Cambodians traditionally adjust their diets and recipes to capture the freshest and tastiest seasonal ingredients the country has to offer.
Since ancient times Cambodians have paid close attention to the seasons, varying the ingredients of their cuisine according to availability and weather. The practice continues today, giving Khmer cuisine what Him Vibolphal, head of the cultural development department at the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts, describes as a unique and dynamic flavour.
“The varying of ingredients in recipes has made the tastes of Khmer food both delicious and unique,” he explains.
While sour soup can be found year-round on menus in restaurants throughout the country, its various incarnations were traditionally prepared according to the season. In the past, m’jou ompil, a sour soup made with young tamarind leaves, was only prepared during the early rainy season – from April to August – because the sour flavour of the tamarind leaves best complemented the freshwater fish available at that time of year.
But following the end of the rainy season, from November to April, Cambodian families would prepare m’jou slek tneung, a sour soup made from leaves of a flowering vine that grows wild in the forest.
“They use the leaves of slek tneung, which is a very special ingredient, during the period after rainy season ends because during that time the tneung plants grow well in the natural forest and their leaves remain firm and not soggy,” explains Tem Khem, a chef from Ta Khmao.
“That is when it is fresh and sour in a very delicious way, and suitable with any kind of meat as well as fish.”
Temperatures start to rise after the rainy season, but a refreshing breeze usually keeps the mercury in check from January to March. By this time the freshwater fish used to prepare m’jou ompil have grown big and fat, and are eaten with seasonal sauces and the seeds of a flowering neem tree.
“If Cambodians want to eat delicious bitter food such as fresh salad greens with spicy sauce or a tasty sweet fish sauce, they would eat it during the windy season as the fish during that season have grown big with full of meat and oil,” says Vibolphal.
In Takeo province, this is also the time of year that freshwater lobster are at their fullest. Duong Heng, a retired civil servant in the provincial capital, says when the wind begins to shift direction in December locals start to fire up the grill to cook bong kong ampil bok (roast lobster with crushed tamarind and basil).
“Most of the residents of Takeo begin to cook and eat lobster after the wind shifts from the northeast to the southwest because by that time the lobsters are plump and the tamarind fruit has ripened,” he explains.
“Nowadays people can eat bong kong ampil bok anytime, but for the best flavour they wait until its ingredients are in season.”
The return of the rainy season brings fresh bamboo shoots and Cambodians find creative ways to add them to their recipes, says Dek Sarin, a retired official of the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts. One of the most popular seasonal dishes is prohoeu soup, which is traditionally only available between July and August.
“When the rain starts pouring the shoots of the bamboo tree grow quickly, as do the leaves of many other wild plants,” he says.