Cambodia’s culinary history seems blurry, for obvious reasons. Decades of civil war, including the genocide of as many as 3 million people, have taken their toll on the country’s cultural heritage, to the point where even people who live in Phnom Penh are hard-pressed to name more than one local dish (the trusty amok, a freshwater fish mousse topped with coconut milk and steamed in a banana leaf — similar to the Thai hor mok). But Cambodia hosts one of the oldest cuisines in the world, one which in all likelihood provides the precursors to many of the dishes that Thais are fond of championing as national treasures (see again: hor mok, a dish I had been led to believe was invented in the kitchens of King Rama IV).
So Thai cuisine is like Cambodian cuisine, and not the other way around. Yes, yes. But that doesn’t stop me from being a complete culinary chauvinist when it comes to sampling some of Phnom Penh’s streetside offerings at Central Market, an imposing pyramidal structure reminiscent of a giant beehive in the middle of the city.
Like everywhere else in Asia, the Chinese-inspired soup noodle is out in full force — most frequently in a clear pork broth. Condiments, however, differ a bit: instead of fish sauce, Cambodians use what appears to be a Chinese-style fermented brown bean sauce alongside the ubiquitous sugar (no nation is immune), mashed chilies in vinegar, and white pepper.
Besides the Chinese, another major culinary influence nowadays appears to be Vietnamese, which explains the longstanding (and frankly awesome) love of garnishes and relishes — something I can get 100 percent behind. There are sliced chilies and extra limes; sweet pickled and julienned daikon radish and carrot; pickled garlic cloves; plucked basil leaves, sliced cucumber and julienned banana blossom, even in curried noodles. Yes, there is curry, ladled atop fermented Mon-style rice noodles; unlike in Thailand, it’s greened-up with herbs and vegetables, lending a pleasant crunch but muting the flavor of the soup.
There is chicken rice, too, dressed in a sweet-spicy chili sauce, and rice porridge, full of pork bits. There is everything anyone could want, but like it’s being transmitted through a television where the volume is slightly busted. Which is to say, it’s super-subtle and doesn’t slap you in the face, but after years and years of getting slapped in the face, it’s hard to be happy with “nice” and “mannered”. I think it before I can stop it: Thai food is better.
The reason I think this may be because, compared to the Chinese and Cambodians, Thai cuisine is newer. As a result, Thais are inveterate borrowers. They “borrowed” frying, noodles and rice porridge from the Chinese, learning to make broth and figuring out ways of incorporating duck and concocting dishes that would make them happy. The result: things like pad Thai, duck curry with lychees, the Thai-style jok (Chinese-style rice porridge) crowned with a raw egg, ginger, scallions and a small flotilla of seasonings. They took Chinese-style fried bread and slathered condensed milk, chocolate syrup and ice cream over it. They saw sushi and thought it would be great dotted with dabs of mayonnaise flavored with wasabi or Sriracha sauce. They do these things because they can’t help themselves. They steal and incorporate.
Cambodia does not appear to be immune, moving forward while still anchored by the Chinese, French or Vietnamese as inspiration. In the market, hollowed-out toasted baguettes serve as trenchers for a sweet coconut milk “soup”. Fresh Vietnamese-style spring rolls top many a vendor’s cart. Another example:
This type of adaptation is healthy, propelling all cuisines forward. While today you may see conservatively-minded Thais (and their spiritual counterparts elsewhere) who insist things should be done the way they’ve always been done, the overwhelming passage of time makes this slavish devotion to the past almost impossible. Ingredients and tastes inevitably change, even in culinary cultures that, as a result of great tragedy, haven been frozen briefly in time.