Angkor Wat

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Angkor Wat in Cambodia
the world's largest religious monument built in the 12th century
now a world heritage site
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‘Bai'
Cooked Rice

 

Although 'bai' can be litterally translated from Khmer as 'cooked rice', it has other meanings. It appears in everyday phrases such as:

Nhamm bai’           literally means ‘eating rice’, used as ‘having a meal’
Klean bai’              literally means ‘being hungry for cooked rice’, used as ‘
being hungry’
‘Ptaeh bai’              literally means ‘house of rice’, used as ‘kitchen’

Rice plays a fundamental role in the lives of the Khmer people. Not only is it their staple food, it also features in rituals, religious ceremonies, festivals as well as in songs, dances and theatrical plays. 

Rice and Education
Rice is highly revered in Cambodia. The importance of rice is reflected in the name the Khmers call rice,   Preah Mé’ -  ‘The Holy Mother’the mother who feeds us. From a tender age, Khmer children are taught about the fundamental significance of rice. For example, they are taught not to throw rice away, nor to step on a grain of rice as these are considered sinful.

It has an important place in Khmer moral education.  For example, this is reflected in two sayings below:

1 - ‘Bai chia nhoeuh chhiam roboh kaksekor’ - ‘Rice is the blood and sweat of the farmers’.

This teaches us to be grateful and respectful to farmers. It has been known that some city / rich people tend to look down on farmers. They call farmers neak srè in a derogative sense. Although ‘neak srè’ means ‘farmers’ in Khmer, it is literally translated as ‘the people of the paddy field’ - most of whom they regard as poor, illiterate and with no intellect. However, I hope that in the modern Cambodia this attitude is no longer prevalent.

2 - ‘Ngeuy skork, aon dak krorb’ - ‘To stay upright is to be sterile, to bend down is to be productive’

This saying is a metaphor of rice plants - upright rice stalks are empty, and are therefore useless; whereas bent over rice stalks are laden with grain and are prized as food. It warns that, boastful people with little intellect are like empty rice stalks; whereas those who have brains and grace know how to be flexible and adaptable - just like laden rice stalks which bend and dance according to the wind in order to thrive. It is therefore a hint to successful living for younger generations. 

Women and Rice-Cooking
Traditionally, in order to become a potential bride, young girls have to know how to cook rice properly and also be skilful in preparing other dishes. Nowadays, with the invention of automatic rice cooker, perhaps knowing how to cook good rice is no longer essential. However, a girl’s ability to cook food, especially how to make ‘kroeung’ or Khmer spicy paste, remains one of her important assets in life. The importance of properly cooked rice stems from the fact that, in Cambodia, a humble bowl of cooked rice is the main dish and other accompanying dishes are secondary. In other words, the Khmers eat lots of rice with relatively small amounts of other food.

Rice as a currency
In the past, the amount of rice stored in individual storehouses was used as a measure of people’s status and prestige in Khmer society. Before Riels’ (Khmer currency) existed, rice was used as a form of currency. People exchanged rice for other foods and commodities. During the French protectorate (1863-1953), Khmer farmers were so poor that they paid their income tax with rice.

This practice happened again not so long ago during the Khmer Rouge regime (1975 -1979) when money was abolished. Villagers discreetly traded their rice for goods such as clothes and gold from the ‘New people’- people who were evacuated by the Khmer Rouge from towns and cities to live in the countryside and remote jungle. Likewise, the Khmer Rouge used rice as a weapon to exert their power over the population.

Rice and Health
In our modern world, there’s hardly a day passes without the newspapers or magazines warning us about what not to eat and how to eat in order to avoid certain ailments. As a result, we are seeking food that is not only tasty but also healthy. We want food that is low-fat, low-cholesterol, less red meat, and more fish and vegetables. I think about Khmer food and its benefits and realize that Khmer food is exactly just that – very healthy food and also delicious. Of course, I might be biased but, Khmer cuisine involves much less red meat, hardly any fat and uses a huge amount of cooked and raw vegetables. Two of the most popular Khmer dishes are ‘tik kroeung’ (various dips with raw/cooked fresh vegetables) and ‘Nhoam (Khmer salad dishes). You cannot find anything healthier than these – some of them contain hardly no fat at all. In addition, the Khmers cook their food by utilizing boiling, steaming and grilling techniques – which I believe are very healthy (providing you don’t burn the food which could create carcinogens – one of the culprits for cancer).  Stir-frying and oven cooking form part of Khmer cooking too due to Chinese and French influences.

As already mentioned in the ‘Rice’ section above, food plays a major role in Khmer culture. For example, those who are recovering from major illness or surgery are given borbor’ - ‘rice porridge’ to eat - a traditional special diet for convalescence. ‘Borbor is nourishing and is believed to have healing power. Second in popularity to rice porridge is clear ‘soup’ made from the bones of chicken, pork or beef with lots of vegetables such as cabbages, Chinese leaves, carrot and spring onion. Drinking this soup would restore the patients’ strength. You may ask, why only soft food? During convalescence, our digestive system is weak and should not therefore be overloaded. So, softer and moister food should be eaten to relieve the stomach from any effort. Garlic, ginger and mint are also used prevalently in Cambodia because they are considered as healing foods too (it is believed that garlic is good for the blood; mint will strengthen the lungs; and fresh ginger will warm excessive cold and help with digestion and may even have aphrodisiac properties).