Friday, 18 May 2012

Cambodia - How I became a Lotus Eater

I always really look forward to cooking a typical dish of the different places I blog about and Cambodia was no exception.  I know a lot about Thai food, having lived there, but Khmer cuisine is pretty unknown to me, although a lot of the ingredients and cooking techniques are the same.

There were quite a few dishes to choose from, but I liked the sound of Somla Machou which is a sour-tasting fish soup.  Actually, the recipe I used from included some sugar, so the overall taste was sweet, as well as sour.  The part that gives the sour taste to Somla Machou is the Lotus root.  I'd never eaten Lotus root before, never mind cooked it, so that was a new experience for me!

In search of Lotus root

Wing Yip's Chinese superstore, Cricklewood
Rich in dietary fibre and Vitamin C, but also low in saturated fat, the root of the Lotus flower is quite a healthy thing to eat.  It's common enough in East Asian cuisine, but not very well known in the West, which is a shame, as it's actually quite tasty and easy to cook.  I wasn't quite sure where I would find Lotus root in London, but a quick search of the Internet brought me to Wing Yip's Chinese superstore in Cricklewood.  I not only found Lotus root there, but also fresh galangal, which I've not seen in Europe before.  Although Wing Yip's has a comprehensive stock of Chinese ingredients, ironically I had to get some of the other ingredients (eg. lemongrass and pineapple) in Tesco's! 

The ingredients:

The Ingredients
About 700ml of Chicken stock
Two fillets of white fish - I used Panga from Vietnam which I bought frozen in Wing Yip's
Two tomatoes
One Lotus root tuber (about 150g)
Birdseye chillies
Galangal (fresh, if you can get it!)
A whole bulb of garlic
1 egg
Lemongrass (preferably fresh, but I used dried lemongrass)
80g Tamarind pulp
Groundnut oil (for frying the garlic)
Thai Holy Basil (although I couldn't get my hands on this, so used dried basil)
Fresh mint
2 tablespoons of Brown sugar
Half a pineapple
Thai fish sauce (Nam pla - Cambodians have their own version of this, called tuk trey, if you can find it!)
Rice (as a side)


I always prepare everything first, so it's ready to be cooked and I'm not chopping things up in a hurry, whilst my dinner is burning!  Preparing the lotus root was easy - it's just like a potato really - you peel the outer skin off and slice it in rounds.  I also read somewhere that it's best to put the lotus root into a container with water until you're ready to cook it, so it doesn't get discoloured. 

Peel and slice the Lotus root

Put the sliced Lotus root ina bowl of water
I prepared all of the other ingredients, including the Tamarind pulp, which I mixed with boiling hot water, let it settle for about ten minutes and then poured the mixture into a sieve, retaining the tamarind juice, but discarding the tough, chewy husks. 

Vegetables and spices, chopped and prepared

Also chop the fish into bite-sized chunks

How I made Somla Machou

I followed the recipe from Celtnet quite closely.  First I put the lemongrass, fish sauce, sugar and galangal into a large pot and boiled them with the chicken stock.  Then I added the tomato, pineapple and lotus root, bringing everything to a boil again, before reducing the heat and simmering the vegetables for about ten minutes.

Stock, lemongrass, galangal, fish sauce and sugar

Add the pineapple, tomato and lotus root

After the vegetables had cooked, I added the tamarind juice and pieces of Panga (fish).  Whilst the fish pieces were cooking, I used a separate, smaller, pan to fry the chopped up garlic until it turned golden brown.

Cook the fish pieces

Brown the garlic

Once the fish pieces had cooked, I added dried basil, mint and the fried garlic.  I understand completely why the garlic needs to be fried separately, as just adding the garlic pieces to the soup at this point wouldn't have the same taste.  The final thing was to add the egg and stir it into the soup as it cooked.  I've seen this done before, but not actually done it myself and it's a technique that is often used in Chinese cooking. 

Add the herbs and garlic

Stir in an egg

Finally, I served the soup with basmati rice and sprinkled with birdseye chillies  The end result was very tasty indeed!

Somla Machou served with rice

Image credits:

All photos were taken by me.  Please feel free to re-use them under the Creative Commons license:

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Saturday, 12 May 2012

Cambodia - The Lost Kingdom of the Chams

Flag of the Cham Liberation Front
I've always been fascinated by 'lost kingdoms' or 'countries that might have been'.  The map of the world today is a product of History and it's interesting to think how it could all look so different.  I touched on this when I was blogging about the Veneto - Venice was a republic and a nation for so long, it seems a bit unfortunate that the Venetian nation no longer exists, although it's for the greater good of the Italian state.  Similarly, it would be interesting to see Champa on the map of South East Asia in the 21st century, as it was for many centuries in the past.  I guess the Cham people have been unlucky in the end and now their culture and 'nationhood' remains somewhat obscure and unheard of by most people. 

So where was Champa?

Cham ruins in Vietnam by GlobalCitizen01
I first heard about the Chams when I was travelling through Vietnam.  Although most Chams now live in Cambodia, the Kingdom of Champa was in southern Vietnam and this is where the architectural legacy of the Cham people still remains.  I remember travelling on one of those horrid tourist buses from the old French hill station at Da Lat to the seaside resort of Nha Trang and we stopped along the way to look, rather bleary-eyed, at the ruins of a Cham palace. 

Ancient Champa had its capital at Indrapura, which is near modern-day Da Nang in Vietnam.  Champa flourished until the late 17th century when the northern Viets started to push the Chams out of the Vietnam, a situation that continued until well into the 19th century. 

The Chams in Cambodia

The Chams were eventually defeated by the Viets and many of them moved to Cambodia, settling around the area now called Kampong Cham (Port of the Chams), as well as along the shores of the Tonle Sap lake.  They retain their own culture, language, stories etc and they've become well-known in Cambodia for their weaving and dying skills.  There are more than 300,000 Chams in Cambodia, but they are very much a minority group within Cambodian society.

Conversion to Islam

Cham performer by GlobalCitizen01
One thing that makes the Chams stand out from other Cambodian citizens is the fact that most Cambodian Chams are (Sunni) Muslims.  Islam had made some headway in South East Asia before the Chams moved to Cambodia but, perhaps in an effort to maintain a separate cultural identity, most Cambodian Chams have adopted Islam.  It has also served a practical purpose, allowing Chams to fish and kill animals, in a country where most people are Buddhist and don't wish to take the life of another creature.  There are small Cham communities in Thailand and Laos as well.  Interestingly, the majority of the 130,000 or so Chams who remain in Vietnam have retained their Hindu faith, as much as faith continues to exist in a Communist country like Vietnam!

Suffering under the Khmer Rouge

By all accounts, the Chams suffered horribly under the Khmer Rouge, being treated in much the same way as the ethnic Viets living in Cambodia.  It's hard to measure the extent to which the Cham population suffered, but some estimates suggest that as many as half a million Chams could have been murdered by the Khmer Rouge in an attempt to 'ethnically cleanse' Cambodia.  I have written about ethnic cleansing before in my blog about Barbados.

Connections with Aceh and Malaysia

It surprised me to learn that the Acehnese people have their origins in the Cham Kingdom of Vietnam, having fled to Aceh after a defeat by the Vietnamese in the 15th century.  The Cham language is closely related to Acehnese, so that they are 'in the same part' of the language family tree.  Both Cham and Acehnese are part of the Malayo-Polenesian branch of the Austronesian language family.  There were long-standing cultural and trade connections between Champa and the Malay peninsula and, by all accounts, the Malaysian constitution recognises the right of Cham people to claim Malaysian citizenship.

Other Chams, Khmers and Viets

Cham ruins by GlobalCitizen01
I guess our 19th-century obsession with creating nations has left a simplified map of the world today.  We tend to think of Viets in Vietnam, Cambodians in Cambodia etc., but the nature of human and cultural migration has left more complicated patterns.  As well as the main Cham population of South East Asia, there are also people like the Jarai of central Vietnam (called montagnards by the French colonisers), numerous hill tribes of northern Vietnam, the Chamic Tsat people of Hainan in southern China etc. 

There are more than a million ethnic Cambodians who have always lived in the Isan region of (what is now) Thailand, known as the Northern Khmer, as well as another million or so Khmer Krom living in Vietnam in the Mekong Delta.  Likewise, there are more than half a million ethnic Vietnamese living in Cambodia, so the ethnic make-up of South East Asia is much more complicated than a map of the region would have you believe! 

Image credits:

For this blog post, I've chosen to highlight the work of flickr member GlobalCitizen01 who has taken lots of photos of East Asia and Australia.  All of the images above were taken in My Son in Vietnam.  You can see more of GlobalCitizen01's photos on his photo stream and he also has a really interesting blog, which is worth checking out!

His most recent blog post is about Kuril islands in the Russian Far East (north of Japan) - the photos are very well mounted and explained. 

Saturday, 5 May 2012

Cambodia - អក្សរខ្មែរ âksâr khmêr

One of the things that most fascinated me on my trips to Cambodia was the Khmer alphabet. Having spent a year in Thailand, I'm quite proud of the fact that I can read Thai script - okay, not fast enough to recognise the destinations of passing buses but, you know, given time to pore over the squiggles and rounded syllables, I can manage okay! Going to Cambodia (and Laos), the script was very familiar looking, but a lot more complicated and squiggly.

A shared heritage - Thai and Khmer

I guess Khmer script is more complicated than Thai because it's the script that Thai, Lao and some other South East Asian scripts derived from. I'd imagine it's retained a lot of it's original complexity which, perhaps, was simplified when the script was used to write Thai, a language that is tonal and couldn't be more different, phonologically, than the Khmer language. I think this paragraph is probably very controversial for Thai readers. Understandably, most people prefer to think of their culture as being unique and not under the influence of neighbouring cultures. As an outsider though, I have to say - that's how it looks!

Khmer writing on book cover
Writing as a tool for technology

Since its invention, writing has been a powerful tool for the advancement of technology. Think of all the things that writing has enabled us to do. The very essence of civilisation, history, science and communication, has been dependent on the technology of writing to help us share our ideas, learn from our mistakes and count the spoils of war or trade. It's hardly a surprise that some of the first examples of 'writing' were connected to accountancy and I have to wonder, yet again, at the power of trade to push forward technological developments.

The sacred nature of writing

In Ancient times writing was something that was sacred. Until the Middle Ages in Europe, only spiritual men (and usually only men), scribes and monks, were taught how to read and write (the two surely go hand-in-hand?). Written text enabled Pharaohs and Kings to create a legacy that would potentially be eternal and could speak for the writers long after they had deceased. In some Ancient societies, written creations had to be approved and stamped by the King, before they could be left behind as records of that society.

The power of the written word

Writing is just as powerful today. I'm sure J.K. Rowling would agree, having seen her Harry Potter series of books take the world by storm, being translated into innumerable languages and read by an audience of millions around the world - millions of people who speak different languages and come from very different cultures than the writer herself. And then there's the Media - newspaper headlines or a scathing review can make or break public figures. There is more power in a well-written text sometimes, than in any spoken words.

Lao script is much rounder and softer than Khmer
The 17th century French mathematician Blaise Pascal once said 'To know how to write well is to know how to think well' and I tend to agree. Perhaps good writing is only rivalled by good music, as a source of inspiration and change for the human mind.

The alphabet revolution

As part of my research for this blog post, I read A Very Short Introduction to Writing and Script by Andrew Robinson (published by Oxford University Press). It gave me a great overview of a topic I find endlessly fascinating. There was so much to learn from this book, but one of the main things I came to understand was how the alphabet revolutionised writing systems. I guess most of us will presume that alphabets have been around forever, but they're a much more recent invention and were pre-dated by other forms of writing, such as hieroglyphs, cuneiform writing and pictographs.

Thai script and other scripts like Khmer, Lao and Tamil are kind of like an alphabet (unlike Chinese or Japanese, where you need to learn thousands of characters before you can read). Having said that, they're not like any alphabet I'd met before and are actually somewhere between a true alphabet, where each individual sound (or phoneme) is represented by a single letter, and a syllabary, where each letter represents a syllable. Khmer, Thai and the others are like a hybrid between a syllabic system and more phonetic alphabet. I guess this type of 'alphabet' is probably better described as an Abugida..

Of course, it's all well and good to try to define everything and put things into boxes, but the reality is always a lot more complicated and even the English alphabet is a bewildering combination of letters and sounds.

Where do you put the vowels?

Chinese script
What I found really different about Thai and Khmer is that the vowels can appear in front of, behind, on top of or even under the consonant. There are rules of course and certain vowels tend to stand alone, whilst others are dependent on their partner consonant. Vowels have always been an issue and the first alphabets didn't contain any - some modern alphabets, like Arabic, Hebrew and Hindi generally leave them out. The existence of vowels in European scripts is mostly down to the Greeks and linguists speculate as to the influence Greek poetry had on the addition of vowels to a script.

Apart from that, learning to read a script like Thai or Khmer isn't all that difficult. The letters don't morph or change, as they might in Arabic or Hindi and, once you get over the initial culture shock of a completely different writing system, it all falls into place somehow and you will be able to make out words in other Brahmic scripts (which all have their origins in India).

The world's biggest and smallest alphabets

If Khmer is considered to be an alphabet, then it's probably the largest alphabet in the world, with 74 different signs (again, some of these are quite obscure and have disappeared in neighbouring scripts like Thai).

By all accounts, the world's smallest alphabet is the one used for the Rotokas language in Papua New Guinea - it only uses 12 letters (all from the Roman alphabet) - a e g i k o p r s t u v - there's definitely something to be said for keeping things simple!

Image credits:

All images were taken by me.  Please feel free to re-use them under the Creative Commons License:

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