Volume 2 No.1

What's New

Place of Interest

Phrase Of The Month

Overheard





Sweet Corn in Bakheng
By: Ly Vanna. Pictures by : Nathan Dexter ( January, 2002 Volume 2 No.1 )

Perhaps some traditional Khmer foods like durian and duck embryos may prove to be an acquired taste for visitors. But just the other side of the Chroy Changvar Japanese Friendship Bridge, a simple food loved around the world is a catalyst for daily picnics by local Khmers unwinding after a hectic day in stressful Phnom Penh. The food is simple, the atmosphere relaxed and friendly and to dine here in the open air can cost less than a dollar.
Perhaps some traditional Khmer foods like durian and duck embryos may prove to be an acquired taste for visitors. But just the other side of the Chroy Changvar Japanese Friendship Bridge, a simple food loved around the world is a catalyst for daily picnics by local Khmers unwinding after a hectic day in stressful Phnom Penh.

The food is simple, the atmosphere relaxed and friendly and to dine here in the open air can cost less than a dollar. Follow Route 6A for about nine and a half kilometers over the bridge, past the Prek Leap restaurant strip, and stalls appear on both sides of the road __ open-air restaurants slung with hammocks with floors of woven mats. Bunches of coconuts sit outside, ready to be opened for their sweet, fresh juice. Khmer noodles and even roast chicken is available at some stalls. But the specialty of these unmarked restaurants in Bakheng is something simpler still. Sweet, boiled corn (called pout in Khmer) cooked the Khmer way. The origins of this picnic haven are simple. For decades, the people of Bakheng have grown corn and taken it by bicycle to sell in Phnom Penh. But when the bridge was destroyed during heavy fighting in the early seventies, it became more difficult for families to transport their corn.

After the Khmer Rouge was ousted from the capital in 1979 and life began, slowly, to return to normal, a few enterprising families began cooking their crop and selling it in front of their homes. After the bridge was repaired, more and more locals heard about Bakheng's corn and began making the journey over the bridge to sit by the water or look out over fields and eat fresh, homegrown corn. Today, there are as many as a hundred tiny restaurants hawking cooked corn for between 3000 and 3500 riel for 10 cobs. The best time to take in the relaxed Bakheng atmosphere is between 3pm and 8pm, when families and groups of friends flock here to enjoy the clean, cool air and watch the sunset. And the corn restaurants have become so popular that now there is not enough locally grown corn to last the season. Real Bakheng corn is only available between January and March. "Our home grown corn is more tasty than corn from anywhere else in Cambodia," admitted corn seller Mr Chhun Eang, who, at more than 50 years of age considers himself expert in the matter of corn.
"But we import corn from many places and provinces to meet the demand for the other nine months of the year."
Each shop can sell from 80 to 90 cobs of corn a day, and as many as 200 on weekends and holidays like Khmer New Year and Water Festival. "I have about 20 people a day coming to my shop and on special days like Pchum Ben (Festival of the Dead) and New Year, I might get more than 50-it's hard to find a place to sit down," Mrs Thim, another seller, said. At 40 years of age, she has been selling corn here for more than five years. "There are three types of corn. Pout dormneup is soft corn, grown from domestic seed. People like it very much," she explained. "Pout kormpong is corn from canned seed which is imported from other countries. Pout ksay is corn from hard seeds that have been domestically grown. People don't like this last one as much because it is much less tasty than the others." But even those who buy Bakheng corn at the peak of the local season may not be able to capture its rich flavor if they do not know the secrets of cooking it, she said. "We add special ingredients to our pot __ some sugar, a little salt, sugar cane and teuy leaves," she said. Teuy is a type of aromatic leaf. "We usually spend about an hour cooking our corn. Then we serve it with chhay pov (dried salted vegetable), pickled cabbage or even, like in the old times, chili mixed with salt." Cambodia is so often a place of simple pleasures. And a trip to Bakheng, to savor freshly boiled corn and perhaps sip fresh coconut juice while watching the sunset and enjoying the company of friends and family that is a simple pleasure many of Phnom Penh's locals say is hard to beat.