“Kabocha winter squash (Cucurbita maxima), like all Cucurbita species, is originally from the Americas, and was modified through selection with time to create the current kabocha type. The Portuguese brought many crops they found while colonizing Brazil and to Asia, including cucurbits.
Many sources anecdotally state the following as to where the name kabocha comes from: What is now kabocha was introduced to Japan by Portuguese traders in the mid-16th century via Cambodia. The word kabocha is thought to have originated from a mixture of the word “Cambodia” and the Portuguese word for pumpkin, abóbora.”
For those interested: All recipes can be found at the bottom.
My persistent, low-key education (read: pestering) about my desire to share Thanksgiving with my host-family resulted in my walking downstairs at dawn on Sunday to find my uncle ex-sanguinating two large chickens, just for me.
Several weeks of preparation built up to this very special day when I would throw myself into my mak’s domain – the Kitchen. My mak yaay (great aunt) spent an evening with me planning out the shopping list. She would snatch the salient produce for me from the provincial market as I snagged the oddball ingredients from my secret stash and/or Phnom Penh, a haven for displaced American foodies.
As you might imagine, cooking in a Cambodian kitchen requires a little more ingenuity than expected in a luxurious American kitchen. Heat of a fire cannot be so easily controlled as a gas range and constant disinfection of utensils is doubly as crucial but about a thousand times more of a pain in the neck. Fortunately fate sent me three guardian angels to preserve my sanity. My host-cousin Sieklin, my host-sister Vhie, and fellow PC Volunteer Jacob were my right hand-folks that day. They peeled, washed, chopped, cooed, and soothed. Mak even prepared the fancy dinnerware. I’m especially proud of our half-guy-half-girl team for exemplifying the sharing of domestic responsibilities where-in no one was a bossypants chef woman who kept barking orders to everyone. Right, guys? Right?
With no will or hydration left in my body, it was time to hohp, nyam, sih, piseh – choose your favorite Khmer word for “eat” and that is what we did. Mak prepared a giant, secretive batch of rice in anticipation of my American food being received with mixed reviews. It gave me intense pride to see some of my favorite, familiar dishes beside mak’s rice. Two worlds colliding in my belly. The ultimate Peace Corps dream. Our “American” food consisted of chicken doused in French wine and Italian herbs, sweet potatoes with Mexican chipotle pepper and Mandarin oranges, Asian long bean casserole with German mushrooms, and classic stuffing. It felt wholly representative of the proverbial American melting pot.
Preparing the table and seating arrangements had the same customary hustle and bustle of American gatherings. To the table I had drawn together a few spheres of my Cambodian life: my tutor Leakhana from the next village over, my host-parents, brother, and sister, my neighbor aunty and her precious granddaughter (my kmooey srey, meaning “niece”), my host-cousin who now lives in Phnom Penh but visits home frequently, and Jacob, the volunteer who lives closest to me in the provincial town. I count him among family, too.
I experienced that classic cheffy clench-in-the-chest as guests begin to taste the feast. My mak’s face hides nothing. Thus it was plain to see that the appeal of my bland, MSG-free American fare was beyond her. We all laughed together when she subtly slipped two small dishes of soy sauce on the table. The little chef in my heart would normally have been wounded but at that point my contentment was untouchable.
Cousin Sieklin, a skilled English speaker, helped me explain that Thanksgiving represents one of the few times during the year when most families in the States gathers to eat, a concept to which every Cambodian can relate. We tacitly agreed to gloss over the whole imperialist-world-explorer/genocide-of-native-peoples-as-a-prerequisite part of the holiday. Maybe next year. When I explained the meaning of “giving thanks,” my pa took a moment between excitedly snapping photos to thank me for being a smart chef and sharing this piece of culture with the family. I thanked him quickly in return for inviting me to live here, then sprinted away to grab the pumpkin pie before getting blubbery at the table.
With everyone sated – mostly with rice and chicken on the part of my host-fam – there emerged two more familiar tenets of Thanksgiving amongst the crowd while I began clearing dishes: the first being a crowding of the men around an available screen to spectate a sport of some type, the second being Jacob’s pleasant food coma/lounge with the kittens.
The day wasn’t a wrap just yet. Another neighbor aunty gave me a stack of little to-go packages and I scurried back home to parcel out left-overs. Sieklin and Jacob continued their trend of spectacular support by trailing through the village with me as I shared my mini-meals with familiars, more aunties for the most part. My aunty who runs my regular café, the mother of three of my students, the wife and daughter of the village chief, the mother of one of my best village friends, and the aunty who makes the best duck-egg muffins on the block, to name a few. Though the idea of my American grub was met by some with a subtle air-of skepticism, the gesture seemed to shine through for the most part.
I managed to cordon off enough pie to save a healthy helping for my co-workers at the health center. I was touched by the staff making a real occasion of it. One midwife prepared a serving table for photos and another nurse bought us each a “bitter” iced coffee (with only about a third of the usual amount of sweetened condensed milk, so maybe a scant gooey quarter cup) to compliment the sweet American goody. Again, although met at first with hesitance, the eventual consensus was, chnyaang! Delicious! Or in the case of my vaccinator, strange delicious!
This Thanksgiving offered me the chance to feel like I was finally giving a small something back to my community along the same vein as their unrivaled generosity. In the states, food is my most favored method of showing love and appreciation. It still strikes me as incredible that this kind of kitchen mischief and cuisine sharing technically satisfies some of my most crucial job requirements as a volunteer. For this opportunity, I’ll have thanks enough to give for the rest of my life. Even if my offering of traditional American dessert was immediately followed by a chaser of brined freshwater clams.
Later that night, mak offered me the gesture of a lifetime. Even though she wasn’t over-the-moon about my cooking she invited me into the kitchen with her. But we didn’t make just any dish. We made THE dish. Mak’s stir-fried pumpkin with black pepper and pork belly. I abandoned my sister to fold the rest of the laundry solo while I skipped after mak.
While it’s true that the gulfs between our cultures dwindle a little everyday as language and routine solidify, I’m continuously grateful that there exists an overlap between Cambodia and American cultures wherein food bridges the way for love. And although I appreciate pumpkin each and every day, on this day I felt especially indebted to this gourd, such a role-model world-wanderer. For to have its bravery borne out as it strayed far from our shared homeland in the Americas by way of the seas among Portugese explorers, to scatter itself worldwide to live out its many forms and flavors, to be attentive enough yet to lay down roots in our adopted home of Cambodia so that I might one day incorporate it – along with Jell-O shot powder – in a no-bake pie is the design of a life I would like to lead. When words fail, pie speaks.
I hope your heart is as full as your belly and that the football is as loud as you please, Grampa.
Thinking of you always,
*Phnom Penh ingredients, some of which are pictured above
Stove-Top Green Bean Casserole – Serves 4-5
½ kg Asian long beans, tips snapped off, broken into 4-5” pieces
5-6 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
4 big handfuls oyster mushrooms, chopped
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour or cornstarch
4 oz. can pasteurized, unsweetened milk
*2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
*pinch cayenne pepper
5-6 shallots, peeled, sliced into rings
2 cups cooking oil of choice, soy or canola preferable
Special Equipment: medium to large wok, small fine mesh sieve (metal), colander, piece cardboard
- Mushroom Base Pt. 1 – In a large wok over medium-low heat, melt butter. Sauté garlic until barely beginning to brown, then add mushrooms. Let cook ~7-8 minutes until juices are released. Set aside.
- Mushroom Base Pt. 2 – If using cornstarch, gradually stir 2 Tbs. cornstarch into equal amount water to create thin paste. Whisking thoroughly, steadily pour paste into wok to mix with butter and avoid clumping. If using flour, sprinkle gradually into wok while whisking constantly. Immediately begin to trickle all milk into the pan, still whisking briskly. Cook about 5 minutes, stirring, until thickened. Whisk in Dijon and cayenne. Salt and pepper to taste. Fold mushroom-garlic mixture into wok. Set aside.
- Crispy Shallot Topping – Toss shallot rings in 1 cup flour or cornstarch to coat. Place in colander and shake to remove excess coating. Prepare a piece of cardboard near your burner so as to drain fried rings between batches. Heat oil in wok over medium-high heat. Drop in one or two rings to test. Oil should bubble around edges as onion gradually browns. Fry in small handfuls, turning often with sieve. Remove when barely brown (browning will continue after cooking). Discard oil.
- Beans – In two batches, drop beans into wok followed by splash of water for steam. Turn often until just cooked but still green. Toss in mushroom base until well coated and top with fried shallots.
Mashed Sweet Potatoes with Spicy Citrus Kick – Serves 4-5
4 medium sweet potatoes, rinsed and peeled, cut into large 3” chunks
5-6 clementine’s or mandarin oranges, washed and quartered, skins on (important!)
*pinch cayenne or chipotle pepper
- In medium pot, add 2 pinches of salt to water and drop in potatoes. Set over high heat and cover. Bring to boil. Boil until fork slips into potatoes easily, without resistance. Remove potatoes and drain. Allow to cool completely.
- In small pan or pot over medium heat, add orange quarters and sprinkle with sugar. Allow to heat and brown, burning/blackening in spots. Skins should soften completely. Remove from heat and chop very fine.
- Once cool, sprinkle potatoes with pinch of cayenne/chipotle plus salt and pepper to taste. Use fork to mash to desired consistency while folding in chopped oranges. Eat.
Stove-Top Braised Herbed Chicken with Classic Bread Stuffing – Serves 4-5
meat of 1 large chicken, bone-in, cut into thighs/breasts/wings etc., skin removed and cut into
3 large white or yellow onions, peeled and cut into quarters
10 cloves garlic, peeled and halved
3-4 large carrots, peeled and cut into large 3” chunks
1 large bunch celery, leaves removed and reserved, stalks cut into 4” slices
½ cup unsalted butter
*2 Tbs. dried thyme
*2 Tbs. dried rosemary
2 Tbs. each – salt & pepper
*6 oz. white wine such as sauvignon blanc
2 French baguettes, torn into 1-2” chunks
2 large handfuls reserved celery leaves
Special Equipment: extremely large roasting pot with lid
- Render Chicken Fat – Melt ¼ cup butter in pot over medium heat. Add chicken skins and render fat while browning. Use spatula to express fat while cooking. Remove once browned and crispy. Set aside.
- Season and Brown Meat – Mix dried herbs, salt, and pepper together. Rub over chicken pieces to coat. Add remainder of butter to pot. Brown seasoned chicken, meat side down at first, flipping to opposite sides once browned. Remove.
- Vegetable Base – Add garlic and onions to pot. Toss to coat in fat, allow to sweat about 5-6 minutes. Add carrots and celery. Stir to combine and cover. Stir after 5 minutes, cover again. Once fragrant, pour half of wine to coat vegetables and place chicken in one even layer atop vegetables. Cover and allow to cook about 1 to 1 ½ hours over low heat until chicken is barely cooked. Check periodically to see if water should be added. In last 20 minutes of cooking, add remaining wine and cook uncovered. Remove from heat and transfer chicken to separate serving dishes, reserving vegetables and juices in pot.
- Stuffing – Toast bread chunks in dry pan/skillet over medium heat until dry throughout. In handfuls, toss bread in vegetables mixture to coat. Add celery leaves while tossing for color. Allow to sit for 20-30 minutes before serving. Top both chicken and stuffing with celery leaves.
No Bake Pumpkin Pie – Makes 1 small 8-9” pie
2 medium Cambodian pumpkins, skin removed and cut into large chunks
*1 package graham crackers or similar wheat crackers, unsalted, crushed into crumbs
*2 oz. almonds, crushed fine
big pinch salt
*1/3 cup unsalted butter, melted
*0.25 oz packet unflavored gelatin (if uncolored is not available, opt for red, found in Phnom Penh liquor stores as a key jello-shot ingredient, pictured above)
*2 tsp ground cinnamon
*2 tsp ground nutmeg
1 Tbs minced fresh ginger
8 oz. can sweetened condensed milk
2 small duck eggs, whisked/scrambled
Special Equipment: small cooler with ice big enough to fit pie plate, pie plate ideal but not necessary (a shallow eating dish will work well)
- In small pot, cover pumpkin with water and bring to a boil until tender. Remove and drain. Once cool, mash fine with fork.
- Mix cracker crumbs, crushed almonds, and pinch of salt in small bowl. Slowly mix in melted butter until well-combined and slightly sticking to itself. Press into base of pie plate until about 1/4” think throughout bottom and sides.
- In small pot, combine gelatin and spices. Separately, combine whisked eggs with condensed milk in single bowl. While whisking constantly, pour condensed milk/egg mixture into pot containing gelatin/spices. Whisk until no lumps are visible. Allow to rest one minute. Place pot over medium heat and whisk contents constantly for 10 minutes. Remove from heat and mix in pumpkin. Pour contents into prepared crust. Allow to cool over ice for 3 hours before serving.
Mak Samorn’s Stir-Fried Pumpkin with Black Pepper and Pork Belly – Serves 5-6
1 small Cambodian pumpkin or small, peeled and sliced in thick matchsticks (as shown above)
6-7 cloves garlic, peeled and minced fine
2-3 Tbs. cooking oil
½ pound pork belly, chopped until nearly ground
3 Tbs. fish sauce
3 Tbs. white sugar
2 Tbs. crystallized MSG
1 Tbs. fresh black pepper
large handful chives, chopped
- In large wok, heat oil over med-high heat. Add in garlic and stir frequently. Once lightly browned, add pork. Stir until well mixed with garlic. Add fish sauce, MSG, and sugar, stirring well in between each.
- Add in pumpkin and stir to coat. Pour in 2-3 cups water and cover. Allow to cook for about 20 minutes, stirring occasionally.
3. Before removing to serve, stir in pepper and chives. Ladle into serving dishes, including some of the cooking liquid.