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Noodles originated in Cambodia, or so says the legend of Dhmen Jay, a young man who lived at the start of the Common Era in Nokor Phnom (the first unified Khmer kingdom). Dhmen Jay was born to a couple of no particular power or wealth. As a young boy, he was tricked by a millionaire neighbor and promised to get even. Shortly after, Dhmen Jay easily outsmarted the millionaire, who then proceeded to hoist him on the king. Soon, he was tricking and ridiculing bureaucrats left and right, winning contests of wit and outsmarted the entire court. He even mocked and outsmarted a bunch of wily Chinese emissaries sent by the Chinese emperor.
As his exploits continued to grow, he caused disarray and chaos at the court. So he was banned to the provinces, where he tricked the locals and the executioners, who were supposed to end his exploits. The Chinese came back thinking he had died. Dhmen Jay eventually saved Cambodia from China by answering their riddles.
As Dhmen Jay came back so did the chaos at the court. The king finally exiled him to neighboring China, out of everyone’s way. In China, he made his living by making and selling Khmer noodles. He was very successful and words reached the palace. The emperor sent for him. Showing the emperor how to eat, with head upturned and mouth opened, Dhmen Jay managed to see the emperor’s face and exclaimed that the emperor looked like a dog while the Khmer king had a face that looked like the full moon. He was promptly tossed in jail. Using his wit, Dhmen Jay managed to get himself out of jail. Eventually, the emperor sent him back to Cambodia with much wealth. And so the legend goes that Dhmen Jay introduced noodles to China.
The world’s first noodles or not, Khmers love num banh chok, which is the name of our noodles, and also the names of the dishes made with these noodles. Num banh chok is fermented rice noodles. First, the rice is soaked in water to soften the grains. The rice is then grounded into a liquefied batter with a stone mill. Afterward, the batter is placed in a cloth bag and a heavy stone is placed on top to squeeze out water, while the dough begins to ferment in the process. The drying dough is then boiled until it becomes soft, before being transformed into a smooth dough. The transformation process includes a lot of pounding and another boiling. After the second boiling, the dough becomes very hard. Next, it is pounded in a large stone mortar with a wooden pestle. After the pounding, the dough transforms from a hard ball to a smooth, elastic dough. It requires additional kneading by hand for some time. The dough turns snow-white; it looks almost like whipped cream cheese, and finally the dough is ready to be turned into noodles. The dough is spooned into a metal mold with a perforated bottom. Once the mold is filled, it is pressed down through the perforated bottom directly into boiling water. The cooked noodles are then rinsed in water until they’re completely cooled down. With the water squeezed out, the noodles are looped and coiled and they are arranged in a lotus or banana leaf-lined basket in concentric circles; the noodles are ready for the market or the table.
There are four num banh chok dishes: num banh chok samlor Khmer, num banh chok samlor kraham, num banh chok samlor kari, and num banh chok Kampot. Num banh chok samlor Khmer is noodles with green fish gravy, num banh chok samlor kraham is noodles with red fish gravy, num banh chok samlor kari is noodles with red chicken and sweet potato curry and num banh chok Kampot is noodles with crushed dried shrimp tossed with pineapple fish-sauce dressing and topped with roasted peanuts and coconut cream. Num banh chok samlor Khmer and num banh chok samlor kraham are served with a huge variety of raw vegetables such as banana blossom, cucumber, long beans, bean sprouts, papaya, young mango leaves, water lily stems, water hyacinth flowers, sesbania javanica flowers, some edible border plants, and countless herbs. The other two dishes require fewer adornments. Of course, these adornments also change with the season. Aside from these four dishes, num banh chok is served as an accompaniment to many other dishes as well.
Num banh chok samlor Khmer, also known by its other name, num banh chok samlor praher, is so ubiquitous and so loved that we simply refer to it as num banh chok Khmer. In Khmer cuisine, num banh chok Khmer is in a category of its own. We simply eat it for breakfast, lunch, dinner or a 2 a.m. snack. It is served alone as a complete meal. And there are regional variations with slight differences in taste and each one claims they are the best or the most authentic Khmer noodles. People from the Takéo province, including my paternal family, claim their version is the most authentic Khmer noodles since Takéo is the cradle of Khmer civilization. People from the provinces surrounding Boeung Tonlé Sap (the Great Lake) claim their Khmer noodles are top notch since they have access to fresh and tasty fish, while people from the Siem Reap province are convinced theirs is the best since Angkor was the cosmopolitan capital of the Khmer empire for almost seven hundred years. Even the royals have their own variation, though my maternal grandfather, who lived in the palace in his early adult years, didn’t think much of the royal one.
In Cambodia, one can find women walking around in the morning and afternoon selling Khmer noodles out of baskets hanging off poles balanced on their shoulders as well as in every market in town. Noodles with cool gravy and a variety of fresh and crisp vegetables make for a delicious meal on a hot day, and in Cambodia, every day is a hot day. Whatever the claim, if you ever find yourself in Cambodia, have a bowl of the “world’s first noodles.”
Here’s a short clip of the noodles being made.Published in