Looking for Lok Lak

posted by Lindsey Isaf

I browse the menu and finally, grinning, I mutter two words to the eager waitress, “Lok Lak.” Soon two dishes are set on the orange tablecloth, further drawing the contrasting white plates of Khmer food to me. The dish looks simple in color and idea. On one plate I find the staple food of Cambodia: white rice. My familiarity with rice quickly makes me shift the spotlight to the staring component of Lok Lak- the beef accompanied by a special pepper and garlic sauce. Once adding the pepper, garlic and lime sauce, the beef dish is transformed. No longer do I picture Cambodians eating beef and rice and calling it magnificent. Instead I find myself impressed by this painfully simple dish because of its bite and zing of this easily recreated sauce. In fact, this decision was not miscalculated or by chance. Before I even took my first steps onto the mud sinking, humid ground of Cambodia, I knew I would be having a personal experience with Lok Lak. What I didn’t expect was for my experience to become a journey.

Besides my parent’s ever-serious talk about all the potential situations abroad, which led to one or two family bonding movie sessions of “Taken” to prepare, I was given two pieces of advice a few weeks earlier. This advice came from my lacrosse coach, Eric, who was a more than welcomed source of information. One, I must bargain for an amazing piece of artwork, and second, I MUST eat Lok Lak. Unknowingly, this simple advice to find Lok Lak became somewhat of a predetermined journey given to me- the chosen Lok Lak forager. Like many journeys, obstacles were sure to exist, but my foodie driven self was determined to find this taste bud rollercoaster that Eric ate three times in one day. Surely any meal worth consuming three times in one day must have promise for a nomination in the “best dish award” of the Food Oscars.

On my departure, the only description given to me for Lok Lak was “rice, beef, and a fried egg with a minced garlic and vinegar sauce.” Its simplicity made me assume a journey for Lok Lak would be similar to searching for French fries in America. But no, the history and authenticity of this dish was enough to track down. Not to mention the disappearing act of eggs within Lok Lak dishes in different restaurants despite the innumerable amount of eggs and chickens at each market and each corner. Evidence for this Houdini act continuously haunted me as I heard about these cherished versions of Lok Lak while my search only produced those without egg and occasionally without cucumbers and tomatoes. However, this difficulty in identifying the comparison between Lok Lak with eggs and those without, as well as those with rice and those with French fries for the homesick foreigner was a first glimpse into the equally ambiguous history and importance of the dish within Khmer cuisine.

The Lok Lak is an example of a traditional dish that has enjoyed the luxury of being claimed Khmer while the actual truth resembles a colonial and foreign constructed existence. This garlic and pepper stir-fried beef dish has been a staple of Khmer households and cuisine for the past fifty years, as well as a modern link between other obscure Cambodian cuisine and the foreigner’s palate. The Vietnamese origin and presumed colonial introduction to Cambodia testifies this mistaken identity of Lok Lak within the culture. My only dismay will be to account these findings to Eric, whose memory holds Lok Lak entirely different than the also present French baguette of Cambodia.

Whether Vietnamese or Cambodian, the Cambodian Lok Lak has made its history and authenticity a fluid construct based on tradition and belief of the locals’ and foreigners’ culinary minds. My search has been a treacherous one. Authentic versus Americanized; Egg versus no egg; and rice versus French fries. My foodie mind has suffered the long battle between right versus wrong of cultural accuracy. I came expecting a truly Cambodian meal, hopefully being cooked for me by a tiny wrinkle-skinned hunched over woman in modest clothing sitting on the dusty ground over a pot of unimaginable aromas. Instead, the old grandmother figure of my dreams may never show and the award for best dish may never reach her.

In my last search for a unique, Cambodian version of Lok Lak, I came upon a version that held hope for authenticity. If Lok Lak were to forever bless my memories, my only choice would be to reach the northern provinces of Cambodia where the coveted Lok Lak, having beef substituted by native deer (sach chlouk), is occasionally found. This illegally hunted deer is considered a delicacy for Lok Lak “pilgrims”- like myself- because of its desirable taste and secrecy of consumption. However, with research and personal experience, I began to realize an absolute, hands down and widely accepted authentic Lok Lak was nearly impossible to achieve. Then again, I do not feel discouraged by the start of this journey and its unwilling end because this journey has nonetheless consecrated Lok Lak into my memory of Cambodia and its cuisine. But then again, I’m not Pho sure.

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