The culinary tradition in Cambodia dates back more than a thousand years, a time when the Khmer kingdom dominated the entire region for more than eight centuries.
In this period of great development and prosperity, the Khmer civilization, which was at its peak during the kingdom of Angkor, has forged the identity of the local cuisine that has been adopted and transmitted orally over the centuries, from mother to daughter, especially in Cambodian rural communities, and until today.
The basic characteristics of Cambodian gastronomy are twofold: first of all, fresh and quality ingredients and then a variety of surprising flavors. Cambodia’s tropical climate, with abundant rains alternating with warm sunny periods, is helping agricultural crops by providing Cambodian cuisine with fresh, quality ingredients, such as various types of rice, fruits of all kinds, plenty of vegetables, herbs and spices.
As in all of Southeast Asia, rice is a staple of Cambodian cuisine. Cambodia has several hundred different varieties. From highly prized jasmine rice, called Malis, to the rawest and wildest black rice, this ingredient represents a constant in the landscape of Cambodia.
Prahok is another typical ingredient in Khmer cuisine. It is a fermented fish sauce used in many dishes. As for spices, you will find the precious Kampot pepper and cardamom, which refer to the old relationship that Cambodia had with Indian culture.
Cambodians are very good at handling spice and herb mixtures, as in the case of kroeung, a paste made from many different spices.
– The most famous dish of Cambodian cuisine is undoubtedly amok, a fish fillet covered with kroeung and cooked with coconut milk and eggs. In some cases, it is cooked wrapped in banana leaves, in others it is boiled and served as a fish soup.
– Lok lak, the Cambodian version of the Vietnamese dish bò Luc lac, made of marinated and sautéed beef.
– Num ban chok, consisting of rice noodles accompanied by a green fish curry, cooked with lemongrass, turmeric and kaffir. There is also a version with red curry, reserved for weddings and other important occasions.
– Kdam chaa, which is a dish made of fried crab.
– Kuy teav, a rice noodle soup with a pork broth.
– And, for the more adventurous, insects are part of the daily diet of many Cambodians: cockroaches, crickets, tarantulas, silkworms are fried and seasoned with salt, palm sugar, pepper, kaffir, garlic and sometimes curry. Against all odds, it seems that they are all succulent … For those of you who have already tested, what is your impression?
And finally, our salad today, the bok lahong, one of the pillars of Cambodian cuisine.
Green papaya salad is a spicy salad consumed throughout Southeast Asia. Known in Cambodia as bok lahong, bok l’hong or bok hong (Khmer: បុកល្ហុង, pronounced ɓok lhoŋ), tam som (lao: ຕໍາ ສົ້ມ) or tam maak hoong (lao: ຕໍາ ຫມາກ ຫຸ່ງ, pronounced tàm.ma᷆ːk hūŋ) in Laos, under the name of som tam (Thai: ส้มตำ, pronounced sôm tām) in Thailand, and under the name of gỏi đu đủ (pronounced guy dodo) in Vietnam.
The ingredients of the bok lahong are mixed and pounded in a mortar; in Laos, the generic name for this type of preparation is tam som.
Indeed, the green papaya salad originates from a Lao ethnic dish known as tam som (literally “pound sour ingredients”). This dish, consisting of local fruits and vegetables such as green mangoes (unripe) or cucumbers, has a sour flavor.
Following the Colombian exchange (big exchange), the papaya was introduced in Siam (now Thailand) via Malacca. According to Thai historian Sujit Wongthes, the tam som variant, using green papaya, probably comes from ethnic Lao-Chinese settler communities living in the Chao Phraya plains of what is now central Thailand, where it is known as som tom, dating from the beginning of the Rattanakosin period (late eighteenth to early nineteenth century). The green papaya dish then spread to northeastern Thailand (Isan) after the construction of the northeast railway line during the 19th and 20th centuries, and became more popular after the opening of the Mittraphap road (Route 2) and new papaya crops in the region.
This dish combines the five main flavors of local cuisine: the acidity of lime, spicy from chili, salt and umami from the fish sauce and sweet from the palm sugar.
One could imagine that using a fruit in a salad would make it sweet. But not at all! Bok lahong is actually salty. When it is not ripe yet, the papaya has a slightly pungent tangy flavor. The texture is crisp and firm. This is also what allows it to resist to the mortar.
Did you know that green papaya salad is one of the most popular dishes in the world?
Indeed, every country in the world has a typical popular dish, an integral part of the country’s identity. An experience not to be missed for all travelers. CNN organized a survey to find out which are the best dishes in the world. Around 40,000 people around the world voted. Imagine that Thailand, with its som tam, made it to the 46th position of the most delicious dishes in the world.
A solid validation for Asian cuisine!
Like the Thai version called som tam, the Cambodian version of this green papaya salad, crunchy and deliciously scented, really seduced my taste buds!
- 1 green papaya , peeled, seeded and grated
- 2 carrots , peeled and grated
- 1 cup yardlong beans , cut into pieces of about 4 cm
- 1 cup soy sprouts
- 2 tablespoons roasted peanuts
- 2 tomatoes , quartered
- ½ lb crabmeat
- 4 cloves garlic
- 3 Thai peppers (or more, to taste)
- 1 stem lemongrass , finely chopped
- 3 teaspoons palm sugar
- 4 teaspoons fish sauce
- ½ teaspoon shrimp paste (or prahok)
- Juice of 2 limes
- Immerse the grated green papaya in a large bowl of warm water for 1 hour and 30 minutes.
- Place the garlic, peppers, crab, lemongrass, prahok, in a mortar and beat with a pestle until well crushed.
- Add the papaya, carrots and soy sprouts and gently pound for a minute to combine.
- Place the mixture in a salad bowl and add the rest of the ingredients.
- Mix well for a few minutes to combine the flavors and for the palm sugar to completely dissolve.