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Exploring Cambodian food history with Cuisine Wat Damnak

We have been interested in Cambodian food culture for as long as we have known Joannès Rivière. His restaurant in Siem Reap, Cuisine Wat Damnak, is a gastronomic lesson in Southeast Asian history. His food is inspired and inspiring.

For the last three months, we have worked with Joannès’ team to study the patterns that connect Cambodia to the rest of the world.

From the Khmer kralan and ansom to the Peruvian tacu tacu, we found analogous techniques to cooking rice and beans as a patty. In Cambodia, as in Thailand, the dishes are religious offerings. Tacu tacu, an emblem of Afroperuvian culture, highlights food as a site of resistance against Spanish colonists; enslaved Africans transformed leftover rice and beans into a nutritious delicacy.

The plea reminds us that raw fish cooked with citrus abound throughout Cambodia and beyond. A simple but integral technique to seafaring populations, we identified its counterparts in the Indonesian gohu ikan, Malaysian umai, Filipino kilawin, Hawaiian poke, and Cook Islander ika mata.

We developed this dish drawing on the ubiquity of fish sauce, not only in the region but globally, too. Sometimes, our evidence for cultural connection is language. Nuoc mâm in Vietnamese, nam pla in Thai, ngan byar yay in Burmese, nam pa in Laotian. Its ancestor, the Roman garum, likely evolved across the Silk Road before being consumed in China as kôechiap.

The oldest genealogy record we explored was that of the watermelon salad, common in Cambodian food, but with origins in Egypt 5,000 years ago. Its arrival in Southeast Asia is preceded by a journey through the Mediterranean, India, and China.

Joannès astounded us by tracing the origins of the sushi to the Cambodian mam. A more common variation, the narezushi, was made by lacto-fermenting fish with salt and rice as a preservation technique. It likely spread down the Mekong River— from Myanmar to Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam— before entering Austronesia and Japan.

You cannot cook Cambodian food without thinking about frogs, of course. A delicacy in many countries— including France, China, Northern Italy, and Southern regions of the United States — it is uniquely eaten in Cambodia in its entirety as opposed to just its legs. If it wasn’t clear already, Joannès is French.

We close our meal by reinterpreting the enduring legacy of the Portuguese in Southeast Asian food. In the 16th century, European missionaries introduced pao de lo, a sponge cake made with eggs, flour, and sugar. The Japanese adopted it as the kasutera. In Cambodia, we have the noum barang.

This research journey has been illuminating. Thank you for allowing us to share it with you in this dinner.