By Marcia Pilgeram
Reader Food Columnist
With a big appetite for adventure, and curious to learn more about the exotic region of Southeast Asia, I recently headed to Vietnam and Cambodia. Though I consider myself a well-seasoned traveler, these new destinations transcended my experience. A common phrase you will hear throughout Southeast Asia is “same same, but different,” and I learned that expression really holds true.
I was a kid when I first heard of Vietnam, and for me (and I suspect much of my generation), Vietnam used to conjure up mostly war-related images of a far-away jungle land. My time in Vietnam was eye opening, divided between the old colonial city of Hoi An (where my travel companions spent a lot of time in tailor shops and left with beautiful, custom-fitted couture), the tropical seaport of Quy Nhon (where I saw the most magnificent sunrise of my life), and the modern, bustling Ho Chi Mihn City (where statues, banners and war memorials celebrating “Uncle Ho” are omnipresent). The people and foods of each region were every bit as diverse as the landscapes that surrounded us.
And though I’d also heard of neighboring Cambodia, I’m ashamed to say how little I knew about this country. We stayed in Siem Reap to visit temples (including Ankgor Wat, the largest and oldest temple in the world). Cambodia is the English translation of Khmer, and Cambodians refer to themselves as Khmers, and their country as Khmer (we all remember the Khmer Rouge). Most are fisherman and rice farmers, who are uneducated and live in villages deep in the countryside along the rivers.
Their children, seeking a better life, are moving into larger towns and cities for education and jobs, saving their money to help their aged and crippled parents. Many of this generation also toil long hours, albeit serving foreign visitors, working as tour guides, massage therapists, housekeepers, servers and chefs in the luxury hotels popping up all over the country.
I am known to keep common hours with my grandchildren, and since I was always the first to bed (missing all the late-night group revelry), I was also the first to rise, eating a solo breakfast, hours before the others arose. During these leisurely mornings, I was hovered over by the young staff and devoured their family stories along with my morning ration of Asian food (I can get eggs and cereal at home).
For every meal, the staple food of Khmer is rice, particularly jasmine rice. They also eat lots of freshwater fish and curry dishes, and, like neighboring Vietnam, they love French bread. Lemongrass, galanga root, kaffir limes, shallots and garlic are huge flavor influencers, the ingredients that give foods their distinctive Khmer flavor. Fish sauce and fish pastes are also popular and are used to flavor many dishes. The fermented fish and shrimp pastes are thick and pungent, and I can tell you from personal experience, it is not something to be enjoyed on its own — they add great distinct flavors to specific foods (think anchovies to a Caesar salad dressing).
For thousands of years, the Cambodians have been invaded, so their flavors have been influenced by China and India, as well as the New World. Sauces are plentiful, and, besides fish sauce, tik marik — made from black peppercorns, salt and lime juice — is commonly served on most tables. Deep-fried pork ribs are also common and quite sumptuous! Another typical Khmer dish is a platter of sizzling, spicy meat served over raw vegetables that might include eggplant, bean sprouts, plantains, holy basil, cabbage and long beans. It’s a wonderful combination of taste and textures.
I had a chance to eat (and avoid) many street foods in Khmer. If you go to a local market, you are going to experience many foods that are not “curated” for our Western palate. But if you are adventurous, there are some crazy palate adventures awaiting:
Kralan, a type of sticky rice, mixed with black beans, grated coconut and coconut milk and then roasted in bamboo sticks.
Snails, spiced either with red chili sauce or with garlic and salt. Sold by the bucket or the cup from long metal carts on wheels that they dry in the sun (my friends at the hotel told me not to eat these, as some come from unsafe water sources. They eat them but can tell the provenance of the snail by looking).
Num Kachay, Chive cakes, were my favorite! They are a popular street food in Khmer, made from rice flour. They are crispy on the outside and chewy on the inside and served with fish sauce.
Another favorite food was a simple but fresh fish soup, served on the streets from big iron cauldrons and as a first course in restaurants. When I mentioned how much I loved it, I was honored to bring home a recipe, shared by Da, one of my favorite young workers at the hotel in Siem Reap. The recipe comes from his grandmother and she will be honored if you try this in your home.
Khmer Country Fish Soup Recipe • Serves 2 (easy to double or triple)
Chunks of fresh water fish simmered with lemon grass, rice and herbs is an authentic Khmer comfort food. This recipe is simple but so tasty.
1 lb of whole fresh basa, catfish or snakehead fish, cleaned and cut chunks (or local market whitefish)
1/4 cup uncooked Jasmine rice, rinsed and drained
2 lemon grass stalk, cut 5 inches in length and tied to bunches
4 tbs sugar
1/2 tbs fish sauce
1 tsp black pepper
4 stalks green onion, chopped
2 chopped hot chili pepper (option)
4-6 small fresh mushrooms
1/2 cup of chopped mix herbs, such as of holy basil, Asian coriander (or local, market baby greens).
1/2 fresh lime
Put fish, rice, lemon grass and water in a large soup pot and cook till rice tender, stir often.
Seasoning with sugar, fish sauce and black pepper.
Top with green onion, mushrooms, chili pepper and mix herbs.
Serve hot, adding fresh squeezed lime juice at table.
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