Customs and Cuisine of Cambodia
Location: The kingdom of Cambodia is a country in Southeast Asia nestled between Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam.
Name Origins: Believed to have Sanskrit origins, Kambojadeśa (desh = land of) essentially means land of the Kambu. Known by the locals as Kampuchea, during the French rule, the name became “Cambodge” and further on anglicized to “Cambodia.” Today it is officially known as the Kingdom of Cambodia.
Population: 16.9 million (July 2020 estimate) of which the dominant ethnic group are the Khmer constituting almost 97.6 percent of the population. The Cham (1.2 percent), the Chinese (0.1 percent) and the Vietnamese (0.1 percent) are some of the other ethnic groups.
Religion: Buddhism of the Theravada branch was the state religion of Cambodia until 1975 when the Khmer Rouge regime prohibited any religious affiliation. In 1993, Buddhism was restored as the state religion and continues to be what is practiced by the Khmer majority. Other religions practiced are the Mahayana and Daoist branches of Buddhism, as well as Christianity and Islam.
Language: Cambodian or Khmer language is the official language of Cambodia and is spoken by most of its people and some of its neighbors, Thailand and Vietnam. The script for the language is derived from the South Indian Pallava script.
CLAIM TO FAME/INFAMY
The story of Cambodia and her people, their lives and livelihood, the prevailing cultural ethos or the quiet resilience of her people cannot be told or understood in any meaningful way without an understanding of a very dark period in her history.
In April 1975, after five years of fighting, Phnom Phenh, the capital of Cambodia finally fell to the Communist Party of Kampuchea. Later known as the Khmer Rouge, the Communist Party of Kampuchea, under the leadership of Pol Pot would start a 4-year regime of terror.
On usurping power, Pol Pot declared 1975 as “Year Zero” in the new history of the nation. On January 5, 1976, he established a new constitution, changed the name of the country from the then-Cambodia to Kampuchea and declare a Communist form of government. Religion was outlawed as was private ownership of property. Currency was abolished. Education was restricted to that of communist propaganda and was labelled re-education. Schools, universities, places of worship, stores, etc. were demolished or converted to grain stores, stables, or prisons. Transportation infrastructure was dismantled, and privately-owned vehicles were seized.
Pol Pot’s vision for Kampuchea was for the country to be a classless, communist, agrarian utopia and for its people to be a “master race.” To achieve this Agrarian Utopia, cities were destroyed, and its inhabitants, the fortunate ones, were resettled in rural farming communes. The less fortunate were killed. Those considered “elite” – the educated, the professionals, the well-to-do, and religious leaders – were labeled enemies of the state and executed. People were prohibited from stepping out of their assigned commune or to gather in groups (even within their commune). Basic human freedoms were denied or severely restricted.
Between the executions for being enemies of the state and deaths from being overworked and undernourished in the fields, which were essentially labor camps, during the Khmer Rouge’s four-year reign an estimated 1.7 million to 2 million Cambodians would be killed in one of the deadliest Genocides in modern history. The movie “The Killing Fields” provides a harrowing account of this period in Cambodia’s history.
The end of Pol Pot’s dictatorial reign of terror would come in 1979 when the Vietnamese Army, after several violent battles, invaded Cambodia and removed Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge from power.
Perhaps as a subconscious need to reclaim that which the Khmer Rouge regime had sought to steal from the Khmer, the people of Cambodia have close family ties (the Khmer Rouge dictate prohibited bonds to family but mandated bonds/loyalty to the state instead). While Cambodia is a matrilocal society with considerable flexibility in prescribed roles for men and women within the family, the status of women is nevertheless still that of being physically inferior to men.
Marriages are arranged, although never forced. The decision involves not just the parents and friends but also a matchmaker. Weddings, traditionally a three-day affair are now more commonly a day and half long. The newlywed couple typically move in with the bride’s family until they can procure their own house. Divorce is uncommon and continues to carry some stigma, more so for the female divorcee who had to wait for at least 10 months before she could remarry.
Again, in a show of how the Khmer Rouge regime’s mandate failed, Cambodian society is very hierarchical. Age confers seniority and respect. Deference is shown not just in the ways in which one treats an elder but even in forms of address.
While birth is a cause of great celebration, death is not a cause for great sorrow. Death is viewed not merely as the end of life but as the start of another, potentially better life.
Khmer cuisine has influences of traditional Khmer, Vietnamese, Thai, Indian, and French cuisine. Baguettes are a nod to the time when Cambodia was Cambodge under the French. Baguettes buttered (another French influence) or with an egg or with pate (yet another French influence) accompanied by a cup of coffee sweetened with condensed milk make for a typical morning meal. Braised stews called “kari,” using spices such as star anise, cardamom, cinnamon, nutmeg, and fennel, are evidence of the Indian influence. But the dominant influences in the cuisine are Vietnamese and Thai, neighbors of Cambodia. Nom pang are the Cambodian equivalent of a Vietnamese Bahn Mi, a sandwich made with baguette and slices of meat.
With over 2,000 indigenous varieties of rice grown in Cambodia, rice is not just the main in a meal but also often the ingredient in desserts. Fish is the other staple. Pork is the animal protein of choice; however, chicken and beef are also eaten braised or grilled. Animal proteins that are more “exotic” include frogs, tarantulas, and turtles.
Black pepper is the spice of choice to add heat to Khmer dishes. The Kampot pepper, once heralded as the king of peppers is indigenous to the Kampot province of Cambodia. Famed for its flavors, notes of eucalyptus and its subtle heat, Kampot peppers were used for the au poivre sauce that is a classic French creamy pepper sauce. Some Khmer dishes such as Kampot Crab utilize the whole peppercorns still attached to the stalks in the dish. It is used not merely to infuse flavor but when consuming the dish is meant to be eaten along with the crab. Tamarind, turmeric, galangal, ginger, lemongrass, and kaffir lime leaves are other commonly used spices in Khmer cooking.
Fermented pastes, such as fermented shrimp paste, fermented soybean paste etc. are used as the base for a lot of the soups and stews. These are distinct from pickled vegetables or meats. Prahok is fermented fish paste and its use to form the base in some dishes is a culinary tradition that is uniquely Khmer and sets it apart from its neighbor’s culinary traditions.
Dishes are classified as Samlar, soup/stew that is eaten with rice; Sup, soup/stew eaten without rice; chhnang plerng, hotpot; Chha , stir-fried dishes; Nhoam, salads; Chamhoy, steamed dishes; Bai Damnaeb, sticky rice dishes; and Kiev, dumplings.
Cambodia has a richness and abundance of fruits with some fruits considered part of a royal line-up, durian being the king of fruits, mangosteen the queen, sapodilla the prince and milk fruit, the princess.
THE KHMER WAY OF LIFE
Despite the trauma associated with the reign of the Khmer Rouge and all the physical and psychological impacts it left on this nation and its people, the Khmer are known to be some of the most cheerful and content of people. Their Buddhist belief system is attributed to this to some extent. Slow to express anger and usually sporting a smile, they are known to be mild mannered yet resilient.
The Khmer believe in superstition. Special occasions are scheduled on auspicious dates, blessings are sought for new ventures, and fortune tellers are often consulted on matters of importance. Khmer families who follow the traditional way of living might have shrines to deceased elders in the home and pray to their departed spirits.
In Khmer culture, the head as the residence of the soul is considered sacred while the feet are considered impure. The typical greeting involves a “sampeah” gesture which is very similar to the folded hands “namaste” gesture that is typical in India. Depending on the stature of the person one is greeting, the sampeah tends to be at face-height or higher (for elders).
There is considerable national pride in its history as the home of the Angkor Empire and Angkor Wat, the ancient temples that are one of the most travelled to sites in the world. (Lonely Planet listed it as the number one place to visit in its ultimate travel guide.) Flags, mugs, souvenirs, etc. all bear references to Angkor.
The way of life for the older Khmers, especially those who lived through the Khmer Rouge Regime is centered on the three Fs: Family, Faith, and Food. Family refers to the extended bloodline and they are the first line of support and defense – the unit that celebrates one’s triumphs and provides a buffer during trials. Faith is a way of life and food is a celebration of life.
View Recipes from Cambodia