Michelin-starred chef David Thompson explains his growing love for Cambodian cuisine
Many great cuisines of the world can be traced to an illustrious past, and Cambodian cuisine, with its Khmer roots, is no exception. During the illustrious era of the Khmer empire from the early 9th century to the 15th century, the culture that gave us the Angkor Wat also developed a cuisine with origins from India (the Khmer was also a Hindu society before Buddhism spread across the Mekong in the 13th century).
Not only were the Khmer great builders, decorating the Mekong landscape with monumental temples, the food was also larger-than-life. Through centuries of trial and error, the Khmer people established a subtle yet well-rounded flavor profile accented by spices and often providing intriguing contrasts such as salty and sour, sweet and bitter, as well as fresh and cooked.
A dish that exemplifies Khmer influence (and currently served on the Aqua Mekong), is fish amok, a steamed snakehead fish curry that is redolent of lemongrass, galangal and coconut aromas. The freshwater fish, freshly caught from the Tonle Sap lake where the ship sails during the high-water season, impresses with its slightly firm flesh and absence of any fishy aftertaste.
Did the Thais ‘copy’ Cambodian cuisine?
If the description of fish amok sounds like Thai cuisine (arguably the most popular Southeast Asian cuisine in the world), that’s because many elements of today’s Thai cooking was influenced by Khmer cooking techniques and principles perfected over centuries.
A key point of difference (and some would say an advantage) of Cambodian cuisine over Thai is that the former does not rely on the use of spicy chilies to create full flavor. Where chili is used in Cambodian cooking, it’s added to provide a balance without overwhelming the senses. The Khmer have also mastered the use of herbs and spices to create flavor without fats and meats, resulting in dishes that are more delicate and refined on the palate.
“We find that many of our guests, after they’ve tasted Cambodian dishes on board the Aqua Mekong, actually told us they really like and can relate to these dishes,” says Aqua Mekong consulting chef David Thompson. “There’s a lot of harmony in flavors going on, like you see in French or Italian cuisine.”
(See Chef David Thompson’s Pomelo and Lemongrass Salad recipe.)
Cambodian cuisine: The French Connection
Interestingly, French culinary influence is also prominent in Khmer cuisine, due to the French colonization of Cambodia from 1863 to 1953. The influence is clearly apparent in the popularity of num pang pate (crusty baguettes with pate and pickled vegetables), and a national love of coffee, which Cambodia shares with Vietnam (also formerly part of French Indochina).
Meanwhile, Chinese influences in Cambodian cuisine is evident through rice noodle dishes such as kuy teav, a pork-broth-based rice noodle soup, and bobor, a rice porridge traditionally served for breakfast.
In the 1970s, ancient Khmer culture and cuisine was dealt a brutal blow during the Khmer Rouge reign of terror. Many of Cambodia’s indigenous food plants were destroyed by the rulers. Fortunately, when Cambodia was safe enough for foreign aid groups to return, many native species were resuscitated; the International Rice Bank dipped into its reserves and reintroduced to the country more than 400 rice varieties.
A Sense of Place
Today, Cambodian cuisine is in the middle of a reconnaissance, with a clutch of fine dining restaurants — such as Embassy and Mealea Restaurant — making waves in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap and honoring the Khmer culinary heritage. Recently, refined Cambodian cuisine has also made its way out of the cities and onto the legendary Mekong river, on board the luxury 20-suite Aqua Mekong cruise ship.
“As guests sail into or embark [the ship] in Cambodia, they’ll now be introduced to a much wider variety of Cambodian dishes,” Chef Thompson describes. The revamped menu features predominantly Cambodian and Vietnamese fare; Chef Thompson and his team synchronizes the day’s menu to the location of the Aqua Mekong river cruise ship as it sails up and down the Mekong — the beating heart of the Khmer empire.
After all, a truly memorable Khmer cultural experience needs to engage all the senses. “When the ship sails into Cambodia or embarks from Cambodia, and the guests spend the day discovering the rich culture of the Mekong on excursions, it’s important that their cultural experience doesn’t just end with returning to the ship”, says Chef Thompson.
To make this happen, the chefs of the Aqua Mekong begin each day on the right foot. “There are some really superb quality and special ingredients in the lower Mekong basin like the breadfruit, which we pick and choose when either Sophal [Aqua Mekong head chef] or I visit the local market every day when we cruise, sometimes with guests if they wish to come along,” he adds.
Once the freshest local produce brought on board, Aqua Mekong’s Cambodian galley crew sets about creating magic. This isn’t hyperbole, as curry pastes and sauces are all created from scratch in the ship’s kitchen for the lunch and dinner daily.
“It’s not by any stretch to say that being able to taste the very best of Cambodian dishes in Cambodia, and Vietnamese dishes in Vietnam, gives you an incredible sense of place and history that can make any journey so much more meaningful,” Chef Thompson says.
Family: The Key Ingredient
To create his new menu for the Aqua Mekong, Chef Thompson looked to his team in the galley. From line cook to head chef, traditional Cambodian family recipes was gathered from each crew member and put through the paces.
Chef Thompson describes the process: “I worked with Sophal to turn what are essentially Cambodian family heirlooms into refined, five-star dishes for the Aqua Mekong. And what we wanted to do was to keep the authenticity and integrity of the recipes intact while tweaking to perfect the taste of each dish for a refined presentation.”
“My ultimate goal [of the new menu] was really to honor the Khmer heritage and the Cambodian people.”
Launched in March 2019, David Thompson’s new menu includes vegetarian and vegan options. Discover more about the Aqua Mekong here.