Cambodians are big on sweets and they appreciate them with such great pleasure. Desserts form a huge part of the Khmer cuisine but surprisingly, only fruits are served at the end of a meal instead of a dessert. Sweets are relished throughout the day mostly as snacks. The streets of Khmer are flooded with a variety of sweets ranging from simple ones, like serving corn kernels on honey and grated coconut, to more complex ones like the num plae ai, num kom or nom kruob kanau (sweet mung bean rolls).
Similar to many Asian cultures, desserts also play a key role in the Khmer festivities. Women gather around and merrily prepare homemade treats to be shared with family and friends on special occasions.
One of the traditional sweet treats made especially during Khmer New Year or wedding celebrations is num kom. Num kom, also known as the Cambodian sweet rice cake is a steamed sweet dumpling filled with freshly grated coconut, toasted sesame seeds and palm sugar. In Cambodia, traditional rice cakes are wrapped in banana leaves and they come in different shapes, sizes and textures.
The highlight of num kom is that they are wrapped in banana leaves forming a pyramidal shape. Hence, num kom also plays an important role in the Pchum Ben Cambodian festival. Popularly known as the ancestor’s festival, it is a 15-day celebration where people pray and give offering to the monks in temples to pay respect to the deceased. It is a belief that the spirits of the deceased would be reincarnated and not become ghosts in their afterlife.
Until the 15th century, the central architectural attraction in a Cambodian temple was a lingam placed on top of a Yoni, a cylindrical shaped stone on the base of a square .
Based on the documents obtained from the king Jayavaramn VII period, the offerings included num kom and num ansom. The belief is that the cylindrical-shaped num ansom represents Linga, the Hindu Lord Shiva and the pyramid shaped num plae ai the Yoni, his wife Uma. The shapes are a symbolic representation of the male and the female genitals. It marks as an observance for the unity of men and women. Thus, the two desserts are always paired together.
Often, the Cambodian desserts feature very few key ingredients. They are mostly tapioca (mainly as a thickening agent), coconut, palm sugar and glutinous rice flour.
The glutinous rice flour also known as sticky rice flour or sweet rice flour is the key ingredient in making many South East Asian rice cakes including num kom, num plae ai and num ansom. Traditionally, the sticky rice is soaked for few hours and then ground into a fine paste. It is dried and then used to make the outer dough for these pastries. The traditional practice is very time consuming, hence the ready-made rice flour can be used instead.
As we mentioned here, rice cakes are an important part of the South East Asian culture. The origin and story behind the origin of rice cakes are ambiguous but given that rice is staple to the continent, it is inevitable to use this ingredient in all forms.
To start with, Cambodians themselves have an array of sticky rice dumplings or cakes. The fillings can be both savory and sweet.
Num bot is a glutinous rice flour dumpling filled with mung bean paste and steamed in banana leaves shaped as a pyramid. The famous num ansom has both versions. The sweet version is known as num ansom chek, which has baby bananas and jackfruits as a filling whereas the savory version, num ansom chrouk, uses pork. Again, both are wrapped in banana leaves in a cylindrical shape and can be steamed, fried or grilled depending on the occasion.
Another savory version, num chang, which originated from the Chinese sticky rice dumpling zongi, has pork, sausage and beans as the filling.
If you move a little west, the Indians also have their own rice cake versions. The popular one that is made throughout India is kozhukattai or modak, which closely resembles num kom. The filling remains the same but the difference is that the Indian version uses regular rice flour and it is steamed directly. Patoleo is another Indian rice cake which uses turmeric leaves to steam.
The above-mentioned list is not extensive. They vary at the regional level, giving us more than hundreds of recipes to relish and the delectable Cambodians rice cakes are definitely on the top of the list.
- 1½ cup glutinous rice flour
- Warm water (for the dough)
- 5 cups freshly grated coconut (about 1 large coconut)
- 4 teaspoons black sesame seeds
- ½ cup jaggery syrup palm sugar
- 1 pinch salt
- Banana leaves
- Vegetable oil (for greasing)
- In a skillet, roast the sesame seeds over medium-low heat.
- Turn off the heat and add the grated coconut and jaggery syrup.
- Mix well and set this mixture aside. It will serve as the filling.
- Mix the glutinous rice flour and salt. Add lukewarm water gradually while mixing until obtaining a dough that can be worked easily to form balls.
- Form balls of dough of about 2 inches diameter until the dough is used up.
- Flatten each ball and in the center of each dumpling, add some stuffing (black sesame, coconut, jaggery).
- Close to form a ball again.
- Cut the banana leaves into pieces of about 7x8 in (one per dumpling).
- Wash all the cut banana leaves and wipe with paper towels.
- Grease each banana leaf with oil and place a dumpling in the center.
- Close to form a pyramidal shape.
- Boil a large amount of water in a pot with a steamer basket.
- Place a layer of banana leaf at the bottom of the basket (this prevents the dumplings from sticking to the bottom of the container and this also gives more flavor).
- Arrange them carefully, taking care not to damage the pyramidal shape.
- Place two layers of banana leaves on top again and place the lid on the pot.
- Steam for 15 minutes.