For generations, farmers have pulled Chek, commonly known as "bananas," from Cambodian trees, yet little is known about the filling fruit. Peeling away the mystery surrounding the banana's origin no easy feat. There is no recorded history to distinguish which variety of Chek Namva is typically Cambodian or to testify how long the fruit has been grown. Still, the crescent-moon shaped fruit is recognizable to all the Khmer people since it is found on trees across the country, particularly in rural areas where food is often scarce.
The banana's appeal is different for each palate, but most recognize the fruit's dietary benefit. "I like eating Chek because they have a lot of vitamins," said Prum Makara while buying Chek Namva at O'Russei Market.
While Chek Namva adds an interesting flare to daily meals, they also are used in traditional ceremonies as well. On the day of a wedding, Cambodians bring the couple two fruit-bearing banana trees pulled from the base of the stem. The fruit of one plant in sprayed gold while the other is painted silver. When they are dry, the plants are placed in front of the wedding pavilion.
"We spray gold and silver colors on the banana fruit in order to bring wealth and good luck for the new couple," said (A Char) Monireth, a priest. "Our country is an agriculture country and Chek is one [product] that represents agriculture and wealth. Chek can grow easily, so the people think that the new couple's love and future will grow like Chek."
Yi Sockorn, a 60-year-old priest, added that Chek are used to ceremoniously feed the wedding couple on their celebratory day. Bananas also are employed to decorate the Bun Pka ceremony, which people hold as a fundraiser to repair schools or pagodas, he said. The plants are prepared to look like "money-trees" with money hanging from the stems like flowers. Pro Tib- lanterns- also are constructed from banana trees and often can be seen made by people along the Mekong River.
Throughout the mass genocide of the Khmer Rouge regime, Chek served as a lifesaver for many Cambodians.
"During the Pol Pot regime my life was saved because I ate Chek and Kul Chek [the inside of the banana tree stem]," said Professor Sang Sochinda, a lecturer at the Faculty of the Pedagogy. "It was very hard to have enough rice to eat." He said that he often dependent on Chek to sustain him, since rice and other food were often limited. While Chek Namva is most commonly known, the banana is not alone. Several varieties grow in Cambodia, including Chek Pong Morn, Amboung, Meas Snoun and Chek Snab Mok. While distant observers may see little difference between the fruits, Chek Pong Morn are more expensive since they are flavorful and smell good. Still, many people prefer to grow Chek Namva because, according to student and banana-grower Chann Sophon, "because every part of it are useful, whereas the Pong Morn can only offer its fruit."
The Chek Namva has proved useful for physical ailments as well. "I like Namva fruit because it has cured my gastric problems and it also keeps me from getting a fever, as I get when I eat too much Chek Pong Morn," said Sdeng Saory, a student.
Even hungry Cambodians without stomach ailments delight in the Namva fruit's versatility. It is often used to make cakes such as Ansorm Chek, Chek Chean, Chek Chhoeng, and Chek Aing. In rural areas, the banana serves an important role in people's health, offering important nutrients to babies and the elderly, often too poor or feeble to gather nutritious food. The banana is high in potassium and other minerals, which help the young and old maintain their health. Many Khmer believe that babies become more intelligent and geriatrics maintain their memory longer with the help of the potassium. Ladies boast that Chek is a good supplement for skin care. Beauty experts claim placing slices of ripe Namva on one's face for five minutes can refresh one's skin.
Khmers let nothing go to waste, so the leaves of Namva are also used for packing items or to play games like trump. Banana tree trunks may be tied together to make water rafts and are used as a nutritious feed for pig farming. Even Tror Yong Chek [banana flowers] are used in the provinces, where they are found in meals, along with the soft, junior banana [green fruit].
Selling bananas has proved less fruitful than some would imagine, however. Korng Hong, a banana retailer at Psar Kondal market, said she did not need much capital to begin her business, but she receives little in return. "I only get a small profit - just enough just to get by," she said. Korng Hong buys her banana stock from Kompong Cham province, where it is shipped from once every two or three days. A stock costs her 500 riel, which Korng Hong in turn sells for approximately 550 to 600 reil, she said. "It is difficult to make high profits in such a business because [bananas] don't last for very long. We cannot afford to raise the price since we must quickly sell them before they get too ripe and spoil," she lamented.
Every two or three day at about 6 o'clock, onlookers can spy two or three lorry loads of banana stopping near the Kandal market. The fruit is loaded into cyclos to be delivered to vendors around the Kandal and Doemkor markets.
Yim Ploen, who helps to deliver the fruit, said everyone with their own land in his hometown grows Chek because it is so easy to cultivate. He said it is very simple. "At first, we place a young banana plant about two months old into a hole which is dug about a half meter wide. Then we put natural fertilizer in the hole and water it. We can get banana fruit within two years without taking care of it," he boasted. Yim Ploen said the trees must be cut down and replanted after five or six years because the plants can no longer produce good fruit. Yim Ploen said one hundred square meter of trees would yield about five hundreds stocks of banana fruit every two weeks. While Chek is an ordinary and insignificant fruit in other parts of the world, here in Cambodia it is a lifesaver. This seemingly timeless plant may have a lost history, but its invaluable fruit, leaves, and stem have defined its place in the country's future.