A chef’s quest to preserve Cambodia’s lost flavors – The Denver Post

As a little girl in Phnom Penh in the early 1990s, Rotanak Ros would sell fresh vegetables with her mother. Cambodia was emerging from years of colonial rule, civil war and genocide, and life in its capital city was booming. Her mother, busy at the market, didn’t cook every day. But Ros fondly remembers the meals she prepared.

“Every single time she made something, it didn’t matter how simple it was, the flavors stayed with me,” Ros said.

Ros, a professional cook who has become something of a celebrity in Cambodia, where she is known as Chef Nak, grew up in a country trying to find its footing. She was born six years after the fall of the Khmer Rouge, a brutal communist regime that, from 1975 to 1979, killed at least 1.7 million people, devastating the country’s communities and its intellectual and cultural institutions.

Survivors — and their children — spent the decades that followed trying to reclaim their national identity. What did it mean to be Cambodian after a period of such immeasurable loss?

Ros looked for the answer in food. She has spent years trying to piece together flavors — herbaceous, fruity and subtly spiced dishes that are light, fresh and fragrant — from a time before the genocide, traveling to various provinces and interviewing local cooks about their most beloved recipes. She compiled that anthropological research in a self-published cookbook, “Nhum: Recipes From a Cambodian Kitchen.” First released in 2019, it is now widely available after printing delays and shipping issues related to the pandemic.

The book is part historical record, part how-to for cooks. (“Nhum” means “eat,” she said, a word that is also spelled “nyum” in English.) Bright photographs shot by Ros’ collaborator on the project, Nataly Lee, adorn its 227 pages, which include nearly 80 recipes.

Its ingredients section serves as a guide to Cambodian staples, and teaches readers as much about each item’s cultural importance as it does about how to cook with it. The section reads as if Ros is leading you through a market, like the one where her mother worked, pointing to foods and placing them in their culinary and medicinal context.

Then there are the recipes, like a chicken with young jackfruit, which Ros learned to make from a family friend. Cambodians often cook young jackfruit in soup, so when Ros found out the friend would be baking it with chicken, she asked for a lesson.

“People raise chickens to sell, not to eat,” Ros said. “The money from one chicken can feed the whole family, at least, for three days.”

The dish, which is traditionally made for an honored guest, was a way to show respect.

That kind of cultural context is woven throughout the cookbook. She writes of globalization’s influence on Cambodian cooking, and about how modern, timesaving adaptations — like adding mayonnaise to a once-intricate fish and lemon grass salad — can make old flavors hard to come by.

And the work to document traditional cooking is a race against time. A dwindling population of elders are among the few who remember tastes and techniques from before the Khmer Rouge — and before what Youk Chhang, the executive director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia, described as a subsequent cultural “gap.”

Chhang, a survivor of the killing fields, where Khmer Rouge soldiers carried out mass executions, spoke of a loss of identity among Cambodians.

“Part of them was empty,” he said. “It’s not the stomach; it’s the center of consciousness of who they are.”

Ros’ cookbook strives to fill that void, but it’s not alone in that effort: Nonprofit organizations (like Cambodian Living Arts, where Ros once worked) fund research and training in traditional cultural practices; filmmakers have directed documentaries about the killing fields; academics who study genocide and memory often focus on Cambodia.

But food is not always centered in the work to preserve Cambodian cultural traditions. And because of globalization and urbanization, Chhang said, young Cambodians may be more familiar with spicier Thai food or American fast food than their own families’ recipes.

“They accept the new arrival as their food,” Chhang said. “When you don’t know the old taste, you can’t taste the differences.”

For cooks in Cambodia and across the diaspora, “Nhum” is a manual, a way to connect to their culinary history. And for cooks everywhere, it is a passport, a window seat next to Ros, a nimble ambassador.

“The world knows us through the killing fields. They know us through the temples,” Ros said. “But we have so much more.”

Moan Dut Khnao Kchei (Baked Chicken With Young Jackfruit)

Yield: 4 servings

Total time: 1 1/2 hours


For the Chicken:

  • 2 tablespoons soy sauce
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons palm sugar (or brown sugar)
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1 whole (4- to 5-pound) free-range chicken
  • 1 (4-pound) young jackfruit (or 1/2 pound Brussels sprouts; see Tip)
  • 1 cup canola oil or other neutral cooking oil
  • 2 lemon grass stalks (optional), base and tips trimmed, stalks cut into 3-inch segments
  • 10 fresh makrut lime leaves

For the Sweet-and-Sour Sauce:

  • 1 to 3 fresh red or bird’s-eye chiles, finely chopped
  • 3 garlic cloves, finely chopped
  • 2 1/2 tablespoons brown sugar
  • 2 tablespoons fish sauce
  • 2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1 tablespoon minced shallots (optional)
  • 1 tablespoon minced lemon grass (optional)

For the Black Kampot Pepper and Lime Sauce:

  • 1 tablespoon whole black Kampot peppercorns
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons sea salt
  • 2 tablespoons fresh lime juice

For Serving:

  • Lettuce leaves
  • Mint leaves
  • Thai basil
  • 1 cucumber


1. Prepare the chicken: In a large bowl, whisk soy sauce, palm sugar and salt until dissolved. Rub the marinade on the chicken and let it rest for 10 minutes, flipping halfway through. Reserve any liquid that drains from the chicken for later.

2. Cut the jackfruit: Using a paring knife, peel the skin from the jackfruit. Remove the core, then cut the meat into 1-inch cubes. Set aside.

3. Pour the oil into a Dutch oven or another large, heavy-lidded pot, and heat over medium-high.

4. Lay the chicken in the hot oil, breast-side down, taking care not to burn yourself. Let it rest for 3 to 5 minutes, until browned underneath. Using tongs, turn it over to brown the top, then rotate as needed until the chicken is brown all over.

5. Once the chicken is browned, remove it from the pot and place it on a cooling rack, with a pan below to catch the juices. Then, add the jackfruit to the oil to brown, about 5 minutes.

6. As the jackfruit cooks, use the broad side of a cleaver (or a pestle, or the dull edge of a chef’s knife flipped upside down) and pound the lemon grass flat to release flavors. Stuff most of it inside the chicken, setting aside a few pieces to add to the broth.

7. When the jackfruit is browned, pour out the oil. Wipe out the pot, if needed, then place the chicken and jackfruit back into the pot. Add the reserved marinade liquid, 1/2 cup water, the makrut lime leaves and the rest of the pounded lemon grass. Cover the pot and let it steam over medium-low heat until juices run clear, about 45 minutes to 1 hour.

8. Prepare the sweet-and-sour sauce: In a medium bowl, stir the chile, garlic, sugar, fish sauce, lime juice and salt until the sugar and salt are dissolved. If you’d like, add shallots and lemon grass.

9. Prepare the black Kampot pepper sauce: Heat the peppercorns and salt in a small skillet over medium heat until the peppercorns start releasing their fragrance. Then, grind them finely by hand with a mortar and pestle or in an electric spice grinder. In a small bowl, mix them with the lime juice.

10. Prepare for serving: Wash and dry whole lettuce leaves, mint and Thai basil. Slice the cucumber into thin medallions. Arrange each in individual bowls.

11. When the chicken is done, remove the bird and jackfruit using a slotted spoon and add to a large serving bowl. (Any leftover sauce makes a good dip for grilled meat or seafood.)

12. To serve, set out the dipping sauces and crudités with the chicken and jackfruit. (The chicken is traditionally served whole, but, if you’d like to cut it into pieces before serving, you can do so.) This is a communal meal. Make little pockets out of the lettuce and combine with different combinations of chicken, jackfruit, herbs and sauces to your liking.

Tips: Look for small, young jackfruit, which are hard to the touch and do not smell sweet. If you can’t find young jackfruit, you can substitute fresh Brussels sprouts. Do not instead opt for mature jackfruit, which tastes completely different and is packed with inedible seeds.

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