When you are on holidays, how easy is "eating fit"? More than just having a break from your dreary winter days, perhaps, you also enjoy eating...REAL food, too. Yes.... you can enjoy savouring the varied flavours, both familiar and "what is that?" of the local cuisine. Everyone knows Thai food and Pad Thai is now on almost every menu in the world. What about Cambodia? Many think that because Cambodia is close to Thailand, Laos or Vietnam, the cuisine will be the same as these. Or, some say, that by being part of the old French IndoChina, Khmer cheffery is closer to French cooking. These are partly true but Cambodian cuisine is truly unique unto itself. They have crafted their own cuisine from all these influences including in the far distant past the hints of India. But the biggest single cuisine driver is the abundance of fresh and sea water sea food and the fresh produce. Sixty five percent of Cambodians are farmers or fishers and the daily availability of fruits and vegetables, herbs and spices as well as all manner of fish and meat (ok..ok..ok..ok, the beef is NOT great) means Khmer food really deserves the eat fit label.
It is easy to eat fit in Cambodia as there is little use of meat and fat in day to day cooking. Its flavour is derived from spices and aromatic herbs that they always serve in platefuls especially in the rural homes of the Khmers. As there is an abundance of both fresh and salt water fish which the Cambodians salt, dry, and ferment, their cuisine is built around fish and seafood. This includes, of course, Cambodians' favourite ingredient which they call prahok, a fermented fish paste added to almost anything. Their use of this, though, is more sparing, just enough to give the dish a distinct flavour, uniquely Cambodian. In addition, as most grow their own vegetables, the local Cambodians add generous portions of vegetables to their cooking including banana and squash flowers, chive flowers, morning glory, bamboo shoots, lotus flowers, indigenous green leaf vegetables, making it a more healthy option.
Cambodian cuisine has so much variety. This is not so obvious to the ordinary tourist who samples only the fish amok in restaurants, but when you frequent real Khmer restaurants, you will soon discover the different Khmer dishes. As you walk through local markets, there are always specialty stalls where Khmers enjoy many of these. They have various salads made from fruits or pounded vegetables like string beans and papaya, dried fish or shrimp and aromatic herbs. Add to these some pounded coconut or sesame seeds and your taste buds will truly dance to the music of the flavours.
Aromatic herbs are part of every meal fare for Cambodians. They blend their spice paste by adding locally grown aromatic herbs such as galangal, tamarind leaf, turmeric, kaffir lime and lemon grass. They usually garnish generously with coriander, chives, heartleaf, basil or mint which they grow or purchase fresh from the market. The ingredients they use are usually cultivated around their homes or foraged in the fields or the wild which include rice paddy herbs, wild roots or sour leaves and of course, their favorite snacks such as field roaches, spiders, sparrows and locusts. All healthy and full of protein. Not to worry, the locals enjoy these as snacks. Well......maybe best stick to the veggies and fish!
There seems to be a delicate balance in sweetness, sourness, bitterness, spiciness and saltiness and the taste of aromatic herbs put it all together into a delight for the palate. Kampot pepper has graced fine Parisian restaurants since the early 1900s. A southern coastal province of Cambodia, Kampot has iron and manganese rich soil, making the pepper grown here acquire a strong but delicate pungent taste. Green pepper, the young fruit still on its vine, is often consumed fresh and added after the dish has been cooked, to give a delicate peppery flavour.
And here is the clincher. Cambodian food is also easy to prepare and cook. So try some now in your local Cambodian restaurant in downtown Cleveland or wherever or better yet, come to Cambodia and take some cooking lessons. Probably, try some of those exotic delicacies as well.