Volume 1 No.6

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H'mok, A Khmer Cuisine
By: H.P. Raingsy. Pictures by : Nathan Dexter.. ( November, 2001 Volume 1 No.6 )

Of all of the aspects of Cambodia's culture fighting for survival, its traditional cuisine is perhaps the one battling the most assailants. The Khmer Rouge years, which destroyed so much, had a lasting effect on the art and tradition of cookery here, although most of the classic dishes have been successfully revived. But in Cambodia, food has traditionally been prepared by women, and each Khmer dish requires enormous amounts of time and numbers of ingredients, so it is modern life which is now proving to be the greatest enemy of this integral part of an ancient culture, according to the government officials. Khmer families commonly serve up Chinese dishes at home during the week because they are quick and simple to prepare. The Ministry of Youth, Sport and Education has introduced home economics classes a program including sewing, methods of dress and a little cooking into its curriculum for girls in Year 11 of high school.
But Under Secretary of State for the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport, Mr Chey Chab, concedes that the role of women in Cambodian society is changing. "In this modern time, cookery is no longer considered a mark of superiority for a woman (seeking marriage) as she is more involved in social development. Therefore, the units regarding Khmer cuisine have been slimmed down," he said. "Home economics as a subject is not yet comprehensive enough for our children and we cannot fit everything in as much detail as we would like. On the other hand, our country's hospitality industry and other tourist sector industries are crying out for Khmer cuisine to be available for visitors to sample." One of the casualties of this trend away from time consuming, complex Khmer dishes has been the steamed curry, h'mok. Even for Khmers, it has become a dish for the weekends, or for restaurants. At Ponlok Restaurant, on the riverside just northeast of the Royal Palace, owner Lim Ponlok says his restaurant has become most famous for its seafood dishes.

"But local and foreign guests still order h'mok from time to time," he said. "Then I must serve it upon request but prepare it in advance as the preparation consumes much time. I propose fried h'mok instead to most customers, which means the kroeung is fried with the meat and not steamed. They accept it like this." In a cozy corner just north of Wat Phnom, the Sharaton Hotel Beer Garden is crowded every night with package tourists and locals alike satisfying their cravings for grilled chicken and papaya salad. Seng On, 28, Second Master Chef at the hotel, said H'mok and other Khmer dishes are served here alongside the scores of European, Chinese and Thai dishes on the extensive al la carte menu, but to provide it in the timeframe visitors require, shortcuts must be made. "When I am home with my family I seldom eat h'mok even though I like much it very much because it requires so much preparation and cooking time," she said. "Even here in the restaurant we have resorted to a combination of techniques, frying the kroeung and meat first, then steaming it. This means our customers only have to wait about 10 minutes.

East of Wat Phnom on the river is the Chne Tonle, or Riverside Hotel and Restaurant. This establishment is well known as a venue for wedding parties. Heang Sereivuth, manager of the hotel and restaurant, said the wedding season begins in October and the peak season is between December and March. Between 30 and 40 per cent of wedding parties order h'mok as one of the eight dishes (seven mains and a dessert) for the reception meal, he said. "Cambodians also like Chinese and European food at weddings but for an average party of 600 people, they will order h'mok and other Cambodian specialties such as nhoam trayaung chek sach moan and cheung moan (young banana flower salad with chicken and chicken feet webs), s'gnor chruok bang-kaong (sour soup with shrimp). plear sach ko (a raw beef salad marinated in lemon juice) and samlor m'chu tai (sour soup with duck meat).
The Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts sees Khmer cuisine as a potential tourist attraction. Mr Dek Sarin, Director of the Culture Development Department under the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts and Director of the National Cultural Center, said efforts to promote traditional cuisine include the Ministry holding the Third Khmer Food Contest on January 12, 2002. Restaurants from across Cambodia will be invited to compete and tourists will be welcome to attend. The Second Khmer Food Contest was held early this year and 21 candidates from seven provinces competed. The dishes judged in competition this year were h'mok trei rah (h'mok of river fish), samlor kako (soup of mixed vegetables and young fruit of the sugar palm tree with chicken or the fish trei k'cheung), samlor k'tih (a coconut milk-based soup), grilled lobster and n'hoam saray (a kind of sea weed salad). There are only a handful of recipes approved by the ministry at present. A special team is examining each dish and searching for Thai, Vietnamese and other influences which might have crept in and rendered it less than intrinsically Khmer. The Ministry of Culture has approved recipes for these approved dishes. But even approved dishes like h'mok are shrouded in some mystery. "We do not know when and where h'mok was born or where it got its name," Mr Sarin said. "But we are sure knowledge of how to prepare it was passed down from one generation to another and our ancestors left many carvings in form of bas-relief or high relief on the galleries of a number of temples, especially at Prasat Bayon in the Angkor complex.
"We surveyed dozens of elderly persons in many provinces and found three main stories explaining where the name h'mok originated. The first theory is that, because h'mok is a complicated dish and consumes so much preparation time, its name is a derivation of the Khmer word for complexity, smok-smanh. Ancient Khmers cut the word short and it became the h'mok of today. Others say a pair of hawkers once sold this dish. The husband of the couple was called Mok. Because the dish was so delicious, it became his signature dish, with the name changing slightly over time. The third theory is that in ancient times, people did not have many durable cooking pots and so to steam food they used smok, a small box made of woven palm or banana leaves. This name shortened eventually to H'mok. Whatever the origin of the name, this is uniquely Cambodian dish, and one to be savored by visitors and local people alike.