Food for the soul: Resurrecting Cambodia’s forgotten cuisine

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Ly San spent six years interviewing elderly Cambodians to recover the country's lost Khmer recipes.

He now hopes to re-educate Cambodians about their traditional food culture.

CNN  — 

It was while studying in France that Ly San, now 29, decided to resurrect traditional Khmer cuisine.

Missing the tastes of his homeland Cambodia, he began to research traditional Khmer food but found that written accounts of the country’s native recipes and ingredients were hard to find.

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He realized that much of this information had been lost during the civil war of the early 1970s and subsequent barbaric rule of the Khmer Rouge, which saw hundreds and thousands of people die from execution and starvation.

“We ate little (during that period) and that’s why people lost their (culinary) education,” he tells CNN. “People also were killed. So the food that we ate was

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Determined to find out more, San spent six years interviewing elderly Cambodians about the recipes they had loved before political turmoil tore apart the nation’s kitchens.

In 2016, San opened a restaurant in Phnom Penh, Kraya Angkor, where he serves these dishes.

He realized that his country’s cuisine was far richer than even he had realized.

“The food – no one can forget it. It’s one of the identifiers of Cambodian culture.”

Countrywide search

Before San, a lawyer who teaches at the Royal University of Law and Economics, in Phnom Penh, began his project he thought Cambodian cuisine “to be simple.”

His research, however, in his hometown of Siem Reap, where he interviewed the elderly there about the dishes they grew up with, changed his perception.

“This passion popped up and pushed me to learn more,” he explains. “As I gained more knowledge about Khmer food, I started to realize the major impact (of it on people’s lives) as well as the importance of the Khmer culture of food.”

After one elderly lady taught him how to cook “na tang” – a dish usually reserved for royalty – San decided to broaden his search, traveling across Cambodia to interview and cook with older citizens.

Grandma Sok Loun, from Siem Reap, taught San how to cook "na tang"

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Six years later, San has interviewed 26 Cambodians, and written two lengthy books – one of recipes and the other detailing ingredients.

“I only learn from old folk who have been cooking for many generations,” he tells CNN. “I go to meet them, I go to their house and cook food with them.

“They teach me, they tell me about the taste of these foods. I take a lot of pictures, and learn how to make these foods spicy or salty, things like that.”

Fit for a king

Broths, curries, relishes, roasted meats and dipping sauces. These, San discovered, are all part of traditional Khmer cuisine.

He also learned the three Khmer classifications for food – royal, elite and peasant.

Royal food – such as na tang, a starter of deep-fried sticky rice with a sauce made from minced pork, chilli and coconut milk – was once primarily served to people in Cambodia’s royal palace. The ingredients in such dishes are richer, more diverse and contain more meat.

Na Tang by grandma Sok Loun

Elite dishes, which were mostly for the country’s officials and wealthy citizens, are less complicated and made using lower quality meats and ingredients.

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Peasant, or everyday, food – such as “kor kou”, a fish soup that remains popular in the country – is made using simple, easily accessible ingredients.

Fragrant and delicate, all of these dishes rely heavily on galangal, garlic, lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves and turmeric for flavor. The subtlety makes Khmer cooking distinct from other southeast Asian cuisines, such as Thai, with its strong flavors.

“The way that we cook is very different from other countries and it reflects how our country developed,” says San “Khmer food is very … good for your health.”

Complex culture

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After the communist Khmer Rouge came to power in 1975, their Marxist leader Pol Pot embarked upon a dramatic regime of social engineering, sending people from the cities to communal farms in the country.

Intellectuals and middle-class citizens were tortured and executed while hundreds of thousands of people died of disease and starvation from the famine Pol Pot’s revolutionary policies induced.

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Records of the country’s cuisine were destroyed by the Khmer Rouge, and people ate purely for survival, living on what little was available at the time.

“Cambodian people just ate in groups, eating porridge and small foods and a lot of water to stay stable,” says San.

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Although San won’t elaborate on whether his elderly tutors shared their experiences of Cambodia’s struggle, it’s clear that what started out as a personal project has taken on greater significance.

“This experience is very important. It has taught me how to protect Cambodian culture,” says San. His restaurant, Kraya Ankor, serves dishes from all three categories of Cambodian cuisine, and counts Cambodia’s Princess Norodom Buppha Devi among its regulars.

He is also working on turning the two Khmer books he wrote into one comprehensive cookbook, and hopes to eventually have it published in French and English.

“I want to show Cambodian people their food and enable them to taste real Cambodian food.”