Sal­vaging the for­got­ten recipes of Cam­bo­dia

Scour­ing the coun­try­side for tra­di­tional recipes on the verge of fad­ing from liv­ing mem­ory, chef Rotanak Ros is striv­ing to put Cam­bo­dian cui­sine on the world map through cook­ing classes, quick and easy recipes, and lux­ury-din­ing nights at her river­side t

Southeast Asia Globe - - Contents -

Even on the deck of Rotanak Ros’s ter­race house on the banks of the Mekong River, Cam­bo­dia’s mid­day heat is sti­fling. De­spite the blaz­ing stove­top, the fans hang mo­tion­less in their cages so as not to dis­turb the film­ing of the day’s cook­ing class. The cam­era rolls its gaze from the pump­kin ly­ing in even clumps on her chop­ping board to the rich red clay pot on the stove. Chef Nak takes a breath, wipes the sweat beaded on her brow and smiles. Take two.

It looks like hard work, and it is. But Rotanak – who goes by Chef Nak – is adamant in her quest to draw tra­di­tional Cam­bo­dian cui­sine back from what she fears is the brink of ex­tinc­tion. Her web­site, rotanak.co, is re­plete with recipes drawn from her child­hood: kanh, a re­fresh­ing salad tra­di­tion­ally served with fresh duck blood; crispy shrimp cakes that were once all she ate on her long walks to school; and, per­haps most tan­ta­lis­ing, a caramel stew gar­nished with black mush­room and bam­boo shoots.

Nak is no stranger to the work of cul­tural preser­va­tion. For eight years, the self-taught chef worked with Cam­bo­dia Liv­ing Arts, an or­gan­i­sa­tion founded by sur­vivors of the bloody Kh­mer Rouge regime that has spent the past 20 years work­ing to rekin­dle the King­dom’s fad­ing cul­tural arts. It was here that Nak be­gan to re­alise just how frag­ile the thread had be­come that binds to­gether gen­er­a­tions of Cam­bo­dian fam­i­lies.

“I un­der­stand the dan­ger of los­ing so many art forms,” she told South­east Asia Globe af­ter the day’s film­ing was fin­ished. “Be­cause peo­ple in Cam­bo­dia, they pass through their knowl­edge ver­bally – most of the art forms don’t last, be­cause noth­ing is writ­ten down. So I kind of saw my role that I could do some­thing, be­cause I be­lieve that cook­ing is one of the art forms. It’s an art form that is passed through many gen­er­a­tions and it’s all about how daugh­ters see their grand­par­ents, their moth­ers, do things – and they take those lessons them­selves.”

Along with her home­grown cook­ing chan­nel, which walks cooks through tra­di­tional Cam­bo­dian recipes col­lected from across the coun­try, Nak of­fers visi­tors a chance to taste the fruits of her labours first­hand with pri­vate cook­ing classes and ex­trav­a­gant evenings feast­ing on her ter­race half an hour’s tuk tuk from the heart of Ph­nom Penh. Com­bin­ing a five-course tast­ing menu and cock­tails with tra­di­tional Kh­mer mu­sic – per­formed by musicians from Cam­bo­dian Liv­ing Arts – these evenings, dubbed ‘Ma­hope by Rotanak’, are de­signed not only to bring in ex­tra rev­enue to fund her foodie fix­a­tion, but to cul­ti­vate a sense of in­ti­macy with Kh­mer cui­sine of­ten lost in the King­dom’s high-end res­tau­rants.

For Nak, it is this en­sem­ble per­for­mance – blend­ing the gen­tle majesty of Cam­bo­dia’s nat­u­ral splen­dour with the sa­cred songs of lost gen­er­a­tions – that re­con­nects Kh­mer cui­sine with a past in which food, mu­sic and dance

I re­ally think that Cam­bo­dian food de­serves a place in the world. I keep ask­ing my­self why it isn't there yet, and I'm try­ing to an­swer this ques­tion

were all an in­dis­pens­able part of the evening meals of the cul­tural elite.

“Ma­hope means ‘food’ in Kh­mer – but when peo­ple come here, the ex­pe­ri­ence they should get is not only the taste of the food but the na­ture around them, the art per­for­mance,” she said. “We want to com­bine the cook­ing arts and the per­form­ing arts to­gether.”

Although it may be tempt­ing to blame the wide­spread famine and up­heaval of the Kh­mer Rouge era for the de­cline of dishes dat­ing back to the Angkor Em­pire, the eco­nomic boom that has ush­ered in two decades of pros­per­ity has not left the na­tion’s an­cient culi­nary tra­di­tions un­scathed ei­ther. As the lib­er­al­i­sa­tion of the econ­omy opens up Cam­bo­dia to a horde of in­ter­na­tional chains and fast food fran­chises keen to meet the needs of a grow­ing mid­dle class, a gen­er­a­tion of urbanites is for­sak­ing the home­cooked meals of their youth for eas­ier fare.

“They’ve for­got­ten that they’re now let­ting go of their cul­ture of cook­ing at home and hav­ing the whole fam­ily in­volved in what the par­ents are do­ing,” Nak said. “Cam­bo­dian fam­i­lies are go­ing to lose the tra­di­tions of cook­ing to­gether, eat­ing good food to­gether – and the way to ad­dress that is through ed­u­ca­tion about good food; but also what I’m try­ing to do is to in­spire peo­ple to cook again and to be­lieve what I be­lieve, which is that a happy fam­ily should be able to smell good food made by some­one in that fam­ily.”

Through her cook­ing chan­nel and a li­tany of lesser-known Kh­mer recipes listed on her web­site, Nak hopes to en­cour­age younger Cam­bo­di­ans to see tra­di­tional cook­ing not as a labour-in­ten­sive chore best left to el­derly rel­a­tives but as some­thing more akin to a kind of med­i­ta­tion that also fills the bel­lies of fam­ily and friends. Nak hopes her plat­form will pre­serve recipes that are in dan­ger of slip­ping from liv­ing mem­ory, and also help reg­u­lar Cam­bo­di­ans cul­ti­vate a more mind­ful ap­pre­ci­a­tion for what they put in their bod­ies.

“I want to re­ally go to the roots of the knowl­edge,” she said. “There are many, many grand­mas out there who have still sur­vived, and still have the knowl­edge and still re­mem­ber how it tastes and how it’s cooked, and those peo­ple don’t have a lot of time. So I want to do this quickly.”

To this end, Nak out­lines what she de­scribes as a boomerang strat­egy. By grow­ing in­ter­na­tional in­ter­est in Kh­mer cui­sine through English-lan­guage recipes and videos, she hopes to rekin­dle lo­cal in­ter­est while caus­ing a stir in the West with Cam­bo­dian sta­ples. While more recog­nis­able fare such as the pep­pery lok lak or fish amok – once the favoured dish of Cam­bo­dian roy­alty – are easy to track down in the tourist traps of Ph­nom Penh, find­ing Cam­bo­dian fare on menus around the world isn’t so easy.

“The world knows all the food from the coun­tries around us, but not Cam­bo­dia’s,” Nak said. “And I kept ask­ing my­self why, be­cause I be­lieve that Cam­bo­dian food is so in­cred­i­ble, and I’m not say­ing that I only love Cam­bo­dian food. I love Thai, I love Viet­namese, Ital­ian, French – but the more I travel, the more I eat dif­fer­ent things, the more I ap­pre­ci­ate our lo­cal ingredients even more. And I re­ally think that Cam­bo­dian food de­serves a place in the world. I keep ask­ing my­self why it isn’t there yet, and I’m try­ing to an­swer this ques­tion.”

For now, though, Cam­bo­dian cui­sine con­tin­ues to trail be­hind the suc­cess of its neigh­bour­ing cuisines. Laugh­ing, Nak de­scribed walk­ing into Thai and Viet­namese res­tau­rants around the world only to find them run by Cam­bo­dian chefs.

“Right now, peo­ple do not feel fully proud of what they are, of what they have eaten since they were young,” she said. “And I’m so hop­ing that what I’m do­ing can in­spire them to take that pride, to take that own­er­ship, that knowl­edge that we are so special – and we should be happy and cel­e­brate what we have rather than hid­ing in some­body else’s clothes.”

Rotanak Ros pre­pares a pump­kin dessert recipe she dis­cov­ered while trav­el­ling the King­dom's coun­try­side

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