Five (Cambodian) foods you should eat before you die

I generally don’t jump on the meme bandwagon. When one of my favourite food web loggers, Austin at RealThai tags me for it, and Robyn at EatingAsia jumps on as well, it certainly can’t hurt to be seduced this time.

In 2004, BBC published a voter-recommend list of “foods to to eat before you die” which mostly proved that democracy does not work. Huge food blog Traveler’s Lunchbox pointed this out recently and sent out the call to food bloggers to nominate something better. Being the pimp of Khmer cuisine that I have become, here is my list of Cambodian foods to eat before you meet your untimely, but not wholly unexpected, denouement.

– It’s a little hard to wax lyrical about any food that is both the color grey and made from gutted, mashed then fermented animals. But if Cambodia was to replace the architectural ruin on their national flag with a foodstuff, prahok would be the most representative and versatile but the least visually appealing. You can eat this fermented fish paste raw, cooked, as a dipping sauce, and as a crucial ingredient in many typical Khmer foods.

Samlor Machou Yuon – Delicious sour soup and geopolitics, together at last. “Samlor Machou” refers to the whole genus of typical Khmer sour soups. “Yuon” refers to Vietnam or Vietnamese. Whether or not “Yuon” is a racial slur is a subject of huge debate, but it does show that when it comes to food, Cambodian people are passionate about their place in the world, and simultaneously defensive and acknowledging of the influence of other cultures’ cuisines on theirs. All of this in a tamarind-sour soup, no less.

Kampot Pepper – If you thought that all the French left behind in Cambodge was the seeds of bureaucratic corruption, madcap defamation laws, and some decaying colonial architecture, then think again. Never in my life have I been tempted to eat a spoonful of unadulterated peppercorns straight out of their plastic bag. Both fresh and dried Kampot pepper induces this sort of madness. Describing pepper as decadent seems to be something that was lost in the High Middle Ages: a decadence that the manganese rich soil of Kampot has managed to retain.

Fish Amok – If there were two words of French origin with “mousse” in them that I could never say enough, one would be “mousseline”. However, describing fish amok as a “mousseline fish curry” does not capture the clever subtlety of the dish, which balances fresh turmeric, galangal, lemongrass, krachai and palm sugar with the almost uniquely Cambodian ingredient, slok gno leaf (Morinda Citrifolia in Latin). Not to mention that most Khmer people tend to prefer a more liquid, un-mousse-like amok.

Cambodian BeerCambodian beer will always have a place in my heart, right next to that blood fluke that I caught while swimming in the Mekong. It’s certainly not all that bad, only most of it. What Cambrew and Cambodia Brewery do well is consistency. I’ve got no doubts that they could brew excellent beers given a larger budget, but the market for a quality brew in Cambodia would be so minute that there is no incentive. You shouldn’t expect much when you pay $10 or less per 24 cans, and frankly, it pays to come down from the ivory tower of hand-pulled real ales to fraternise with the locals.

For those of you reading closely, the other French word would be “pamplemousse”.

13 thoughts on “Five (Cambodian) foods you should eat before you die”

  1. Prahok – what a coincidence. I just did a post on Thai bplaa raa which I *think* is the equivalent. Being a super huge fan of food that really stinks but tastes great, I’d love to see a whole post dedicated to prahok. (Though perhaps other readers would not be as excited.) Any idea where in Cambodia it’s made?
    I agree 100% with the amok selection … but I’m wondering how Kampot pepper compares to Phu Quoc pepper – we carried about 5 pounds of the stuff from Saigon when we left.

  2. Prahok season is from December through March – I’m planning on getting out to the fishing villages and getting knee deep in it then. As for where, pretty much everyone close to a body of water makes prahok when they have leftover fish. I’m guessing that the towns around the Tonle Sap will have larger processing centres in them, but it is only a guess. When I asked my colleagues, they all said that their home province made the best prahok – which tends to happen whenever I ask anyone about preferred appellations.

    Phu Quoc (or Koh Trach(?) in Khmer) pepper will probably be a pretty close match. It’s a hot issue here whether Phu Quoc is still a part of Cambodia – a radio broadcaster was jailed last year for running an interview that suggested the government had ceded it to the Vietnamese.

  3. True amok is wonderful. It’s amazing, though, how many sweet yellow curry-like dishes these days are called amok — fish amok, vegetable amok, chicken amok, tofu amok! Back in 1998, there was a restaurant on the ground-floor level of the FCC building that served fantastic traditional amok, the two-days-in-the-making kind. Anyone know what happened to the wonderful cook who made that dish?

  4. I’ve met a guy from FAO one who seriously told be that Siem Reap prahok was classified number 2 in the world (after the one from Maldives…) My grand mother told me that in Norway (her homeland) they have this terrible thing but very traditional thing called “rottefisk” (literally rotten fish) that sounds to be some kind of tall blond blue eyed prahok to me.
    What I find very interesting with prahok is that you can compare it with cheese in Europe, basically controlling the spoiling process of a seasonal ingredient to be able to eat it at any time of the year…

  5. I did a Malaysian version of Top 5 Things to eat on my food blog…but yes, Fish Amok is yummy! Had those in Siem Reap earlier this year…I think the fish was called snake fish. Sounds scary but the texture was superb.

  6. This is a great list, thank you! Such a pitty I didn’t know your blog before my trip to Cambodia. I think I tasted all these things, except of prahok (which I already regret). I loved the Cambodian food.

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  8. You really didn’t make Prahok sound very enticing, but strangely enough out of all five things it was the one that intriguiged me the most. I will definitely be on the look out for this if I am ever in Cambodia.
    Thanks for a great insight into Cambodian food and culture.

  9. You’ve managed to capture all of my favorites here in this list. Chou youn is one of the things I miss most about Cambodian cuisine, next being the fish amok at Khmer Kitchen or Sugar Palm. I’m so excited to have found your site and keep up the good work [eating]!

  10. In response to an earlier comment, prahok is indeed very similar to the European concept of cheese; my Khmer friends jokingly translate the word as “cheese” although they are quite aware that it is not the same. I have thus far managed to avoid eating prahok, though I am sure I will someday be compelled to eat it out of courtesy to host. I prefer to wait until that day before sampling it.

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