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My Cambodian Food

You can try to define a national cuisine in generalities, but food is always personal and specific.

· cooking,memoir,social enterprise,Cambodia,Cambodian food

by Clara Kim

Stung Treng is a sleepy provincial town in rural northeastern Cambodia. At daybreak, its market bustles with merchants selling vegetables, fruit, fish, and meat, fresh from the river and nearby farms. The market smells wonderful — like coffee and breakfast, so many options you can spend a year trying a new dish every morning: soups with all kinds of handmade noodles, sticky rice with grilled pork and eggs, sweet coconut waffles, donuts dipped in caramel and sesame seeds, rice with slow-braised freshwater fish, or pancakes filled with bean sprouts and ground meat.

For me, it was food heaven.

When I was little, my father and I spent Sunday mornings at a food stall where a boxing match was usually playing on television. He ordered black coffee brewed in a phin (a small filter made from aluminum or stainless steel) and a bowl of kuy teav (noodle soup with lots of toppings). My favorite breakfast was siu mai, steamed pork meatballs seasoned with shallots and black pepper, served with hot baguettes.

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I grew up in Dong Ta Dam, a small village about four miles east of the Stung Treng market. About 500 families lived there, most of them ethnic Laotian farmers and laborers. They did not indulge in sumptuous breakfasts of kuy teav and siu mai. They picked leaves and sour fruits from trees near the village; fished in the river, flooded rice fields, and ponds; and grew their own rice — IF they could afford to own a small piece of land.

My parents had found their way to this bucolic place after more than two decades of displacement. My mother fled to Vietnam in 1970, five years before the Khmer Rouge seized power. In Vietnam, she lost her whole family and often went hungry, then spent ten years in Thai refugee camps waiting for her life to begin.

After the wars were over, my parents returned to devastated postwar Cambodia. My mother often tells me the story of an unforgettable meal that helped them decide to make a home in Stung Treng. They’d spent nearly a year in remote Ratanakiri Province, digging for rubies, enduring hunger and bouts of malaria. They left the Ratanakiri forest with nothing, stayed the night with a Stung Treng fisherman’s family in a floating river house, and were served a meal of grilled river fish. It was a dish her mother used to make in exactly the same way.

This time, it tasted different — my parents were famished, and for so long, they had craved the flavors of home, so this meal tasted like a revelation. Here’s how my mother recalls it in her memoir:

“The sun had set, but the sky still shone silver-blue. A delicious breeze carried the scent of lush greenery from across the wide river. [The couple’s daughter] was grilling finger-sized river fish on a charcoal fire — my mother’s grilled trei riel, come back to life. Chan squatted to watch the fish, his chin resting in his hand. I will never forget that image of him, gazing at the grilling fish without blinking, his face golden in the firelight.


Whenever my children complain about something I cook for them, I tell them that story — of the dreamy hunger in their father’s face after eleven months in the Ratanakiri highlands. Once, when they were young, I made the grilled trei riel for them. I went to the Sekong riverfront and bought the still-hopping fish right off a
fisherman’s boat. We gathered around a charcoal fire, just like when I was a child. For hours they sat in the darkness, listening to my stories about my mother’s trei riel and tamarind dipping sauce, as we grilled and ate one crispy fish after another.


They can never know their grandparents, but I want them to know the tastes of old Cambodia."

That dish plays a starring role in my memory, too. Here's my version: During the dry seasons of my childhood, my family spent hot summer days swimming and fishing for trei riel from the mangrove islands that materialized as the water level fell. At dusk, we collected driftwood and built a fire on the beach to grill our freshly caught dinner. I squatted by the fire, watching the fish turn golden. I could inhale a kilo of the crunchy little fish, dipped in tamarind sauce my mother brought from home in a jar. I can almost taste the smoky trei riel, the spicy-sour-garlicky tamarind sauce, the hot night air, and my mother’s voice warning me to slow down before I swallowed a fish bone.

It was the taste of a perfect childhood.

Many of my schoolmates did NOT have perfect childhoods. Most of my girlfriends had to leave school very young to find work, get married, or take care of younger siblings. In Stung Treng then, girls had few choices: to get married, work in their family's rice fields, or become a “beer girl,” often a euphemism for workers in the sex trade.

After that dreamy grilled fish dinner in Stung Treng, my parents saw that they could be of use there. They settled in the province, worked for Doctors Without Borders, and eventually opened a women’s empowerment and silk weaving center. The Stung Treng Women’s Development Center (SWDC) was the embodiment of my mother’s mission to help rural women find their way out of poverty — by teaching them basic literacy and practical skills and supporting their children’s education. Cambodia was still recovering from the years of war and genocide, and so were my parents. My mother often tells me that what carried her through her darkest hours was the remembered tastes of her childhood, in her mother’s kitchen before the wars. So while my mother was busy at work teaching SWDC women how to earn their independence, at home, she was resurrecting my grandmother’s recipes.

I could try to generalize about Cambodian food. I could tell you about its culinary influences — Vietnam, Thailand, Laos, China, France, and even India. I could review the key flavor profiles and ingredients — lemongrass, galangal, turmeric, garlic, lime leaf, and Thai basil. I could describe Khmer variations of Vietnamese phở and namya, a red fish curry noodle soup from Thailand, and our go-to kuy teav breakfast noodle soup, created by Teochew Chinese settlers. I could tell you about kroeung — a word that means “ingredients” and describes various currylike herb-and-spice pastes that flavor many iconic Cambodian dishes. And of course, I could explain prahok, the fermented fish paste you’ll find in any Cambodian household — a powerful, umami-packed flavor of home.

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I think we Khmers can agree on the importance of prahok and kroeung to our so-called
national cuisine. But for each person, “Khmer food” is a deeply personal experience.

The Cambodian food of my childhood was full of bountiful deliciousness — breakfasts at the Stung Treng market and my mother’s incredible range of dishes, many of them learned from her mother. My grandmother had been a middle-class housewife in Battambang, Cambodia. Before the war, her family could afford to prepare elaborate meals from expensive ingredients — dishes like fish amok, a steamed fish marinated in red kreung and drizzled with coconut milk. My grandmother’s cooking reflected her own Vietnamese heritage, her prodigious skill, the specialties of Thai-influenced Battambang, and her love of French dishes like pâté de foie.

My mom's Cambodian cuisine contains her own history, from her mother’s amok to the meager fare she ate to survive in postwar Vietnam, Thai refugee camps, and the Ratanakiri forest. And of course, a tiny river fish grilled on a charcoal fire, dipped in tamarind sauce, and served to a famished couple yearning to find home.

Below, I’ll share with you a piece of my family’s legacy, a taste of our Khmer cuisine. I hope it will spark a new craving in you — to create your own experience of Cambodian food.

[This recipe is excerpted from Slow Noodles.]

Grilled River Fish with Tamarind Dipping Sauce

To prevent sticking, clean the grill grates and lightly brush a little high-smoke-point, neutral oil like grapeseed or peanut onto the fish and grates. Whole fish with skin on is
easier to keep whole on the grill and also crisps up better. If using fillets (especially thinner ones), consider cooking them in an oiled cast-iron skillet
on the grill.

You can usually find tamarind paste at Asian groceries and even at Whole Foods.

Serves 4.

4 pounds whole fish or fillets, such as red snapper, trout, tilapia, branzino, or sardines

2-4 tablespoons neutral oil (such as grapeseed)

4 tablespoons sour tamarind paste

¾ cup fish sauce

1 teaspoon sugar

4 cloves garlic, minced

4 Thai chilis, thinly sliced

For the garnish:

4 sprigs cilantro

4 lime wedges

Buy smallish whole fish or larger fillets, and ask your fishmonger to gut and scale them. Wash the fish and dry the skin. Clean and oil the grill grates to keep fish from sticking.

Make the sauce: Mix tamarind paste, fish sauce, and sugar, then add garlic and chilis. Lightly brush oil onto the fish and sprinkle with salt. Gently lay the fish diagonally across the middle of the grill over hot coals. Cook until fish is crispy and slightly charred, about 3 minutes per side (depending on size). If the skin sticks at first, wait—stuck fish will often release once it’s cooked, usually after 3 minutes or so. Otherwise, don’t fret about broken skin. (You can also sear fish in ¼ cup neutral oil in a cast-iron or non-stick skillet, about 3 minutes per side, depending on size).

Fish is done when it’s firm, opaque, and flaky, or when it reaches an internal temperature of 145 degrees.

Serve fish with jasmine rice and lime wedges on the side. Serve the tamarind dipping sauce in small ramekins or drizzle it over the fish. Garnish with fresh cilantro.

For more like this, check out my mom's memoir, Slow Noodles: A Cambodian Memoir of Love, Loss, and Family Recipes. Order it wherever you buy books.