Incense, Angkor, and a kilo of trey ngeat: Reflections on the materiality of Khmer culture in Cambodia and the Khmerican diaspora

ASHLEY THUTHAO KENG DAM  |  15 AUGUST 2020  |  ISSUE #11

Typical Khmer meal spread. Picture by the author.

‘What do you miss the most about srok khmae Ma?’, I ask. ‘I miss that it’s hot and sunny, but I also miss the food very much’. It’s been almost 40 years since my mother was last in Cambodia, but her fondness for her culture hasn’t waned one bit. Her enthusiasm contrasted greatly with the immense darkness of her last moments in the country. 

 

On April 17th, 1975, the streets of Phnom Penh, Cambodia were filled with citizens in exodus; my mother was marched out to the rural provinces of Cambodia and forced into hard agricultural labour. She left behind most of her personal belongings, save a few pieces of jewellery that my grandma told her to hang onto for both sentimental reasons and potential bartering situations. She was given a ‘uniform’ of sorts – everyone received the same dark black clothes and sandals. 

 

She escaped the Khmer Rouge genocide on foot to Thailand, only stopping to sleep sparsely and hide in overgrown jungle terrain. Through a mix of happenstance and luck, she and her siblings were granted passage to the United States from the Thai refugee camp they were temporarily living in. She arrived in the United States aged 18 with barely any possessions and no knowledge of the English language, ‘I only had one pair of shoes and a change of clothes’, she explained. She began the tedious journey of rebuilding herself in an intimidating and new American context. Since there were so many people in her family, all their newly acquired possessions were from various local church donation boxes. Despite the oddities each family member accrued over the years from charities, acquaintances, and small purchases with their personal gains in wealth, there seemed to be related themes and touches which differentiated a Khmer household from others.

 

My childhood home, as well as the homes of my extended family, were peppered with the following: incense holders filled with rice, dark wooden furniture, overflowing chahn prah (silver bowls) of fruit, a massive stone mortar and pestle, silk pillows and table placements with elephant and/or floral patterning with golden thread highlights, potted plants with thick green leaves, an expansive karaoke system, and large artistic interpretations of the illustrious Angkor Wat temple complex. Kitchens were inundated with scents of vibrant lemongrass, sharp ginger, and spicy bird-eye chillis. On occasion, wafts of pungent prahok (fermented fish paste), trey ngeat (dried fish), and fish sauce would break through the aromas of stir-fried, grilled, and simmering dishes. Meals tended to include a giant pile of jasmine rice and a spread of fresh vegetables, fanned out and ready for dipping in different sauces. You might be thinking, ‘Well, what makes these items uniquely Khmer?’, and I thought the same up until I visited Cambodia for the first time. 

Angkor Wat temple complex. Picture by the author.

‘Nyom khoun kaht’ (‘I’m a mixed child’), I explain to the tuktuk driver at Phnom Penh International Airport as he lifts my luggage into the rickshaw. ‘Ah, that explains a lot’, he replies in Khmer. Despite the immense geographical distance between my family and Cambodia, I never felt too far away. Being a K-visa holder, a designation which offers the children of Khmer refugees displaced in the war access to Cambodia, I moved to Siem Reap, Cambodia for a few months of work and research. This move solidified the inevitable clashing of two distinctive forms of Khmerness – to be Khmer in America versus being Khmer in Cambodia. After I arrived, my mother called me constantly wondering how it felt to truly experience Cambodian culture, ‘Now you can understand me better, right?!’, she joked. 

 

As I made my way through the countryside from village to village, as well as from the city capital of Phnom Penh to Siem Reap, I felt that everything I associated with being Khmer was screaming at me. Streets congested with tuktuks hosted hordes of food carts which sold roasted meat on skewers that my aunt would recreate for special occasions, fresh sugarcane juice that I was only able to drink on Khmer New Years in the US, and bags of various sour fruits sprinkled with salt and chilli that I would see my mother nibble on occasion. Motorbikes cruised by, street dogs searched for food scraps, and young children tried their best to sell small packages of dried nuts and fresh fruit. It was like I was living in an experiential overlay: the outlines of what I knew as Khmer and Cambodian culture were suspended over the typical activities of everyday life in Cambodia. It was like I was witnessing fragments of a life I could have lived; it felt familiar and astoundingly nostalgic.

 

I got into the habit of sending her visual updates so she could experience a more welcoming and modern Cambodia vicariously; these updates included photographs of everything I ate, ‘I’m so jealous you get to eat salaw kako and amok whenever you want’. Throughout the years, she has made (and I ate) an exceptional amount of salaw kako. I remember it fondly as a warm and nourishing soup full of ‘as many vegetables as you like’, fish, and an assortment of typical Khmer seasonings and spices such as lemongrass, turmeric, galangal root, and kaffir lime leaf. Salaw kako was a common staple when the weather was grey and stormy, often accompanied by a heaping serving of jasmine rice as well as a shallow dish of sliced chillis submerged in salty fish sauce. What differentiated salaw kako from other Khmer dishes for me was its colour: with pieces of pumpkin and leafy greens poking through and toasted rice grains as a thickener, salaw kako reflected one’s immediate landscape. Recipes for salaw kako vary among Khmer villages, but the feeling of substantiality and vibrance it brought was constant across each interpretation of the dish. 

 

After flipping through some Khmer recipes books, I soon realised that salaw kako was heavily reliant on certain local vegetables like sluk bah (ivy gourd leaves) and cheak kuchuy (green bananas) so I enquired how my mother dealt with this, ‘When I make salaw kako in America, I use vegetables that remind me of the ones we have in Cambodia. The kreung (seasoning paste) still makes it pretty close in taste so it’s not really a problem. It still tastes Khmer to me’. The cultural legacy of Cambodia is embodied within Khmer food to her, salaw kako was the way my mother tied herself to her Khmer identity and the seemingly distant landscape which once housed and nurtured her. Even after all these years, these manifestations of Khmerness through her cooking offer a sense of support and recognition of her transformative journey from refugee to citizen. While she couldn’t bring much to the United States, her memories of taste and a hunger for recreating them have sustained without issue. 

Amok and salaw kako. Picture by the author.

Sophal’s Salaw Kako – American Diaspora Style

Disclaimer: My attempts to clarify the amounts of each ingredient used in this recipe were widely rejected by my mother who felt that my familiarity with the taste of this dish would be enough to figure it out. Most measurements rely on estimations and/or personal taste preferences.

Ingredients:

 

  • Kreung Paste: Lemongrass, turmeric, galangal root, kaffir lime leaves, shallots, garlic 

  • Prahok Paste (1-2 teaspoons, depending on preference)

  • Catfish (600g)

  • Thai eggplants

  • Kabocha pumpkin

  • Spinach

  • Green beans

  • Carrots

  • Broccoli 

  • Jasmine rice (50g)

  • Fish sauce (to taste)

  • Salt and sugar (to taste)

 

Cooking instructions:

General preparation notes

  1. Wash and cut all vegetables

  2. Clean and fillet the catfish 

Making the Kreung

  1. Combine the lemongrass, turmeric, galangal root, kaffir lime leaves, shallots, and garlic in a mortar and pestle

  2. Grind accordingly into a workable paste

  3. Place the paste in a bowl on the side

Making the Salaw Kako

  1. Toast the jasmine rice in a pan until lightly brown and fragrant

  2. Move the toasted jasmine rice into the mortar and pestle, mash it 

  3. Fill a large pot with water to half volume, bring to a boil

  4. Add the catfish and some kreung into the water

  5. Cover and simmer for 20 minutes on medium heat, adjust if needed

  6. Add the vegetables and simmer for an additional 15 minutes

  7. Add the toasted ground rice

  8. Add 1-2 teaspoons of prahok to taste

  9. Add fish sauce, salt, and sugar to taste 

  10. Enjoy! 

Ashley Thuthao Keng Dam

Ashley Thuthao Keng Dam is a PhD candidate in Ecogastronomy, Education, and Society at Università degli Studi di Scienze Gastronomiche and an Oxford MSc graduate in Medical Anthropology. Specialising in food and nutritional anthropology, Thao’s research focuses on traditional Khmer food-medicines, seasonality, and maternal diets of rural Cambodian women. Ashley produces a podcast entitled Bites of the Round Table and is the editor of the zine GastronomicalGrrrls.

Follow them on Twitter @ashleythaodam or Instagram @foragedandfed

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