A Cambodian Anthropologist Explains the Culinary Culture of Angkor

Thmey Thmey’s Ky Soklim caught up with Anthropologist Professor Ang Choulean, where they discussed the latter’s latest book—“The Rural Cuisine of Angkor” and how, in his almost 30 years of anthropology, Choulean has seen Cambodian food change.
  • Ky Soklim
  • November 12, 2020 4:00 AM

The food of the people says a lot about their culture. Humankind’s history has centered around food, as well as the way it is produced, cooked, decorated, served and stored. Despite huge variations in diets around the world, food has the power to connect people across regions and cultures. Thmey Thmey’s Ky Soklim caught up with Anthropologist Professor Ang Choulean, where they discussed the latter’s latest book—“The Rural Cuisine of Angkor” and how, in his almost 30 years of anthropology, Choulean has seen Cambodian food change.

Ky Soklim: Your latest book, “The Rural Cuisine of Angkor” was published recently in both Khmer and French, so what was the inspiration for writing it?

Ang Choulean: I have mentioned a bit about this at the beginning of my book. I have never thought of writing a book on food. But why? Because I am poor at cooking, I am not interested in it—I cannot even cook rice, but I have been doing research around the Angkor area for a very long time.

However, what I am most interested in are the stories involving the livelihoods of the people, especially in their ceremonial aspects. I have done an in-depth look into this part, but, when it comes to food, there is no research. Nevertheless, since I have traveled around a lot, I frequently have meals in many people’s houses and when I travel, I bring my camera with me. So, I just take photos—since cameras have been digitalized, I can take as many photos as I want and it does not cost me much money, I don’t need to purchase rolls of film like before.

One day, well, not a very long time ago, I went through the photos that I took to arrange them. Then, I kept seeing the photos of food. I soon started to realize that this imagery, if I just conduct a bit more research into it, could lead to some interesting writing. This is where the book was born.

Ky Soklim: How long did it take you to write this book?

Ang Choulean: The photos that I captured and the notes that I took were created long before. Yet, when I really decided to write this book on the rural cuisine of Angkor, it took me around three years to complete. However, it does not mean that I worked on it every single day. But within those three years, I have been thinking a lot about it. Sometimes, I went sleepless and anxious. Instead, if you manage to count all of the information inside the book, they had been gathered well over those three years.

Ky Soklim: Did you author this book alone or with a team of people?

Ang Choulean: I did it all alone. I also only knew how to type in Khmer language, so why did I also include French language? From my own thinking, if I write it in Khmer, perhaps many of the Khmer people are already familiar with these stories. However, I wanted to write it for the Khmer people who live in France.

Most of them, from a young age to the age of around 40 years old, do not really know how to use the Khmer language. That is why I also wrote the book in French so that the Khmer people who live abroad can read since there are plenty of them living in France and even Canada.

Ky Soklim: When you travel to meet people and to see the diversity of their food and culture, how many kinds of traditional foods do you think still remain in the area of Angkor?

Ang Choulean: Well, I want to tell an important story. The intention of this book is not to write about the recipes of cooking. On the other hand, when I want to know about a cuisine, I do not tell them to cook and demonstrate it for me. When the villagers do something, I do not allow myself to have any influence over them. I want to know their daily life in relation with food.

Every family has their own way—their lifestyle—their family members are all different from one another too. Because of this, the meanings are also different. So, I wanted to acquire a broader view about it, but I didn’t want to influence their processes, for example I didn’t tell them to cook this or that so that I can take pictures of it—I want to maintain the authenticity. I want to make it real. Also, it does not mean that I have recorded all of the cuisines that exist in the area of Angkor.

Ky Soklim: Inside your book, how many kinds of food that have been described?

Ang Choulean: Oh, I am not sure. However, the number of meals in which I have been served were around 100. In this case, some cuisines can overlap with each other. I do know clearly that there are many more cuisines out there, for example—a village that I visited did not manage to cook Amok (Traditional Khmer food made of steamed fish and coconut milk).

However, I know that there are other villages that manage to cook Amok. Since, I did not visit those villages, I also did not include Amok in this book. Furthermore, I do not mean that the villagers who live inside the area of Angkor are superior when it comes to cooking than others. I just only want to show the food around Angkor and the daily routine of the villagers.

One crucial point in the book is about how urban communities should be interested in is the uses of rural environments by villages in relation to their cooking. Sometimes, they [villagers] do not take the conventional Rumdeng (Galanga). Instead, they use the wild Rumdeng. Sometimes, they use the T’Moong leaves (Garcinia oliveri species). Some other times, they use a type of fruit which is called Kum P’neang. People living in Phnom Penh city may hardly hear about this fruit. So, the environment where they live around the Angkor area is also included in their daily cooking.

Ky Soklim: Reading parts of your book, it seems as though the Angkor areas has everything that people need and that villagers need only walk a short distance for their culinary requirements.

Ang Choulean: No, it is not that much. However, they clearly know what is natural to them. In this case, there was a time in which a couple, a husband and a wife, harvested their rice plantation. Their rice field was a small one. After the harvest and before coming back home, the husband and the wife walked in a different path and I followed the husband. I thought he was also going directly back home. He, instead, made a stop along the way and dug for a potato. It was not a potato from a farm. It was a wild potato. A small distance from that place, he picked up the T’Moong leaves. They seem to use what is available by nature to the fullest.

How can regular people who live in cities know all of this? For them, everything around their house is alive. One day, during planting rice, a villager suddenly caught a snake and put it in a plastic bag, perhaps, for cooking. For us, if we see a snake, we might just run away.

Ky Soklim: So, before you began to write the book, you have never thought that the area of Angkor would be this diverse?

Ang Choulean: Well, the Angkor area is not that diverse, however, the villagers there are able to utilize what nature can offer them. I would like to mention a very poor family who went to find crabs. During the dry season, the soil was so hard, dry like a rock. They went out at around 8 a.m. in the morning and went back home at around 4 p.m. in the late afternoon. They were able to catch around 10 crabs and seven or eight frogs, since crabs and frogs usually live next to one another. They went out even without having lunch. I have observed both the difficult times and also times in which food was so diverse.

Ky Soklim: So what do you want your readers to see in your book—is it about food culture or something else?

Ang Choulean: I want to show the livelihoods of the villagers through food.

Ky Soklim: Is food a culture?

Ang Choulean: Oh, food is absolutely a culture. Sometimes, we feel worried that we should not put Prohok (traditional fermented fish) for the foreigners because they cannot eat it. Yet, that is culture! Food is a very cultural thing. It is something that we consume twice or three times a day.

Ky Soklim: Does Prohok remain a popular foodstuff within the Angkor area?

Ang Choulean: They still consume lots of it. Prohok is not something which can be missed. Prohok and salt are the essentials inside the house.

Ky Soklim: What do anthropologists conduct their studies onto?

Ang Choulean: That is a very long story. Anthropology has many branches! Some anthropologists are interested in economies, such as the economy in a village or the economy of a family.

Let me use an example the way I would with college students. Let us say, I want to do a study on the production of clay pots in the province of Kampong Ch’nang. In this case, some anthropologists will do their study on the economic aspect. They want to know whether the production of clay pots actually helps the villagers financially the most and the rice plantation comes second, or both of them help finance the villagers equally or the rice plantation actually helps finance the villagers more than the clay pot production etc. They also want to know that, during this year, how far the clay pots have been shipped. How much do the families and the middlemen earn and so on and so forth? This is the study which is related to the economy.

Some others conduct their study onto the technical aspect. They want to know what type of clay is used, how the clay is mixed, how it is heated up, why it sticks together and why it becomes brittle. Do the people use the potter’s wheel to make their pot or do they simply walk in circle around the pots in order to make it? This is the study which is based on the technical aspect. However, these are all within the scope of anthropology. Shortly speaking, anthropology is the study of human beings as members of the society. When it comes to society, there will be tradition and culture.

Ky Soklim: For you, what kind of aspect are you interested in?

Ang Choulean: I like the stories of beliefs and the practices of those beliefs. I like to know how they are celebrated. I like to discover why it is believed, where it comes from and so on. For example, during Pchum Ben days (traditional festival of the dead) in which people throw away a small chunk of rice [to the dead], why do people mold the rice the way they do? Why do they choose that specific type of rice? That is my aspect. I do not do the economic aspect as well as the technical aspect.

Ky Soklim: When you conduct your study on the throwing away of the “Ben” rice during Pchum Ben or ancestors’ day, have you ever tried to find any reasons to support whether the festival is necessary or advantageous?

Ang Choulean: If it is not advantageous, it would not stay. If it has been practiced for thousands of years, and if it is not advantageous, it would not endure. It surely is advantageous for the society. It has its own meaning and that is why it stays. Do not just only take my words alone. Let us look at Japan. Does Japan throw away their tradition? They still practice their tradition much more than us. Speaking of technology, who is stronger than Japan? In that case, why do not they think that they only have Canon or Leica? Tradition and modernism have to go together.

Ky Soklim: Are there many college students who study anthropology?

Ang Choulean: Well, there are students who study anthropology because they enroll in the schools of archeology. However, I cannot say how exactly many the students feel interested about this subject. Since the time of UNTAC (United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia), some foreigners who came to work in Cambodia, and who have traveled around Cambodia, have declared themselves anthropologists. But they have not learnt anything as their foundation. So, it is hard to tell the exact number of them. For my school alone, there are a bit less than 20 students a year who study anthropology.

Ky Soklim: Is anthropology important for society?

Ang Choulean: Well, if I were to be an engineer and you ask me if engineering is important, then my answer would be yes, it is. It is important and that is why I study it. Well, I did write this book about food, but I know nothing about cooking. I only know how to boil water. Yet, I write it because I think it is important. If I were to be able to separate myself from my career, I still think that anthropology is still important. It does not mean that other subjects are not important. Nevertheless, for me, anthropology is still something important.



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