, …’ whilst throwing handfuls of rice outwards into the air as far as possible. The baby stopped crying eventually but I don’t know if my mother’s ritual helped or was it because the baby was too tired to continue crying? However, next morning, two other members of the family reported seeing something strange during the night.