The Food Scene – Cambodian cuisine tickles the taste buds at festival


I dont cook, I give facials, exclaimed Navam Sath as she strikes a pose and runs her hand down her perfect skin, looking at me side-long through her sunglasses like a Cambodian Madonna performing a Vogue, I am too glamorous.

In the afternoon heat of Alexandrias Cambodian Community Day, a thunderstorm threatens, and Sath gestures to a friend who stops by the tent where she is selling homemade specialties. For someone who doesnt really cook, Sath sells cup after cup of her dark and sweet family recipe dessert soup.

The soup is a unique creation of Saths. It has the color and light viscosity of beef broth, but has, incongruously, the exceedingly sweet smell of cane sugar and dates. Served cold, the dark liquid holds long strings of seaweed, whole dried dates, long grain rice, red mung bean, barley and other ingredients. It is an unusual mix of textures: the long strings of seaweed are slick, and encourage slurping and the dates are substantive, the barley and rice finer. It is a tricky concoction of layered textures and levels of sweetness.

Navam Sath herself is at a loss to describe the delicacy. I learned to make it some years ago when I was in Paris. It is kind of Chinese. It doesnt really have a name, she said. Lets call it Chap Leang.

Enjoying the cuisine
Sath has lived in the United States for 28 years. This is home, she said. Her
daughter works beside her serving up crispy beef noodles and homemade beef jerky. Cambodian food has been influenced heavily by Chinese and Indian preparations and flavors, as have other Southeast Asian cuisines, and it bears a strong similarity to Thai cuisine and relies heavily on the use of fish sauce and fish paste for flavor and for seasoning. Offered under Saths tent is Cambodian papaya salad called Bok lhong in which unripe papayas are shredded into long strips, tossed with tomatoes, basil and served in a spicy dressing.

Unripe, the papaya lacks its full sweetness and is crunchy and more suggestive of fruit than fruity; it has a mouth-feel similar to shredded parsnip. I have had this dish in Thai restaurants and made a similar one at home.

Sitting on a bench at Cambodian Community Day as the Cambodian national anthem played over the loudspeakers, I found whole pieces of shrimp shell added a briny richness and bright acidity from heat in the salads dressing made the papaya dish more complex and foreign than other milder versions I had tasted before.

Like Navam Saths compellingly sweet dessert soup recipe, all of the days specialties were richer and more unique than first appearances promised. Enjoying the Cambodian festivals home-spun flavors feel a little like sipping juice made purely from macerated sugar cane, a drink common in Cambodia and Laos, first is the overt sweetness and then beneath that the greener taste of vegetation and of earth.