The Culinary Art of Cambodia is a glossy blue tome with a royal feel to its design and printing, which is more than appropriate given that it has a portrait of Princess Norodom Rasmi Sobbhana on its cover framed in gold. It even comes with its own slipcase.
With such a grand appearance and refined presentation it would be easy to forget that it was a cookbook if it weren’t for the abundant evidence provided in the contents.
The complete English edition has over 300 recipes along with cooking tips and the Khmer version has 170 recipes – all of them selected by the Princess for publication in the Royal Family Bulletin starting from the year 1970 onward.
Princess Norodom Rasmi Sobbhana – or Samdech Preah Reach Kanitha Norodom Reaksmey Sophoan in Khmer – was born in 1895 and died in 1971 at Teakhena Phirum Palace in Phnom Penh.
She was the daughter of Prince Norodom Sutharot and Princess Norodom Phangangam, making her the aunt of King Norodom Sihanouk and the great-aunt of the current sovereign of Cambodia, His Majesty the King Norodom Sihamoni.
Working as a teacher at Phnom Penh’s Sutharot School, the unmarried Princess dedicated her life to social action and charitable causes – in particular the education and empowerment of young women in the Kingdom of Cambodia.
Back in the 1960’s – the final golden years of her nephew’s reign as Cambodia’s monarch before it was disrupted by Lon Nol’s military coup, Nixon’s “secret” bombing campaign and Pol Pot’s communist revolution that turned into a genocide – Princess Norodom Rasmi Sobbhana decided to gather recipes from Cambodia’s culinary traditions, written in both the French and Khmer languages along with English translations.
Samdech Kanitha – as the Princess was affectionately referred to by her students at the Sutharot School for Girls – was not just trying to keep a family book of recipes to be used by the Royal Palace cooks. She had a broader vision of her work’s purpose and was actively trying to collect and document the entire repertoire of Cambodian cuisine.
Bernard Cohen, founder of Angkor Database – an online non-profit educational resource that provides free access to media related to Cambodian history and culture like books, photos and films – told The Post that in Cambodia there never was a “Royal Cuisine” strictly codified and set apart from the ‘commoners’ culinary habits, as existed in Thailand or Japan, for instance.
“These recipes certainly reflect the particular tastes of the late King Father [Norodom Sihanouk], who did not fancy extremely spicy foods. Yet, once again, the Princess had all the Kingdom’s inhabitants in mind when she recorded and enriched this culinary tradition,” Cohen says.
This archive of royal recipes has now been republished and is on sale with all proceeds donated to charity. It was added to the Food Diplomacy 2021-2023 campaign promoted by ministries to promote Cambodian cuisine around the world.
“I think the title accurately reflects the Princess’ aim, which was to contribute to the preservation and enrichment of the Kingdom’s cultural legacy, and to help the new generations in mastering their ancestors’ know-how and values,” says Cohen, the man behind the project.
The 184-page book combines four elements: historical background, an English version published in the year 1960 that was directed toward an international readership at the time and the Khmer recipes collection with the recreation of five three-course menus.
The English section from page 67 to page 132 has 15 recipes – ranging from canapes to desserts and cakes, as well as a glossary.
“The collection of recipes in Khmer was revised by the Princess herself and published in several issues of the ‘bulletin mensuel de documentation’ (a publication supervised by the late King Father himself).
“The recreation of five three-course menus were selected and realised by Mesdames Men Chandevy, Men Sodany and Men Sotheavy – all of whom were kind enough to bring in their expertise in the fields of history, heritage preservation and culinary arts to this project,” says Cohen.
The three sisters chose those five sets of three dishes with the intention that they be shared at the table in the traditional Cambodian manner.
Cohen says the research on this almost-lost publication from Cambodia’s Golden Age started in 2019 in response to the express wishes of Veasnu Kru, the owner of Templation Angkor Resort in Siem Reap.
As the founder and coordinator of an online resource on Angkorian civilisation and Cambodian history, he was able to gain support for the project from several members of the Royal Family as well as some internationally recognised historians who were already admirers of his online archival work.
Cohen told The Post: “For 18 months, we collected direct testimonies, archival documents and rare photographs – in particular with the help of HE Julio Jeldres, the brilliant chronicler of the Royal Family’s modern history.”
He says that in terms of the actual recipes it was impossible to recreate all of them given that there are 300 in the English-French version and 170 in the Khmer version, with only 70-some recipes overlapping and present in both of the publications.
“We kept them as a historic document. To illustrate the Princess’ savoir-faire we proposed five menus set-up as typical Cambodian dinner sets with three courses to be shared by families and guests rather than western-style with starters, mains and desserts,” Cohen explains.
Cohen says the book should be seen as an important means of vividly bringing back to life the cultural mores of the Sangkum Reastr Niyum era for the new and modern Cambodia.
He says the Sangkum Reastr Niyum era was a period of remarkable creativity fuelled by the optimism and energy of a nation finally embracing its peacefully-achieved independence.
Cohen says that for historians, researchers and all citizens who have been deprived of historic continuity, context and sources through the ravages of the civil war, it shows the roots of specific Cambodian traditions and how they can be traced back to the past – and can still be perpetuated today if they are rediscovered and embraced as part of modern Cambodian’s cultural inheritance.
“Princess Rasmi Sobbhana’s legacy is palpable in the culinary realm, yet it also stands out in all of Her Royal Highness’ dedication to many social causes, in particular the empowerment of women.
“The Royal Family is a potent cultural symbol and an active agent as such of cultural continuity for the nation. And I think we are blessed here in Cambodia, because in so many other countries the royals seem far more preoccupied with petty internecine feuds and the pursuit of sterile controversies,” Cohen says.
The Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts along with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation recently launched a worldwide campaign to promote Cambodian cuisine called Food Diplomacy 2021-2023 and quickly discovered this cookbook was perfectly suited to their purposes.
“It just makes sense nowadays – in these times of public health emergency and ongoing concern – to start showcasing the Cambodian diet with its emphasis on fresh produce, low-carb ingredients and countryside roots,” Cohen says.
All proceeds from the first edition (5,000 copies) are going to the Sobbhana Foundation for Women and to Wat Reaksmey Sophorn in Kandal province, which is named after the Princess and was erected by the Men family in the 1990s.
“Princess Marie, as Samdech Kanitha’s daughter-in-law, has kept alive the memory of the late Princess, and generously helped us in this labour of love and remembrance,” Cohen says.
The Sobbhana Foundation was created by Princess Norodom Marie to perpetuate and expand on Samdech Kanitha’s support for improved public health and education, empowerment of women and the development of sustainable and fair traditional handicrafts.
“Prince Sisowath Tesso has also provided invaluable contributions to this project, which is very much in line with his own endeavours to preserve and revitalise Cambodia’s cultural legacy with the Royal Ballet and the teaching of ancestral performing arts to younger generations,” says Cohen.
The Culinary Art of Cambodia cookbook is available for sale at select locations around Cambodia for a donation of $21, with all profits going to charitable causes. It will soon be for sale online and abroad as well.
For inquiries regarding online purchases, please email: [email protected]