Ros Rotanak was visiting family in Siem Reap province one year when she ate something so delicious it changed her life. The village elders had gotten together and cooked a duck and lemongrass sour soup with palm fruit and it was so good that she remembers every detail of it to this day.
The villagers had spent several hours just on that one soup, from catching and slaughtering the duck to digging up the fresh vegetables and slicing them to pounding all of the ingredients into the lemongrass paste – even sending someone to go climb up a tall and slender palm tree to pick the fruit.
“Understanding every single step of the process of preparing that soup made the experience of eating it so memorable,” Rotanak says.
The soup was a testament to the village elders’ culinary skills and team work. The recipe had been perfected by passing it from one person to another and one family to another and from generation to generation. All of that sharing was done by word of mouth – nobody had kept any notes, or if they had then they were lost long ago amidst the chaos of years of war and upheaval.
The Khmer word “nhum” translates to “eat” in English. Thus the title of Rotanak’s cookbook Nhum: Recipes from a Cambodian Kitchen, which presents dozens of recipes for traditional Khmer dishes – some of them dating back a thousand years ago or longer.
One of Cambodia’s first female celebrity chefs, Rotanak – known widely as Chef Nak – offers up over 80 traditional recipes in collaboration with Cambodian-Australian photographer Nataly Lee over the course of 227 pages.
Published in both Khmer and English to target both Cambodian and international audiences, Nhum is now available for purchase online at Amazon for $39.00.
“We believe that Khmer cuisine is an art form that sits proudly with Cambodia’s rich cultural artistic heritage,” says Chef Nak.
Chef Nak says her life’s mission is to celebrate, develop and preserve the art of Cambodian cuisine and bring its unique flavors and rich culinary culture to the world’s stage.
“Through books, teaching, TV and film, social media and exclusive private dining experiences, we hope to show the world the art of traditional Khmer living,” she says.
Chef Nak gathered traditional Khmer recipes from different parts of Cambodia, with her sources ranging from her own childhood memories to more recent travelling and research deep in the rural areas of the country.
Chef Nak told The Post that “the recipes I chose for Nhum are based on dishes that I’ve discovered, enjoyed, and collected throughout my life.
“They are from all over Cambodia, and some I believe have existed for thousands of years but not many recipes were written down by our ancestors, making it almost impossible for us to know the standard recipes used by older generations.
“Therefore, in my cookbook I had to use info from my own research and the memories of my mother and grandmother and other elders as a foundation for all of the recipes,” she says.
She says that beyond that it was just a process of cooking and tasting over and over again to get the recipes perfect. Once she was confident she had nailed them, she then just added preparation and cooking instructions for the readers to follow, as well as beautiful pictures that would resonate with both local and international readers.
“The dishes are very healthy, and we have plenty of diversity so that people don’t get bored and can keep enjoying these meals with their families at home,” she says.
The idea for the Nhum cookbook came about when Chef Nak was working with the NGO Cambodian Living Arts.
She realised that Cambodian people usually pass on their cultural traditions orally rather than writing them down.
She then understood that sometimes this means that valuable knowledge is lost with the elders when they pass away. To make matters worse, much of the written documentation that may have existed decades ago had most likely been destroyed during the chaos of the 1970’s.
“My desire to preserve our cultural memory in writing is one of the reasons I started working on my cookbook. I’m not a writer, so it didn’t come easily to me. But I really believe that Cambodian food should have a place on the world stage, and I also feel that it’s vital for our culinary traditions to be preserved for future generations.
“I also couldn’t have done it without my partner Nataly Lee, whose incredible eye for photography and design allowed us to celebrate the true beauty of the dishes presented in the book,” she says.
Chef Nak says she previously thought that the ancient wisdom expressed in the simplicity of Khmer cooking has been forgotten outside of some of the more rural parts of the country.
For example, the most common way that people make Samlor Brohoeu, a very healthy and popular soup, is to first prepare a lemongrass paste – a long process that requires the cook to slice the lemongrass very thinly with turmeric, garlic and finger root and then pound and mix all of the ingredients in a mortar and pestle.
“In the countryside, they call this “Srolok Psit” or “Village Soup”, and they just smash all the ingredients together and throw them in a pot to boil. It gives the same nutrition and flavour, and it’s so much easier to make,” says Chef Nak.
A formal recipe includes the name of the dish, the serving size, a list of ingredients and measurements, and how to prepare and cook the dish with steps and cooking time included.
With traditional recipes very little information is provided by comparison and what the recipe does tell you is more of an approximation or a guess than a precise measurement because the experience and knowledge of the cooks would be able to fill in the gaps or improvise.
“Weights, measurements, and precise instructions are especially hard to come by, so in the process of writing Nhum, we had to figure a lot of those out ourselves,” she says.
Some people might think that there aren’t a lot of local Cambodian dishes that they could prepare in their own kitchens, but as a chef born in the early 1990s, she says learning every recipe in Khmer cuisine could take a lifetime.
She tells The Post: “I think even if I spent my entire life researching Khmer food, it still wouldn’t be able to get to know all of the Khmer dishes out there.
“What I do know is that we have a lot of range, from snacks to salads, soups, fried and stir-fried dishes, caramel stews, steamed dishes, dishes involving wrapping and dipping, desserts, and more.”
Chef Nak says she thinks that one of the most overlooked aspects of Khmer cuisine are the ingredients themselves.
Much of Nhum’s research was really an investigation into all of those different ingredients.
She says she wants her cookbook to present Cambodian cuisine from a variety of different angles, from nutrition to its physical beauty to its cultural importance.
“A cookbook can start the process, but the responsibility to preserve traditional foods is really on the people.
“Cookbooks can inspire people to cook more, learn about traditional recipes, and understand the story of their food and the benefit of each dish and ingredient,” she says.
Chef Nak hopes her work will help local people and Cambodians around the world to have more pride in their national cuisine and to speak up about it.
The chef recalls her experience travelling to the US where she felt disappointed to see restaurants in Khmer communities serving neighbouring countries’ like Thai food – or at least advertising that way – because they
thought it would attract more customers.
“I think we have been very humble, and now it’s time to be proud and show the world how much we have to offer beyond our magnificent temples.
“I want it to start locally, because I believe nobody can tell our stories better than us. Great food stories come from each Cambodian having faith in just how far our food can take us,” she says.
The best way for young people to gain a thorough understanding of the national cuisine, she recommended, is to start talking to their parents and grandparents and to start cooking with them. After that the next step is getting a hold of Cambodian cookbooks and and interacting with social media accounts and in groups that focus on traditional foods.
“One Khmer food I think everyone should know is kroeung, or lemongrass paste. It’s a combination of pounded lemongrass, galangal, turmeric, finger root, kaffir lime leaves, garlic, and shallots and it forms the base for so many incredible Khmer dishes,” she says.
Chef Nak says Khmer food tends to be more subtle than the cuisines from its neighbouring countries and the experience of eating some of the most beloved Khmer dishes is one of tasting sweet, salty, and sour in equal measure.
“The key here is to know about our history and identity, so we can develop and move into the future,” she says “I do believe a cookbook is a great first step.”
For more information on the cookbook and Chef Nak visit her website: https://chefnak.com/ or Facebook page: @chefnak.