Book Review: The Rural Cuisine of Angkor by Ang Choulean

[Adapted from an article in Cambodge Mag:]

The esteemed Cambodian scholar Ang Choulean’s near 300-page essay on the culinary habits and diets of people during the Angkor era can be found at the Center for Khmer Studies in Siem Reap. Available for lending in French and Khmer, it is the result of nearly two decades of research on the era and the region, especially the Roluos area, and an inspiring resource for those interested in Cambodia’s culinary history.

His findings demonstrate the historical continuity of Cambodian cuisine since ancient times, and the definitive rural and vegetal character of the Cambodian diet. He also records how the apparent simplicity of village food accurately responded, and still responds, to nutritional and gustatory needs of the moment.

Far from being a collection of recipes, or following a “structuralist” approach to Cambodian agrarian society, the essay deals with “culinary situations”: the when, where, how, by whom and for what purpose cooked food was and is prepared in the context of the villages near Angkor Wat.

© Paul Szewczyk

Choulean’s research encompasses fishing and hunting techniques, agricultural skills, the time and place of meals, cooking methods, the use of spices — quite limited, although Cambodian pepper is praised worldwide — and special occasions, as well as linguistic and historical considerations.

Of particular interest is the author’s reflection on the (surprisingly for many scholars) limited, if any, influence of Indian cuisine on the diet and tastes of rural Cambodia, while the ‘taste of Chinese food’ was integrated into festive meals as a symbol of material wealth and prosperity.

At the heart of the rural diet is somla (stew), which the author presents in two main categories, somla mchou (‘sour stew’) and somla prohoc (the word prohoc here defining the ‘stimulating’ taste imparted by herbs and leaves, not to be confused with prahok, the famous fermented fish preparation). As for cooking techniques, the author defines, for example, chha kdao, literally “stir-fried hot”, fried in hot cooking liquid, and p-krek, a term imitating the dry sound of ingredients just heated in a pan without liquid or fat, “dry-cooked”, a technique used for ants, among other things.

The symbolism of ingredients is also explored in depth. For example, the author notes that lemongrass, although widely used, is rarely retained in the final presentation of the dish, as villagers believed that the ageing tufts of the aromatic herb may be inhabited by evil spirits.

Ang Choulean is an anthropologist, Professor of Historical Anthropology at the Royal University of Fine Arts and former Director of the Department of Culture at APSARA. He was the second Cambodian national to receive the Fukuoka Grand Prize in 2011.

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