Tag: Cambodian Food

Nom Kom: A Simple Cake

 

Nom Kom is a very old, very traditional Khmer cake wrapped in banana leaves in a pyramid shape. It is a simple cake, made with glutinous rice flour and has coconut, palm sugar, and black sesame seed filling. All the ingredients you can easily find in your local supermarket. While banana leaves are available at the frozen aisle of Asian markets, fresh leaves can sometimes be found at Latin markets as well. Nom Kom is one of several traditional cakes my grandmother likes to serve at our family’s various religious ceremonies throughout the years.

It is a simple cake, as stated above, but nom kom also bears a religious connotation as well. It represents the yoni (vulva, womb), a personification of the divine feminine creative power, the mark of Mother Shakti. In Hinduism, the yoni is the counterpart to the linga, the symbol of Lord Shiva. So of course, num kom has its counterpart, num ansom. At engagement and wedding ceremonies, num kom and num ansom are always presented together to symbolize the union of the linga and the yoni, the representation of the eternal process of creation and regeneration, the union of male and female principles. In Khmer, that union is called mea ba (mother, father).

Group Writing: Fish’s the Season

 

To outsiders, Cambodia has two distinct seasons: the wet season and the dry season. But to the Khmer people, there is a third one, rdauv prohok, a prohok season. Prohok is a fermented fish paste. It is the heart and soul of Khmer and Cambodian cuisines, and yes there is a difference between the two cuisines, but that is a topic for another day. Prohok season generally starts in December and ends in February, coinciding with the fishing season (November to March). This year, the first phase of the season began on December 20 and ended on the 29th.

To understand why a fermented fish paste is so important to our food culture, one has to understand Cambodia’s geography and its dependency on fish. I mentioned Boeung Tonlé Sap, also known as the Great Lake, before in one of my posts here. As the largest inland fishery in the world, the lake has been sustaining the Khmer people since the beginning. It is integral to Khmer food culture (we eat 140 pounds of fish per capita annually, compared to the global rate of 64 pounds). Lives in Cambodia essentially revolve around this abundance of fish, with 45% of the population working in fish related employment during this short peak fishing season. People from all over the country travel to the Great Lake, the Mekong, and every waterway to buy or trade rice for fish to make pha’ak (fish fermented with sweet fermented alcoholic black rice), sun-dried salted fish, smoked fish, and of course to make prohok, to ensure that fish products are available throughout the year.

Group Writing: How to Prepare Kampot Noodles

 

Did you know that noodles originated in Cambodia? Well, according to the Khmer legend of Dhmen Jay, noodles were introduced to China around the start of the Common Era. If you’ve read my previous post on noodles, you’d know that num banh chok is a fermented rice noodles. Making num banh chok is very laborious, as you can probably tell from that post.

I’m not certain of the age and provenance of num banh chok, but my aunt’s third-grade teacher’s family claimed to have been making Khmer noodles for more than a thousand years. And there are many villages all over Cambodia that have claimed the same. There are a few areas in Kampong Thom and Kratié provinces that have been making num banh chok for more than two millennia.

A Deadly Cake

 
By Hyzuko from Wikimedia Commons

Do you like desserts? In Cambodia, desserts are eaten in large quantities as snacks at any time of the day, whether it’s 8 AM or 10 PM. We don’t serve desserts as a course after each meal. Instead, we eat fresh fruit after a meal, unless it’s a big celebration or a wedding. Cambodian desserts range from cakes to puddings, dumplings to custards. The Khmer word for dessert is bangaem, meaning sweet. However, Cambodian desserts are not quite as sweet as western desserts. Khmer cuisine, as a whole, is not as sweet as those of our surrounding neighbors.

The World’s First Noodles

 

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.

Member Post

 

Shortly before the start of the Khmer New Year in mid-April and Pchum Ben (Festival of the Dead) in September/October, two types of traditional cakes that bear the name num ansom make their appearances all over Cambodia’s bakeries and markets. But first, a brief Khmer lesson: Num = cake, and after the French arrived in […]

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