Searching for the Authentic Khmer Cuisine

posted by Kaitlyn Weber

An essential part of any travel experience is the sampling of local cuisine. Unfortunately, in Cambodia this becomes less of an enjoyable encounter and more or a scavenger hunt for authentic Khmer food. Having never sampled or even heard of Khmer food, I was unsure what to expect. Not surprisingly, most dishes resemble the cuisine of countries across Southeast Asia, with staple ingredients of rice, noodles, and tropical fruit. All of these were things I had tried many times before, and I longed to discover uniqueness in Khmer cooking. My desire for authenticity is something that will not soon be fulfilled. Due to centuries of oppression and outside control Cambodia was never able to establish its own original cuisine and was forced to adopt the traditions of other areas or the world.

The typical menu in the tourist-heavy areas of Siem Reap averages ten pages in length and is divided into several sections based on origin of cuisine. The most common sections include Western, Italian, and Thai. The list of authentic Khmer food is usually reserved for the last few pages of the menu and consists of a limited number of dishes to choose from.

Two dishes appear in the Khmer foods section of nearly every menu: lok lak and fish amok. These dishes vary greatly from region to region and even between different households. This is due to the fact that recipes are rarely written down in Cambodia but are instead spread orally from generation to generation. Both dishes have become favorites among locals and tourists alike and carry with them a strong sense of national pride. There is only one problem, in all likelihood neither dish originated in Cambodia. Lok lak probably made its way over from Vietnam via French colonizers entering Cambodia. Fish amok has a less discernable history. The dish was possibly developed in the Khmer empire, however, it shares many characteristics with a similar dish developed elsewhere across Southeastern Asia.

The history of Cambodia is filled with control from outsiders and terror from within, leaving very little time for the development of purely Khmer culture. When freedom from the outside influence of France and Vietnam finally arrived, the Khmer Rouge stepped in to demolish any hope for cultural development. It has only been in the past thirty years that the country has emerged as its own independent land, free to begin reestablishing unique traditions and ways of life.

One of the most important parts of this reestablishment should come in the form of food. Authentic dishes and dietary customs are equally important to the people of a nation as well as in introducing the rest of the world to the country. With many hardships facing the people of Cambodia in everyday life it is important for them to feel a sense of belonging within the borders of their land. What better way to solidify this national pride than by putting a new twist on the Vietnamese lok lak and creating a purely Khmer meal fit for the entire world to enjoy?

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