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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Khmer Recipes

A Frenchman,  Joannès Rivière, working as an executive chef at Meric, one of Cambodia's finest restaurants in Siem Reap wrote in his book  'Cambodia on a Plate'

“Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam share similar climate and soils and the ingredients are more or less the same. The Khmer empire occupied the whole area for centuries - so Cambodian cuisine has given its neighbours probably as much as it has received from them. Cambodian cuisine is simple to prepare and cook but it is tasty, healthy and interesting ... It derives its flavour from spices and aromatic herbs, with little use of fat and meats".

Cultural Influences 
Over many centuries, Khmer cuisine was influenced by India and China, and to a lesser degree by France due to the French protectorate between 1863 to 1953. From India, we  inherited the art of blending spice pastes for curries and stews. We adopted the use of soy sauce, noodles and the art of stir-frying, steaming and using chop-sticks from the Chinese. And of course, the Khmers fell in love with the French baguette (which can be found all over Cambodia), the paté foie and the culinary technique of baking.

The Khmer Rouge
The Khmer Rouge took over the country in April 1975, and almost overnight Cambodia was returned to an indigenous peasant culture - a 'Year Zero' culture.  Cambodia became a country with no money, markets, education, religion, books, private property or freedom of speech and movement ... and of course,  with no cuisine. People would eat anything they could find in the forest in order to survive in this prison without walls. Almost all chefs and good cooks died during the Khmer Rouge regime from starvation, disease or execution; or they escaped to another country.

Authentic Khmer Food
Due to the lack of good chefs, when I went to Cambodia in 1989 with a British Thames Television film crew to participate in the making of a documentary film entitled 'The Return to the Killing Fields', there was no Khmer food available in any restaurant. And friends who were working for UNTAC (a United Nations agency) sometime later told me that they had yet to taste real authentic Khmer food as it was hard to find it. Why? Because no-one knew how to cook real Khmer food. Nowadays, I am glad to see more and more authentic Khmer restaurants both inside Cambodia, and abroad - in countries such as the USA, France, Canada, New Zeland and Australia.

Staple Diet
Like the rest of Southeast Asian, the staple of Khmer diet is rice. After rice, fish is the most common feature of the Khmer cuisine. Seventy percent of the protein consumed in Cambodia comes from Tonlé-Sap called the Great Lake and the Mekong River. There are 10 times more fish per cubic kilometre in Tonlé-Sap than in the Atlantic Ocean. This is why Tonlé-Sap has gained its reputation as the largest reserve of freshwater fish in the world.

Food Preservation
As Europeans created cheese in order to preserve milk, Cambodians have done the same with fresh water fish. Dried fish, smoked fish, salted fish, fermented fish and fish paste (prahok) are all extremely important ingredients in Khmer food. 

There are many techniques of food preservation in Cambodia. Fish, meat, vegetables and fruits can be stored for long periods by: 

  • Sun-drying which is the oldest method of preservation in Cambodia as it is in the world
  • Khmer traditional method of pickling by using salt and rice water. This is called lacto-fermentation and is very healthy as it creates lactobacilli – good friendly bacteria for the digestive tracts. However, pickles made using this method only last 2-3 days or up to a week in the refrigerator after the formentation point depending on the texture of the vegetables / fruits used, and the climate of the place.
  • Pickling using vinegar  – a preferred method by some Khmers as it has a much longer shelf-life than the lacto-fermented pickles.
  • Preservation in sugar or sugar syrup is used for fruits. I use this method a lot to preserve my carved fruits and vegetables.
  • Smoking – This method has been used by Khmer people for centuries. Smoked fish in Cambodia is delicious and is the most used ingredient in other dishes.
  • Salt-preserving method which is used to make prahok (salted fish paste); and salt with added ground roasted rice and/or yeast  are used to make pa-ork and mamm (fermented fish and pork). Prahok and pa-ork are the backbone of Khmer cuisine as they can safely be kept for at least one year. This method enables the Khmers to preserve fish around the end of November when they are plentiful and very cheap; and then eat them all year round. 

 

Most Khmer meals are based on .........................