What exactly is Cambodian cuisine? In a nation impoverished for over a generation by warfare and divided geographically across its diaspora, it’s difficult to surmise even what it was, let alone what it is. For example, there is still no formal Cambodian culinary curriculum taught in the Kingdom. Instead, ASEAN programs dominate hospitality training, incorporating a vast swathe of Southeast Asia fusion, while equally focusing on French technique and recipes.
A country’s cuisine is usually characterised by its trade and ethnic influences, but there’s scant of this to show in Cambodia today: little evidence of spice island trade from the former Dutch East Indies (today’s Indonesia), or seasonings from subcontinental India. The Khmer Rouge decimated Cambodia’s ethnic minorities as much as its majority Khmer population, while the ensuing years of civil war encouraged the steady emigration of all ethnicities and impaired the restoration or development of culinary arts.
Not surprisingly, inaccuracies and generalities abound in descriptions of Cambodian cuisine, both “then” and now. Expatriates, such as the author of The Elephant Walk Cookbook, wax lyrical about a cuisine “less sweet than Thai” when, in actuality, savoury Khmer fare is very sweet these days. Wikipedia blithely defines making the country’s yellow, green and red pounded kroeung — the foundation of most dishes — as “blending spices into a paste using many ingredients like cardamom, star anise, cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger and turmeric”. In fact, such dried spices are rare. Unlike Thai cuisine, in Cambodia “curry” is a misnomer, as this type of dish is rhizome-driven rather than spiced. Rare exceptions, such as Khmer kari, its most popular version made with pork, might contain a pinch or two of curry powder, but saraman contains no dried spice at all. Saraman is a corruption of Saracen, an archaic English term for Muslim (sarrasin in French); it’s usually beef-based, with chicken and quail alternatives, but never has pork. Compared to Thailand’s spice-imbued massaman curry, influenced by that country’s southern spice trade, saraman is a faint facsimile.