Before San, a lawyer who teaches at the 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.”
Cambodia’s famous 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 induce