ញ៉ាំលេងឪ្យបានច្រោនតាមចិត្ត – nyam leng owie ban jraan taam jeht; “eat for fun, as much as you like, according to your heart”
As I have alluded, rice is a pretty big deal here. The entire concepts of both eating and rice are so inextricable that any episode of consumption that does not include rice somehow doesn’t count towards your daily nourishment. People sighted eating something with a non-rice starch staple such as fried ramen noodles or Khmer pancakes will often exchange giggles with their onlooker as if some inside joke is being shared. This is further corroborated linguistically by the fact that one does not say “eat” but rather “eat rice” i.e. nyam baay! For all other riceless food bouts – although they may be adequately nourishing and/or generous in portion – Cambodians use the term nyam leng which translates directly as “eat play.” More colloquially it can mean “eat for fun, eat because there is plenty of food here, or eat because you have nothing else to do.”
The first step for most Khmer fun foods is to fry pretty much whatever fits in the oil vat. The dense little donuts of PST were only the beginning, a gateway snack, if you will. Everything from potatoes, flattened bananas, slices of baguette with garickly shrimps, mashed roots mixed with mung beans, and, oh, entire num ansoms. One of my favorite fried goodies in the village is a crispy fried wafer made of little freshwater shrimps caught in our nearby lake, mixed in a batter of rice flour, fresh turmeric, and chives. Once fried – and probably doused with white sugar or salt & pepper depending on what you’re going for – the main ingredient becomes the treat-version of itself, denoted by the prefix num. Num essentially means “cake” but can be thought of as treat, i.e. num banana, num potato, num shrimp.
Another popular fry-able goody in Takeo is prahut, an umbrella term which refers to processed meat snacks of all shapes, sizes, origins, and flavors. And I mean all. Often the snacker selects the various types of purple chicken logs or green shrimp (maybe) they desire, the seller slices it up for frying, and serves it alongside something crisp and light like mango relish, fresh cut cukes and herbs, or green beans. And lightly spiced ketchup, obviously. For the die-hard Khmer who live the chemical/preservative/additive-free life, an all-natural type of prahut can be made with crushed fish meat whipped by hand with duck egg, wrapped around little bites of green beans, and fried. The latter is the treat which leaves Bang Srey Muul in hysterics after every bite, as shown in the cover photo.
It’s not all oil, batter, and rainbows, though. Cambodia loves to eat with the season which means every month or so, a new fruit abounds in everyone’s home and workplace. Something like zucchini season in the U.S.: the crop finds its way to you via all possible venues. Last season it was water tamarind, but the Gods are most generous and lately the ripe mangoes floweth over. They can go for as little as $0.25 per kilogram (which is something like 6 mangoes) but most people will just stuff your pockets with them. For whatever reason, though, it is more common to make an occasion out of the seasonal bounty by preparing some type of dip as an accompaniment, especially if some of the haul is still a little underripe. Some popular choices include sugar and chili salt as well as a sweet and spicy dip made with pungent prahok. A favorite dish of mine is a sweet and sour salad made with shredded green papaya, small shrimps, slivers of pork belly, peanuts, and fresh herbs with a fish sauce dressing. Did that sound like a meal? No. This is eat-play.
A personal eat-play favorite of mine is bongaim, which really means “dessert” but it refers to all varieties of sweet porridge-like treats served from giant steel bowls with a touch of fresh coconut milk and ice. If you know how to order on the defense, wary of the copious condensed milk and simple syrup added by default to Khmer dessert, some bongaim can be wholly plant-centric and provide all the life-giving chill of a cold bowl of cereal. There are many types of bongaim which sport unidentifiable rice or tapioca-based jibblies and squiggles – such as the popular corn porridge shown below. My three favorites, though, are the simplest ones: plain Khmer melon, red adzuki beans, and stewed Khmer pumpkin. All are served with coconut milk and crushed ice. Heaven. I have been known to eat two to three little bowls of the stuff as a meal for which I have been heckled mercilessly. “She doesn’t know how to eat midday rice, she just eat-plays,” they snicker.
Along the same “whole-foods” kind of vein are the tiny fresh water clams boiled and tossed in salt, sugar, and spices to be cured(ish) in the sun. You remember them as the treat of choice for my health center staff post-pumpkin pie. They are a laborious treat, requiring resilience of the teeth and fingernails for prying-open purposes. Despite their arduous nature, though, they are wildly beloved as evidenced by their ubiquitous lavender shells perpetually mingled with the tiny fruits and leaves that litter the common spaces.
For other tiny portions of painstaking protein look no further than crickets, fried with lemon grass, lime leaves, chilies, and garlic for your pleasure. These require no cracking open or removal of shell but it takes some strategic masticating to negotiate the prickly appendages. When my counterpart and I recently happened upon a cricket farm full of young bugs not yet to sellable-size, he pointed out that they would be “too soft, not sharp enough yet” and therefore not delicious.
Quite literally all of the aforementioned snacks can be purchased from traveling salesmen piloting mobile moto-mounted snack stands at all waking hours. If you’re afraid you’ll miss the grilled chicken egg guy on his afternoon rounds, fear not. All these savvy uncles announce their approach with a straightforward loudspeaker or jingle. A favorite tune for most ice cream salesmen here is Celine’s “My Heart Will Go On,” as if ice cream didn’t come with enough feels already.
Most people here eat three rice-meals a day and those meals tend to be taken very seriously. Usually at least one person if not the whole household has to sweat over a small fire in a sweltering kitchen to prepare the meal, and when eating begins there isn’t much to hear besides rice-mouth noises. A family during meal-time can be seen hunched collectively over their rice, turning briefly to invite you over and then diving back in. Follow the sounds of laughter or approach a group lounging happily in the shade, however, and you will likely discover them eat-playing upon arrival. For the countless free cakes and laughs I’ve been gifted here, I thought it only fair to give back some snack-love. Many of my Khmer friends often ask me: 1) to confirm that Westerners eat mostly bread and 2) about traditional American foods. I’ve hemmed and hawed for months about both, but thought it best to finally throw them a bone, or a loaf, rather, and serve up the most traditional American bread-goody I could fathom. Peanut butter and jelly. The results were hilarious.
Grampa, perhaps when my Khmer friends and aunties marvel at your vitality and rugged good looks upon your visit we can use the opportunity to espouse the life-preserving qualities of your go-to lunch: saltines, sliced American cheese, a cold orange, and iced tea, no? No doubt they would call it eat-play, but at least they would understand from where I picked up the supposed silly habit.
Love you all the time,