In an article entitled “Tamarind in the Cuisine of Angkor’s Villages: From the Memoirs of Zhou Daguan to Today”, Cambodian anthropologist Ang Choulean has explored the role this unusual, tangy-sweet fruit has played in the preparation of Cambodian cuisine and condiments down through the ages.
Tamarind’s best moments are during the hot, dry seasons of the year, when the fruits are ripe and easily peeled. At this stage of its life, the seeds have hardened and are not used, only the pulp, which has a very different taste from its young, unripe form. One of the advantages these fruits offer is that they can be kept for a long time, and enjoyed all year around. However, the tamarind fruit’s annual life cycle presents an abundance of opportunity for Cambodia’s chef.
Choulean begins with the famous memoirs of the Chinese emissary, Zhou Daguan, whose record of his time at Angkor is one of the most important eye-witness accounts of life at Angkor during the reign of the Khmer Empire.
While his records never attempt to deconstruct Cambodian cooking of the time, Daguan does take time to regret the absence of two staple sauces considered fundamental to Chinese cooking, namely soy sauce and vinegar. In so doing, he explains that when Cambodians want to add an acidic flavour to their cooking, as vinegar would, they instead used tamarind (ampil).
Choulean elaborates on the types of Cambodian dishes whose dominant flavour is acidic, and integrate tamarind to achieve that end. He divides these into liquid dishes, namely samlor mchou, and crushed solid foods. Tamarind is also an integral ingredient to sauces that accompany certain dishes, such as grilled fish.
He starts to explore the wider context of how tamarind is prepared and consumed today by taking us through the life cycle of the tamarind fruit. This brings us a variety of dishes, including a sauce made with young tamarind fruits, which are crushed along with shallots, garlic mam herb, chillies and salt to create a crushed paste for a sauce to accompany grilled fish.
Moving on in the year to September, the fruits in the tamarind trees have ripened and sweetened, but of greater interest to cooks are the leaves which they combine with lemongrass, galangal, garlic, prahok, salt, palm sugar, and finally holy basil which is saved to last, to create a warming samlor mchou, perhaps with crab.
Next Choulean imagines the a Khmer household preparing a sort of inter-meal snack of papaya salad. He notes that Khmer papaya salad is quite distinct from its Thai and Laotian counterparts thanks to its use of prahok instead of shrimp paste (Thailand) or padèk (Laos).
It should be remembered that a Khmer bok l-hong, prepared off the shelf, is very different from Thai som tam or Lao tam mak houng. The use of prahok instead of kapi (shrimp paste in Thai) or fish sauce (Laos) is one of its characteristics. Another distinction in the preparation of this salad is that while in Thailand and Laos, the acidic element of this salad is introduce by using lemon, or lime, in Angkor that end was achieved by the addition of tamarind.
At the time of year of which Choulean is imagining, January, his cooks are having to make do with ripened tamarind fruits which lack the starp tang of their immature selves. Be that as it may, Choulean’s cooks carry on with crushing their ingredients with the crumbled flesh of a grilled fish and with grated papaya, all of which is to be served with peanuts and a set of vegetables.
Choulean then describes the making of a fermented fish dish which is served with slices of fresh ripe tamarind. “The taste of this fruit in its entirety is sought here, the harshness and bitterness of the seeds correcting the acidity of the pulp…”
Choulean brings his discourse back to Daguan to demonstrate continuity in the use of tamarind to introduce sour, acidic flavours even though, over the centuries since his visit, soy sauce and vinegar have become entirely integrated into the Cambodian culinary landscape. Indeed many households make their own vinegar.
Adapted from an article in: Cambodge Mag