When I told my father that I was going to be traveling to Cambodia he said, “Really? Cambodia? You know, we weren’t really nice to them. We bombed them, you know? Are you sure?”
Yes, I went on a Holiday in Cambodia.
Quick, what’s your favorite Cambodian dish?
What’s that you say? You’re asking me what IS a Cambodian dish?
Well, before we get to that, there are some things you should know about Cambodia. (Don’t worry, the history lesson will be brief and vauge. If you want to learn more, you can do your homework.) First, Geography. Cambodia is surrounded by the nations of Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand. The history of these places impacts the history of Cambodia. Back in the day, Jayavarman II, started the Khmer Empire that lasted from 802 C.E. to the mid 1400 C.E. The Khmer people are probably most well known for the building of Angkor Wat. The French then rolled into town around the 1800′s when colonization was all the rage. They stuck around until 1953, when Cambodia gained independence. The Vietnam War impacted Cambodia in many ways which gave rise to the Khmer Rouge (which is a whole other story), who were in power until the nation was reunited under a monarchy in 1993.
Cambodia has been through a lot. It is still recovering from the effects of much of it’s history – all of which can be reflected in its food. There is one dish that stands out to me as clearly Cambodian – Lok Lak.
Looking at it, you wouldn’t think that it is anything special, just some stir fried beef; but I have to tell you it is one flavorful dish. The basic ingredients in the marinade are oyster sauce, garlic, chili oil, and ketchup (yes, ketchup). The beef sits in this marinate 20 minutes or so and then it stir fried in a wok. It is served with white rice, a side of sliced tomato and cucumbers and a lime juice with salt and pepper sauce. (The sauce is where it’s at. Seriously.) So simple and so good.
[Side Bar - I learn more and more about food, simple seems to be the way to go. I've traveled to India and parts of South East Asia. Some say I have a thing for Third World Travel. And I guess I do, but it's just reinforced by the fact that simple is good. When resources are low, people really do the best with what they have. I have seen poverty in my travels, but I have had some really great food. More on this in a future post.]
When I think of Cambodia, I think of Lok Lak. Not only because it was on nearly every menu (along with fish amok) that we saw, but because to me it IS Cambodia. Upon first glance, Lok Lak doesn’t seem like it has much going for it, but once tasted, the flavor is comforting with just a hint of spice. Just like Cambodia. At first, it doesn’t seem like it has much to offer. I would recommend Cambodia to anyone traveling in South East Asia. The people are warm and comforting. The sights are breathtaking. And you don’t want to miss a ride on a bamboo train! The travel industry is just picking up and will be going crazy in no time. I would love to go back and explore more of the former Khmer Empire. There was so much that I didn’t see. The bottom line is, Cambodia makes an impression.
I’ve made Lok Lak at least seven times since returning. Most of those were within the first week back in the The States. It made an impression as well.
If you would like to learn how to make Lok Lak, please “like” the One World, One Plate Facebook page and you will find a recipe there – it’s really easy to make!
Update: due to its popularity, I have posted the recipe here.