Food for the soul: Resurrecting Cambodia’s forgotten cuisine

(CNN)It was while studying in France that Ly San, now 29, decided to resurrect traditional Khmer cuisine.

Missing the tastes of his homeland Cambodia, he began to research traditional Khmer food but found that written accounts of the country’s native recipes and ingredients were hard to find.

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He realized that much of this information had been lost during the civil war of the early 1970s and subsequent barbaric rule of the Khmer Rouge, which saw hundreds and thousands of people die from execution and starvation.
    “We ate little (during that period) and that’s why people lost their (culinary) education,” he tells CNN. “People also were killed. So the food that we ate was to sustain the body and mind only.”
    Determined to find out more, San spent six years interviewing elderly Cambodians about the recipes they had loved before political turmoil tore apart the nation’s kitchens.
    In 2016, San opened a restaurant in Phnom Penh, Kraya Angkor, where he serves these dishes.
    He realized that his country’s cuisine was far richer than even he had realized.
    “The food — no one can forget it. It’s one of the identifiers of Cambodian culture.”

    Countrywide search

    Before San, a lawyer who teaches at the Royal University of Law and Economics, in Phnom Penh, began his project he thought Cambodian cuisine “to be simple.”
    His research, however, in his hometown of Siem Reap, where he interviewed the elderly there about the dishes they grew up with, changed his perception.
    “This passion popped up and pushed me to learn more,” he explains. “As I gained more knowledge about Khmer food, I started to realize the major impact (of it on people’s lives) as well as the importance of the Khmer culture of food.”
    After one elderly lady taught him how to cook “na tang” — a dish usually reserved for royalty — San decided to broaden his search, traveling across Cambodia to interview and cook with older citizens.
    Six years later, San has interviewed 26 Cambodians, and written two lengthy books — one of recipes and the other detailing ingredients.
    “I only learn from old folk who have been cooking for many generations,” he tells CNN. “I go to meet them, I go to their house and cook food with them.
    “They teach me, they tell me about the taste of these foods. I take a lot of pictures, and learn how to make these foods spicy or salty, things like that.”

    Fit for a king

    Broths, curries, relishes, roasted meats and dipping sauces. These, San discovered, are all part of traditional Khmer cuisine.
    He also learned the three Khmer classifications for food — royal, elite and peasant.
    Royal food — such as na tang, a starter of deep-fried sticky rice with a sauce made from minced pork, chilli and coconut milk — was once primarily served to people in Cambodia’s royal palace. The ingredients in such dishes are richer, more diverse and contain more meat.
    Elite dishes, which were mostly for the country’s officials and wealthy citizens, are less complicated and made using lower quality meats and ingredients.
    Peasant, or everyday, food — such as “kor kou”, a fish soup that remains popular in the country — is made using simple, easily accessible ingredients.
    Fragrant and delicate, all of these dishes rely heavily on galangal, garlic, lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves and turmeric for flavor. The subtlety makes Khmer cooking distinct from other southeast Asian cuisines, such as Thai, with its strong flavors.
    “The way that we cook is very different from other countries and it reflects how our country developed,” says San “Khmer food is very … good for your health.”

    Complex culture

    Cambodia’s famous Angkor temples are stunning reminders of the country’s rich heritage and culture, despite a modern history scarred by war.
    After the communist Khmer Rouge came to power in 1975, their Marxist leader Pol Pot embarked upon a dramatic regime of social engineering, sending people from the cities to communal farms in the country.
    Intellectuals and middle-class citizens were tortured and executed while hundreds of thousands of people died of disease and starvation from the famine Pol Pot’s revolutionary policies induced.
    Records of the country’s cuisine were destroyed by the Khmer Rouge, and people ate purely for survival, living on what little was available at the time.
    “Cambodian people just ate in groups, eating porridge and small foods and a lot of water to stay stable,” says San.

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    Although San won’t elaborate on whether his elderly tutors shared their experiences of Cambodia’s struggle, it’s clear that what started out as a personal project has taken on greater significance.
    “This experience is very important. It has taught me how to protect Cambodian culture,” says San. His restaurant, Kraya Ankor, serves dishes from all three categories of Cambodian cuisine, and counts Cambodia’s Princess Norodom Buppha Devi among its regulars.
    He is also working on turning the two Khmer books he wrote into one comprehensive cookbook, and hopes to eventually have it published in French and English.
    “I want to show Cambodian people their food and enable them to taste real Cambodian food.”

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    Is Bangkok really banning street food?

    (CNN)When news broke this week that Bangkok was reportedly planning to clear the streets of its beloved street food vendors, outrage broke out among fans of the city’s famously cheap eats as the story racked up global headlines.

    Cue the backtracking.
    Government officials now say that while some areas will be cleared of street vendors in the name of public safety, they’ll impose stricter rules on cleanliness and hygiene in other popular street food areas like Khao San Road and Yaowarat (Chinatown).
      Should fans of Bangkok street food be worried?
      Leela Punyaratabandhu, author of new book “Bangkok: Recipes and Stories from the Heart of Thailand” explains why the issue is so complicated.

      Is the clampdown on street food as bad as it seems?

      I wouldn’t worry too much about it at this point. Nobody really knows how it will pan out.
      We’re not sure which areas will be affected; it could apply only to the main streets leaving the alleyways the way they are.

      Why do some people want street vendors gone?

      Not all Bangkokians have warm and fuzzy feelings about the carts and stalls that have occupied public spaces and sidewalks — day and night — for decades (which isn’t exactly legal).
      In addition to food carts, there are also tables and stalls selling, as the Thai expression goes, “everything from toothpicks to battleships,” meaning all sorts of ware imaginable.
      Bangkok sidewalks are often narrow and walking on one that’s lined with these street carts isn’t easy.
      The tight space often forces people to walk in a single file, and the moment someone stops to buy something, they immediately block the already tight walking space.
      So to avoid that — and the smoke from grilled food and the splattering and smell of hot frying oil and the puddles from all sorts of washing and cooking activities — pedestrians often have to get off the sidewalk and walk in the street instead.
      Sometimes, street carts occupy so much space at a bus stop that commuters need to wait for their buses in the street as well.
      This presents danger to both the pedestrians themselves and the motorists becomes part of what makes the city’s traffic worse than it already is.
      You can’t blame Bangkokians for wanting to have sidewalks that can actually be walked on.
      There’s also concern about cleanliness and the environment.
      When you run a food business on a sidewalk, you’re not equipped with the infrastructure that promotes cleanliness, hygiene and environmentally friendly waste disposal.
      The dumping of used frying oil right into the street drains? The washing of used dishes and utensils in a bucket of soapy water and the emptying of said bucket right onto the street?
      These things happen all the time and they contribute to environmental and health problems.

      Wouldn’t this be the end of all things good about the food of Bangkok?

      No — not even if the ban is citywide and will be strictly enforced for years to come.
      Let’s put things in perspective here.
      Street carts are the most visible, the most approachable, the most affordable, and — as some would say — the most fun food operators in Bangkok.
      So naturally, they get the most laudatory write-ups among international travel/food writers who often have little access to restaurants with a Thai menu or people’s homes.
      The food reportage is often skewed.
      Actually, apart from the longstanding and reputable street carts — and there are quite a few — the vast majority of them are far from representative of Bangkok food at its finest.
      Most exist mainly to meet the needs for affordable food within a walking distance.
      Bangkokians know this, and they set their expectations accordingly.
      The blind, indiscriminate glorification of sidewalk food is the failure to see the food of Bangkok the way the locals really see it.
      So, no. The ban does present some problems, but the end of Bangkok’s gastronomic culture as we know it isn’t even close to being one of them.
      The city has so many more low to moderately priced options to offer.
      Most shophouse eateries do not block traffic and have access to things that enhance hygiene such as refrigeration and running water.
      And their food is nearly always more superior to that from an average food cart without being much more expensive, if at all.
      In fact, if you look at the history of some of these shophouse establishments, you’ll see many of them started out as itinerant vendors who made such great food and were so successful that they could afford a permanent place inside a building.

      If these street carts are so problematic, why doesn’t the city get rid of all of them?

      This is where things aren’t as clear cut as they seem.
      It’s also where empathy is needed from both the opponents and the supporters of the ban.
      Bangkok is a crowded home to over 8 million people, many of whom have relocated from economically disadvantaged provinces to look for work opportunities.
      Selling food has become a default livelihood for many of these people.
      Setting up a stall or a cart on the sidewalk requires little money, and, if they stick with easy food that doesn’t require any specialized skill –and this is often the case these days — starting a business is easy.
      No registration. No health inspection.
      According to a 2012 study from the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration’s Division of Policy and Planning, this is actually a good thing, because it alleviates the problem of unskilled labor in the city (those who claim that street food represents the best food of Bangkok and that street vendors are the best cooks in the city, take notice!).
      In addition, with such low start-up and daily operational costs, street carts are able to provide inexpensive food for the people in every nook and cranny of the city who need it most without them having to travel for it.
      These street carts are also vital in keeping the overall prices of prepared food in the city from rising so rapidly that some people can’t catch up.
      In terms of tourism, regardless of how the locals feel about street carts, it’s undeniable that they greatly appeal to foreign visitors in the age of gastro-tourism.
      Bangkok has been hailed as one of the best food destinations in the world and we should do everything we can to continue to earn that reputation.

      Are there any solutions?

      This issue has a long history, and it needs to be carefully considered.
      Finding practical solutions and compromises that benefit all involved is harder than talking about the problem.
      Arguments from an emotional standpoint or terse, dismissive comments berating those who hold the opposing view aren’t helpful.
      We need to figure out a way to restore law and order, to keep the city clean and orderly, and to free up the sidewalks for pedestrians — especially the elderly and those with disabilities.
      Rules and regulations that are already in place need to be enforced consistently and impartially.
      We need to recognize the contribution of these street vendors and make sure these economically disadvantaged members of our society are able to live and work and eat in this increasingly less affordable city.
      We need to provide them with infrastructure to promote a more hygienic practice and to minimize the environmental damage that comes from unregulated food operation.
      We need to help these vendors get to the point where they can operate in such a way that Bangkokians come to see them as they really are: a contribution and not a nuisance.
      We need to figure all these issues out, keeping in mind that what has worked for other cities in the world may not work — or may need serious tweaking for it to work — in Bangkok.
      Maybe there are some compromises and workarounds we haven’t considered. There’s got to be a way to create a win-win situation for everybody.

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