Cambodia and its cuisine suffered enormously during the reign of the Khmer Rouge, the radical militia who imposed collective farms and burnt cookbooks, which they considered bourgeois. Thanks to a surge in tourism and spending power, the last few years have seen a small resurgence in Cambodian gastronomy. Several ingredients have also come to the fore.
Perhaps the most well-known of Cambodian products is the mildly sweet pepper corn grown in the southern province of Kampot. There are two ways to use it; harvested young, while still on the vine and with the pepper corn green and quite mild, it’s grilled or stir fried with crab or calamari and can be eaten whole. Blanched and then sun dried, ensuring flavours are retained, zesty dried peppercorn is used as a spice, usually to add extra depth to a dish. While Kampot pepper is the most famous, the peppers grown in the eastern town of Memot are starting to reach markets. Largely regarded as one of the finest peppers in the world, Cambodia’s pepper plantations were abandoned during the Khmer Rouge regime, only regaining sustenance and traction again in recent years.
Crisp, snow white and in the shape of a crescent moon, the trunk of a young banana tree presents yet another way of using this remarkable plant. Rich in potassium and fibre, with incredible texture and an ability to soak up flavour, banana stem is used in South India to make koottu, a vegetable and lentil stew. In Cambodia they are more obscure; reports claim that people ate them during the reign of the Khmer Rouge, when the countryside provided little else. South African chef Timothy Bruyns is using it in abundance in his new Phnom Penh restaurant, the Common Tiger, the most remarkable dish having the banana stem teamed with raw tropical tuna with lily flower stem, salted turnip and hot basil.
This grey, pasty, horrendously pungent goo of fermented fish is the most vital ingredient in Cambodian cooking. It’s certainly the one with the most distinctive smell. Crushed, salted and left out in the sun for a day to attract natural yeasts, it’s then left to ferment in clay jars for up to three or four years. Prahok was born out of the need to preserve fish, specifically that from the large inland lake, the Tonle Sap, when it annually backwashes and Cambodia collects up to 70% of its protein. Dubbed “Cambodian cheese”, prahok can at times smell like Stilton that has been left in the sun for a week. Beyond smell is the depth it gives dishes; volume and enhancement of flavour to soups, salads and curries difficult to achieve with other seasonings. It can also be eaten alone, either baked or grilled or cooked with meat. French chef Joannès Rivière, at his homely Siem Reap restaurant, Cuisine Wat Damnak, the formidable prahok is pounded with field frog as an appetiser.
Similar to prahok, only with fermented prawns, kapi, otherwise known as shrimp paste, is one of the most common ingredients found throughout all South East Asian and Southern Chinese cooking. Small or large shrimps are dried, crushed and salted before being left to ferment until the mixture achieves a smooth paste. Essential for curry bases, kapi is also used to make dipping sauces for steamed or raw vegetables.
Any Cambodian worth their coconuts loves a creepy crawly. Cockroaches, crickets, silkworms, locusts and even tarantulas are deep fried with salt, sugar, chili, garlic or kaffir lime for an afternoon snack, or in the case of crickets, used in curries. By all unexpected accounts, they taste great. Are the Cambodians onto something? Cheap, containing more protein than most meats, requiring less farming land to grow and surviving on fruit and vegetable waste, these carbon friendly, wallet friendly insects might just be the food of the future.