Cambodians traditionally used hundreds of different native plants in their cooking. Today, just a few dozen are found in their kitchen.
Until recently, rural Cambodians never looked beyond their village for the ingredients of their culinary recipes and the rivers, jungles and soil provided the myriad flavours – from sweet and sour, to spicy and bitter – that make up Khmer cuisine. But today’s increasingly urban lifestyle has seen a shift away from food self sufficiency, with families substituting imported products for the local ingredients that were the heart and soul of traditional cooking.
Yang Saing Koma, founder and former president of the agriculture organisation Cedac, says Cambodians once incorporated the roots, leaves, seeds and fruit of hundreds of native plants into their most cherished recipes but now less than 30 of these uniquely Khmer ingredients remain.
“And of these, only about 10 to 20 of them are available in the markets,” he says.
Koma says Cambodians have become complacent in their cooking, preferring to buy readily-available imported ingredients instead of cultivating their own. It is ironic then that many foreign countries are taking interest in growing these native plants on Cambodian soil for their own markets.
He points to the high demand – and prices – for Kampot pepper in Europe.
“There are also Indian companies that have planted turmeric and galangal in Cambodia to sell in their home market, as well Japanese companies that have come to grow ginger,” he adds.
Some restaurants in Cambodia have also looked to include fresh local ingredients to add a unique flavour to their dishes.
Sun Chanrothana, head chef of Khéma La Poste, said that while most of Khéma’s dishes are prepared using top quality imported products, he is always scanning the local market for specialty ingredients that can enrich the flavour of a particular dish.
“Taste is important, but quality is essential,” he says. “When we find [a suitable local ingredient] we try using it in our recipe and continually experiment with it until we achieve the taste and quality we desire. Only then will the management team make a decision to put it on the menu.”