One of the great joys of traveling is experiencing a cuisine and a food culture completely different from your own. This is one of the many reasons I love to travel. Although I’ve only been in Cambodia for a short time I’ve immersed myself in the culture of Cambodian food as much as possible.
I visit the local markets everywhere I go, I eat in local places (which can be an adventure sometimes), I sample the street food (also an adventure) and I seek out private cooking classes from local folks who can really teach me the ins and outs of Cambodian food.
Learning about a unique food culture offers a great opportunity to see your own food culture in a new, perhaps clearer light.
For me, here are nine things that I think Cambodian food can teach my country, America, about food.
And there’s no such thing as a Cambodian vegetarian.
And I’ve never met a Cambodian with a food allergy.
The above two sentences are not my words. They are the words of my food tour guide
Nor is Cambodian food low-carb or anything remotely resembling Paleo.
Cambodians eat everything. And man do I mean EVERYTHING (see #2). Vegetables, fruits (the cover pic is a fruit known as dragonfruit), herbs, roots, rice, all types of fish and seafood and all types of meats prepared in a dizzying array of all salads, soups, stir fries, raw and cooked foods.
Although on the surface the diversity of different types of Cambodian food seems complex, really it’s quite simple – most meals strike a balance between carbs, fats and protein.
Maybe if we stopped obsessing in America about macronutrient ratios, fad diets, food philosophies, food labels and counting calories and just got back to eating real food from real farms, we’d be a lot healthier.
Only in western countries is entomophagy considered gross, disgusting, icky, horrifying or whatever verb you want to use to describe entomophagy, the practice eating of insects.
In Cambodia, insects are sold as snacks on the street like this…
And they’re often included in other dishes too.
I can see the expression of disgust on your face already.
I’m not going to be a hypocrite and say I’ve been devouring insects here everyday. I tried it once (including eating a tarantula), like many tourists do, and that was good enough. And it really wasn’t that bad. Crickets in particular, had a rather interesting flavor.
But what if you had to?
No one saw the stock market crash coming in 1929. Nobody.
Who’s to say another crash is not coming? Many believe it’s coming sooner than later and that this one will be infinitely worse than 1929. If it happens, our industrialized food system would crash too. If you couldn’t get food from supermarkets, how would you eat? Would you know how to live off the land?
When the Khmer Rouge devastated Cambodia from 1975-1979, many people turned to eating whatever they could to survive which included not just insects but even spiders.
We all know our current industrial food system is not sustainable. As we try to re-think and re-establish sustainable food systems for growing populations around the world, many believe raising insects for food is going to become a necessary part of a secure and sustainable food future.
A very detailed report by the Food and Agricultural Organization of the UN lays out a vision and plan to make this happen, even in western countries. In fact, some American companies are already using cricket flour in their products such as cricket flour protein bars and cricket flour protein powder.
Beyond eating insects Cambodians are more in touch with their local foods than Americans. And because Cambodians are not as reliant on industrialized food, they are much more food secure than Americans.
Here’s another example…
That’s a woman at a local market outside Siem Reap selling some wild plants that she picked herself.
At every local market, there are many types of wild herbs and vegetables for sale. But they’re not grown commercially. They’re just picked by the local people. Like these…
There are so many that most don’t have English translations. They grow in the forests, in fields along waterways, along roadsides and in backyards.
Many have medicinal uses as they’re rich in various trace minerals and vitamins.
Here in America we also have wild edibles. Many grow right in our backyards and yet most people consider them weeds. For example, dandelions are edible – all parts of them – the flower, stalk and roots. There are hundreds of wild plants growing all around us in our local fields and woodlands.
And they’re free!
One of my most popular blogs, especially in the early spring, is how to find, identify and cook fiddleheads.
Learning the wild edibles that grow around you is another way to become more food secure. But it’s also fun, especially if you have kids, as they can perhaps learn to develop a love and appreciation of the natural world all around us.
Seek out a guide in your area that can teach you how to identify these things. There are also many good books online where you can learn more. Two good options are Backyard Foraging and The Forager’s Harvest.
Noodle soups, rice soups, brothy soups, vegetable soups, fish soups, herbal soups, you name it, Cambodians eat in the form of soup – for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
This was a chicken noodle soup I had for breakfast one day…
I can’t even remember what this one was (I’ve had SO MANY) but I’m sure it was as delicious as it looks…
You may know I’m a bit of a soup fanatic. I’m currently working on my third book on Thai soups and I blog about soups regularly. And of course, I eat them regularly too so I’ve been in soup heaven here in Cambodia.
Soups are so healing to our gut and millions of Americans suffer with chronic gut issues as a result of industrialized food.
Homemade bone broth/stock, rich in anti-inflammatory minerals such as magnesium, and amino acids, like glutamine, proline and glycine, is one of the keys to healing an unhealthy gut. But once you’ve healed your gut, making broth-based soups a regular part of your diet is a great way to maintain good gut health.
In America, most people buy canned soup or broth in boxes and cans. This is not real soup or broth (even the organic ones)!
Learn to make your own broth. It’s not hard. Once you do that there are a zillion simple soup recipes you can whip up in a matter of minutes.
The incredible diversity of soups here in Cambodia is a testament to how creative you can be once you have a simple broth.
If you’re new to making soups at home and need some recipes, including a variety of simple broths, my second book, Fearless Broths and Soups, will inspire you to make soup on a more regular basis, including even breakfast!
I’ve seen Americans who are so clueless about cooking that they’re afraid if they use 1 tablespoon of say, soy sauce vs. two, they’ll screw things up. They follow recipes in books EXACTLY as written because they think that’s the way it has to be done.
Recipe books are fine to learn a new recipe but cooking from taste, smell and even touch is really what cooking is all about. It’s creative. It’s personal.
In the cooking classes I’ve taken from local Cambodians, it’s been so much fun watching them cook through instinct and tradition.
One of the lessons I took was from a local woman who was a bit anxious before I arrived because she didn’t know what I wanted. She told me she was afraid I’d want a written recipe with exact amounts of things written down because sometimes that’s what westerners want. When she realized I was a lot more laid back, she enjoyed the process more, as did I.
We cooked a traditional fish sour soup and everything was cooked through the senses. Her eyes told her how much sugar, salt, fish sauce and chiles to add. Her tongue told her when she should add a little more of this or that. Even her fingers told her when the rice noodles were ready. Here she is feeling for the right texture of the noodles…
Instead of having to follow some boxed package directions that say, “cook for 8-10 minutes,” she simply knew by touch when the noodles were ready.
Traditionally, this is how people cooked – through the senses.
Learning to cook this way will free you from obsessively having to use recipes and to develop your own personal style according to your personal tastes.
This is how people cook in Cambodia. This is how people used to cook in America before we began to rely on packaged, processed food.
In Cambodia the farmers markets are the markets. They far outnumber supermarkets and their fake, processed foods.
Local markets are the lifeblood of the Cambodian food system. If you ever visit here, be sure to spend some time visiting a few. They are an assault on the senses – full of life, crazy colors, sights, sounds and smells. Bring a few extra batteries for your camera too. It will be one of the more photogenic places you’ll visit.
Most of the food is brought in that day, fresh from the backyards, fields, forests, farms, the lakes, rivers and oceans.
These are edible wild flowers that are used as garnishes in a lot of dishes…
There is of course, nothing like this in America. But the resurgence of farmers markets is as close as we can get and is a wonderful alternative to the cheap, industrialized food from most supermarkets.
Interestingly, the reason most Cambodians shop in local markets is not just the better quality of the food, but it’s also cheaper.
This is the reverse in America where the low cost of industrialized food (which is the result of government subsidies) results in a high cost of environmental damage and high cost of chronic disease. I know food is more expensive at farmers markets. But hospital bills can be pretty expensive too.
Try to support your local farms and farmers markets as much as possible. It’s worth it for your health and the health of our local food systems.
Cambodians eat a lot of fish, both freshwater and salt water. But they buy the whole fish a lot more than just fish filets. And they know how to use the whole fish.
On the right in the pic below is Marady. She taught me how to make num banh chok (also known as “Khmer noodles”) which is made with a fragrant fish broth. Here she is picking out the fish…
Many nutrients are concentrated in fish heads, fish eggs, organs and even the skin and are thus prized in many cultures around the world.
But not in America. We throw out everything except the neatly packaged fillets. What a waste.
In Cambodia, the fish heads are used for fish stock/broth and all parts of the fish are eaten.
Marady snipped out the fish organs and put it with the rest of our soup because she said her husband liked those parts and that they have many health benefits. In the other private class I took the teacher removed the egg sac but included it in the soup for the same reasons.
Learn to use whole fish in different ways. Ask your local fish monger to give you the heads and the carcasses and learn to make fish broth. It’s actually less time-consuming and easier to make than chicken or beef broth.
I’m not trying to romanticize Cambodian food. Industrialized food has been here for a while and continues to erode traditional foodways (though not at the rate of other countries).
It doesn’t seem to matter if you’re in a high-end restaurant, in a little organic cafe or in someone’s home, EVERYBODY uses this…
As Cambodia is a poor country, the traditional oils such as coconut, palm and even lard are much more expensive. Interestingly, no one seems to know that soybean oil (and other vegetable oils) is really unhealthy.
The use of MSG is just as rampant. Knorr is making an absolute killing over here.
People use it in everything but especially soups, unfortunately.
There are tons more junk foods made with the typical industrial chemicals that preserve, color and flavor packaged foods. And you’ll always find a section of the local market that sells this stuff.
But the good news is that there seems to be an awareness of the importance of supporting organic, real foods here. Some restaurants proudly advertise that they don’t use MSG. My Cambodian guide on a local bike tour of the countryside was very aware that MSG is dangerous and went into detail about its health risks.
In America, these processed foods have been part of our diet for a lot longer. Each generation gets sicker as we’ve been consuming mostly industrialized supermarket food for over 50 years. Basically, the foods in the middle aisles of your supermarket are all made from the same fake stuff. They may look different. But look at the food labels and you’ll start to see the same ingredients over and over, namely vegetable oils, corn, wheat, sugar and a litany of chemical flavorings (such as “natural flavors”) and colorings all hidden behind bizarre, unpronounceable chemical names (azodicarbonoamide anyone?).
As Cambodia becomes more industrialized, it faces the same challenges of eating highly palatable, cheap, processed, convenience foods. Let’s hope the growing awareness of real food doesn’t veer Cambodia too far away from its strong local food customs.
It’s a fascinating cuisine that is as of yet, not very well-known around the world. How many Cambodian restaurants are in your town? Though there are similarities to the more popular Thai and Vietnamese cuisine, it has its own distinct flavors and traditions.
If you ever make it to Cambodia there are many cooking classes offered by local people all around the country. Many restaurants offer them but I found them somewhat generic. Seek out the classes that are truly taught by the local people.
My favorite was a from a wonderful couple, Chris and Lily, in Siem Reap. Check out Lily’s Secret Garden Cooking Class. Here’s Lily putting the finishing touches on the amazing Cambodian soup we made…
But if a trip to Cambodia is not on your agenda anytime soon, here’s a great book, Cambodian Cooking, to get you started:
The author, Joannes Riviere, a renowned chef, presents recipes that are fairly easy for Americans and other westerners. There are no insects or tarantulas! Just simple, tasty Cambodian food.
Maybe someday there will be more Cambodian restaurants in America. With the growing popularity of Cambodia as a travel destination and the resulting exposure of Cambodian food to millions of tourists every year, I think it’s just a matter of time.
Craig Fear is the creator of Fearless Eating and the author of three books, The 30-Day Heartburn Solution, Fearless Broths and Soups and The Thai Soup Secret. After years helping clients with digestive issues, Craig decided to pursue writing full-time. He intends to write many more books on broths and soups from around the world! Click here to learn more about Craig.