Khmer Cuisine Part 1: An Introduction

 

Khmer cuisine refers to the cuisine of Cambodia. It’s not to be confused with Cambodian cuisine. The first is considered to be almost uniquely Khmer, the bits of influences it experienced came from India and Java. Whereas Cambodian cuisine is referred to what emerged after the 1700s, and is influenced by the cuisines of Portugal, China, Malaysia, France, Vietnam, and Thailand. The last two are two-way influences as Thai and Southern Vietnamese cuisines are heavily influenced by Khmer cuisine. 

Khmer cuisine is categorized by dishes as well as by tastes: sour, salty, bitter, and pungent (if pungent could be considered a taste). These four tastes are also applied to Cambodian cuisine as well. Although, a worrying trend toward sweeter taste has emerged recently among the younger generation. Our food is well balanced between those four tastes, and by that, I don’t mean balanced in a dish, but that there would be a dish of each taste at the dining table at mealtime. 

Khmer people love the sour taste. We love the sour taste of unripe fruits: unripe mangoes, tamarinds, and a whole lot more. We love them fresh, we love them pickled. You can find vendors selling fresh and pickled sour fruits at every street corner all over the country. We are known as the land of pickled sour fruit. We eat as many sour fruits as we eat fish and rice. And talking about fish, our diet is dominated by fish. Khmers are fish eaters. We eat 140 pounds of fish per capita annually, more than double the global rate. We eat them grilled, we eat them steamed, we eat them smoked and in salads, we eat them in soups, curries, and stews, and we eat them with regular white rice (glutinous rice is used exclusively for desserts only). A meal without rice is not a meal, but a snack. At lunch and dinner, rice always accompanies various dishes. The only exception to the rule is num banh chok (Khmer noodles).

Aside from fish and other creatures from rivers, lakes, and sea, we eat duck, chicken, pork, and beef. There aren’t many beef dishes. The handful are traditionally made with venison, goat, or wild boar. Beef is a recent development. We didn’t use to eat beef, we don’t eat a lot even now. And it has nothing to do with religion, but eating animals that help us in farming was viewed as a bad form. Water buffaloes are not on the menu either. The French were the ones to popularize beef in Cambodia. Insects, crickets, grasshoppers, and tarantulas are not part of Khmer and Cambodian cuisines. They are the legacy of the Khmer Rouge.

Our cuisine also utilizes all kinds of herbs, roots, leaves, and flowers. Yes, flowers are not just for pretty presentations. We eat tree jasmine, the pretty yellow sesbania javanica flowers, plumeria, water hyacinth flowers and many more are pickled, or tossed in salads and on and on. Salt, fish sauce, palm sugar and prohok make up the majority of our seasonings. Prohok, a fermented fish paste, is the soul of Khmer cuisine, which leaves kroeung as the heart. Or maybe it’s the other way around. Either way, both prohok and kroeung make up the foundation of Khmer cuisine. Kroeung is a fresh spice and herb paste that will be covered in a later post.

I didn’t list sweet as one of the tastes of Khmer cuisine, but that doesn’t mean Khmers don’t eat sweets. Cakes, sweet dumplings, puddings, fruit pastes are eaten in large quantities as snacks. Sweets are only served as desserts at the end of a meal at big celebrations. Sweetness in Khmer desserts comes from palm sugar. Khmers love caramelized palm sugar and you’ll find a taste of that burned sugar in sweet as well as in savory dishes.

Hopefully, this has been an appealing introduction to the basics of Khmer cuisine. I’m turning this into a series and will delve into more details in future posts.

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  1. American Abroad Thatcher
    American Abroad
    @AmericanAbroad

    Thanks for this post.  It is very informative.  I really like amok.  My other favorite is lok lak, but I usually have that with beef, so I guess that is the French influence.   

    • #1
  2. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    Yet another time when I wish that Ricochet had a button that could deliver the described food! Something like DC Comics’ Krypton Community Kitchen, which delivered direct to the table via pneumatic tubes. Alas, to enjoy an LC recipe one must be prepared to scrub up some vegetables and work…but not for very long, and the resulting dish sounds more than worth the effort. Thanks for introducing us, once again, to an aspect of cultural (and culinary!) life that we’d be very unlikely to encounter elsewhere. 

    • #2
  3. Zafar Member
    Zafar
    @Zafar

    I just had dinner and I’m hungry again now. My COVID bump will never leave now, LC j’accuse!

    • #3
  4. LC Member
    LC
    @LidensCheng

    American Abroad (View Comment):

    Thanks for this post. It is very informative. I really like amok. My other favorite is lok lak, but I usually have that with beef, so I guess that is the French influence.

    I like lok lak too. It was something I requested often as a kid. 

    • #4
  5. LC Member
    LC
    @LidensCheng

    Gary McVey (View Comment):

    Yet another time when I wish that Ricochet had a button that could deliver the described food! Something like DC Comics’ Krypton Community Kitchen, which delivered direct to the table via pneumatic tubes. Alas, to enjoy an LC recipe one must be prepared to scrub up some vegetables and work…but not for very long, and the resulting dish sounds more than worth the effort. Thanks for introducing us, once again, to an aspect of cultural (and culinary!) life that we’d be very unlikely to encounter elsewhere.

    Same, what a service that would be. 

    • #5
  6. Clifford A. Brown Contributor
    Clifford A. Brown
    @CliffordBrown

    This tasty post is part of our Group Writing Series under the February 2021 Group Writing Theme: “Chef’s Surprise.” The March theme is “Blowin’ in the Wind.” Stop by and sign up soon.

    Interested in Group Writing topics that came before? See the handy compendium of monthly themes. Check out links in the Group Writing Group. You can also join the group to get a notification when a new monthly theme is posted.

    • #6
  7. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn
    @SusanQuinn

    I love your food posts, LC, except I’m also hungry after I read them! I wonder if there are Khmer restaurants? Probably unlikely in FL. I’ll do a search!

    • #7
  8. LC Member
    LC
    @LidensCheng

    Susan Quinn (View Comment):

    I love your food posts, LC, except I’m also hungry after I read them! I wonder if there are Khmer restaurants? Probably unlikely in FL. I’ll do a search!

    FL is a pretty diverse place. You might be able to find some, especially in the bigger cities.

    • #8
  9. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn
    @SusanQuinn

    LC (View Comment):

    Susan Quinn (View Comment):

    I love your food posts, LC, except I’m also hungry after I read them! I wonder if there are Khmer restaurants? Probably unlikely in FL. I’ll do a search!

    FL is a pretty diverse place. You might be able to find some, especially in the bigger cities.

    The dilemma might be finding authentic Khmer as opposed to Cambodian. I don’t know if the restaurants make a distinction. But we’ll see . .  .

    • #9
  10. LC Member
    LC
    @LidensCheng

    Susan Quinn (View Comment):

    LC (View Comment):

    Susan Quinn (View Comment):

    I love your food posts, LC, except I’m also hungry after I read them! I wonder if there are Khmer restaurants? Probably unlikely in FL. I’ll do a search!

    FL is a pretty diverse place. You might be able to find some, especially in the bigger cities.

    The dilemma might be finding authentic Khmer as opposed to Cambodian. I don’t know if the restaurants make a distinction. But we’ll see . . .

    It’s probably close enough, especially if it’s a Khmer family-run restaurant.

    • #10
  11. KarenZiminski Coolidge
    KarenZiminski
    @KarenZiminski

    Susan Quinn (View Comment):

    I love your food posts, LC, except I’m also hungry after I read them! I wonder if there are Khmer restaurants? Probably unlikely in FL. I’ll do a search!

    I thought you were in Massachusetts. Lowell, MA, has lots of Cambodian immigrants. If you are up north in summer, you might find some food like LC describes.

    • #11
  12. Belt Member
    Belt
    @Belt

    I’d just like to say that I really appreciate your posts about your heritage.  Thanks for sharing this with us.

    • #12