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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Cham-ney Ahaa, Chum-noeur & Sangkum Khmer

Food, Belief and Society

Infant Feeding Practice
Breast feeding used to be the only way of feeding infants in Cambodia. However, bottle feeding using cow milk formulas has become fashionable amongst some mothers.  This is due to factors such as:

- being too busy with working full-time; or
- feeling embarrassed and concerned about breast feeding in public; or
- due to health problems; or
- cannot cope with the tediously tiresome job of breast-feeding; or
- simply having succumbed to powerful commercial marketing of formula milk

However, barring health problems, nearly all mothers in rural areas still breast-feed their babies. This is because they either can’t afford formula milk or just want to follow the tradition of feeding babies naturally.  
Khmer mothers typically start giving their babies solid food as soon as they reach 3 months old which is contrary to modern medical advice which recommends 6 months. The baby’s first solid food is primarily soft rice porridge which is made into a fine paste by pressing it through a cheese cloth. In fact, some women in rural areas still practise the old way of feeding solid food to their babies - chewing cooked rice in their mouth and then feeding it to the babies.

Women, Menstruation and Food
While menstrual periods cause discomforts such as mood swings, bloating and tender breasts, it has been suggested that avoiding some foods can help. In Cambodia, however, there’s no social rule on what to eat and what not to eat during this time.  As food affect people differently, women resort to personal trial-and-error to find out what to avoid, to alleviate the discomfort. For example, some women find eating sour fruits/foods causes them headaches, stomach-aches, or even ceases their menses.  Some find that consuming cold drinks, watermelon or raw vegetables gives them cramps and abdominal pain.  On the other hand, some find themselves craving for sour fruits/foods, and don’t seem to have the same symptoms. One thing in common though they generally agree that avoiding ‘cold’  foods (melon, salad, fresh fruits, etc.), smelly foods (fish sauce, prahok, pa-ork, etc.), cold inducing activities (having a bath, etc.) and heavy work, is helpful in alleviating period discomfort.

In addition, I remember my grandmother told me to eat  turmeric, black pepper and ginger to help relieve period pain; but at the same time, she warned that too much of these 'hot' foods would not be good either (modern medicine reports that it would affect kidney function). Likewise, too much of ‘cold’ foods can induce period pain, irregular menses and may increase the risk of infertility.

To sum it up, I think having a balanced diet which comprises equal parts of hotand ‘cold foods – which the Chinese call ‘yin’ and ‘yang’ foods, will help restore body balance. This in turn will allow the blood to flow normally. And, as our bodies lose a lot of important minerals especially iron through menstruation, women are recommended to eat red meat, dark meat poultry and lots of fresh green leafy vegetables.

Writing about this brings back bad memories from my time under the Khmer Rouge. Because of starvation and malnutrition, at least 95% of girls and women (former city and town dwellers) didn’t have menstruation. Without this natural cycle to cleanse their blood, their skin was dull and pale, their hair lost its shines, their eyes were cloudy and their moods became volatile.

Pregnant Women and Food Taboos
Diet during pregnancy is important to Khmer women. This is because, to them, maternity is a frightening time full of risk, danger and potential complications. In the past, death during childbirth was common and this fear continues to haunt Khmer women. In Khmer, childbirth is know as ‘chhlorng tonlé’ which literally means ‘crossing the river’ perceived to be a very dangerous journey, thus, a real life threatening experience.

In traditional Khmer society, it is believed that the diet during pregnancy has a significant bearing on a woman’s safety during child birth. Pregnant women are therefore advised to follow certain rules of food consumption in accordance with ‘hot’ and ‘cold’ food theory. For example, ‘Hot’ foods such as ginger and black pepper are allowed during the early stage of the pregnancy, whereas ‘cold’ foods such as lemon, melon, pineapple, spinach and green papaya are to be avoided. On the other hand, during the second half of the pregnancy, very hot food such as alcohol, chilli and pepper are forbidden because they will cause the baby discomfort. Besides, also contrary to modern medical advice, some pregnant women are advised not to eat nutritious food, have a siesta or wake up late as it is believed that these would make the foetus grow bigger, and could therefore result in a difficult labour. However, some foods such as rice, of course, bananas, coconuts, fish, pork, eggs and chicken are considered safe for pregnant women.

Nowadays, these traditions remain very much in practice in rural Cambodia, but they have become less prevalent in urban areas.

Postnatal Food Restrictions
After giving birth, traditional postnatal practices including ‘Torm chamney’ - food restrictions guideline, are considered crucial for Khmer women. Apart from having strict bed-rest and keeping warm to avoid potential ‘colds’, they should avoid cold drinks, raw vegetables, watermelon, orange and lemon – basically anything that belongs to ‘cold’ food category. They should eat only rice with salt and black pepper (with or without pork stew). Eating salty food is believed to be beneficial because it encourages them to drink plenty of water which in turn generates more milk for the baby; it helps with digestion and therefore overcomes constipation which is a common problem after childbirth. Other food taboos including fresh fruit and seafood are said to cause indigestion and skin allergies to both mother and baby; and sour foods are also taboos as they can cause incontinence. Most importantly, women tend to strictly adhere to all these rules because they are fearful of a condition called toah which means ‘life threatening complications’ caused by eating the wrong food.  They however accept that if one gives birth at the hospital, the toah’ condition can be avoided to a certain degree by using Western medicines. 

In addition, traditional diet and rituals surrounding postnatal and lactation dictate that women should eat foods such as soup and drink ‘Sraa Tnamm’(rice wine infused by herbs, tree barks and roots) which were reported as foods that help women make enough milk and restore her strength. Lactating women should avoid spicy foods and 'stinky' foods such as fish sauce, prahok(salt preserved fish) and pa-ork (fermented fish) as it is believed that these foods give the baby diarrhoea, cause an upset stomach, and make the baby susceptible to colds and fevers.  On the other hand, fish, pork, chicken and eggs are acceptable for a postnatal diet.

To prevent catching a cold, some women even go a step further by practising the ‘Aing pleung’ - ‘body roasting’ (when the woman in question actually lies on a bamboo bed with heaps of charcoal burning underneath her) for at least 3 days after the delivery (followed by having a hot heavy rock placed on her stomach). This is described as a process of returning the heat to the body, helping the womb retract; reducing swelling, helping blood flow; and keeping the skin beautiful. However, this practice involves a risk known as ‘priay kralaa pleung’  -  ‘fire spirit manifestation’ which can result in seizures, fainting, loss of consciousness or even death. What triggers this is unclear but some people think it is the result of eating wrong food, or bad comments from people in the house that might upset the spirit of the house, or the woman might be experiencing negative emotions such as anger and fear.  

As my grandmother was a traditional midwife, I saw my mother following these traditions. Within a few weeks after childbirth, most Khmer women including my mother would have steam bath which we call 'Chhpong'. This is done by boiling many types of herbs in one big clay pot; then after taking if off the fire with the lid still on, she would sit near it and cover herself and the pot with a big blanket. To get the steam on her body, she would open the lid a little bit at a time to get just enough of the herbal steam to come out over her as comfortable as she could bear. After ten minutes or so, she would come out soaked.  In addition, once a week for at least two months, a mixture of turmeric powder and coarse sea salt is used to rub all over her body. This is said to cleanse and rejuvenate the skin. My mother had a beautifully young skin - she was mistaken as my sister on many occasions when I was a teenager.