from one generation to the next
What do you know about Cambodia? Angkor Wat? The bloody and brutal Pol Pot regime?
To most of the western world Cambodia is a mystery. Motivated by a long held dream to see first hand the mysterious temples that had been reclaimed from the jungle, I planned a visit to Cambodia. The lack of tourist infrastructure made research challenging so I concluded that joining a small group tour would easily remove the uncertainty.
With only a smidge of knowledge of what my experiences would entail I focussed my speculations on the food I would eat. I imagined a fusion of Thai and Vietnamese cuisines, a marriage of freshness and complex aromatics balanced by the richness of coconut milk, and while in some instances this is true, I have since concluded that Khmer food is truly unique.
Tourists in SE Asia expect to be served a sanitised and modified version of the food that is eaten everyday by the local people. Cursed by sensitive digestive systems and cultural inhibitions most visitors refuse street food and local delicacies of questionable provenance. I was no exception.
The rural Khmer harvest an annual rice crop to sustain themselves for the year. A small patch of land is given over to vegetables and various culinary herbs grow wild by the roadside. Morning glory greens are cultivated around the edge of paddy fields while banana and coconut palms liberally dot the landscape. Chickens scratch about the home yard providing eggs whilst in their prime and fish, snails, frogs, crabs, rice paddy rats, water snakes crickets and other bugs provide valuable sources of protein. Most rural families have a cow or water buffalo as a work animal but no dairy foods are consumed. The beasts are kept purely for their reproductive value, labour and meat.
Snacking is a national pastime as is swinging in a hammock. Roadside vendors and village markets stalls not only pedal local delicacies but also provide hammocks in which to catch 40 winks. Barbecued food on skewers are common offerings at these places. Rice paddy pests such as frogs, water snakes, fruit bats, and rats are deep fried, spiced then grilled, crickets and other bugs are seasoned and deep fried. Fish is commonplace, even inland thanks to the vast and bounteous lake, Tonle Sap. Steamed glutinous rice with banana and coconut are offered in many styles to satisfy the sweet tooth.
The glazed grilled meats looked and smelled tempting until a head, claw or tail came into focus and the brain comprehended the physical structure of the skewered creature. My western sensibilities subsumed my curiosity and I was unable to set aside by inner revulsion. I did eat a cricket, one cricket, straight from the fryer. It was okay.
I was left totally in awe of the resourcefulness of the Khmer people.