Sous-dey from the Kingdom of Cambodia, one of the fastest-growing economies in Asia and our first globetrotting destination that begins with the letter C. Cambodia is the second country that we’ve visited in the Southeast Asian peninsula after Burma, with which the kingdom shares various characteristics such as an oppressive form of government, an adherence to Theraveda Buddhism (the state religion), and other cultural and culinary traditions. As usual, however, Jess and I were also keen to discover what makes Cambodia unique.
For breakfast on Saturday, Jess prepared a traditional Khmer recipe called bor bor. The Khmer people are the dominant ethnic group in Cambodia, and bor bor is a thick rice porridge topped with scallions, dried shallots, bean sprouts, and chili paste:
Not long after breakfast, we made our way downtown to North Station. We had a train to catch! Our destination for the day was the city of Lowell, Mass., home to one of the largest Cambodian-American populations in the United States. Within just a couple of hours, we found ourselves walking the streets of Cambodia Town.
We had actually enjoyed Lowell’s Cambodian culture once before, when we attended the city’s Southeast Asian Water Festival in the summer of 2013. This annual event features food, music, and dancing from across Southeast Asia—not to mention dragon boat racing on the Merrimack River.
This time, instead of heading to the river, we planned to explore the food and culture of Cambodia Town itself. On our way to the restaurant where we had decided to eat lunch, we spotted this Cambodian Buddhist temple:
Cambodian refugees began arriving in Lowell in the 1970s to escape the war and genocide that had engulfed their homeland. Forty years later, Cambodian-Americans make up about 12% of the population in a city where one in five residents is of Asian descent. Just one block past the temple was Simply Khmer, which impressed us not only with its delicious Cambodian menu but also with its enchanting decor.
Nestled amongst the bamboo shoots, and under the steady gaze of some large freshwater fish swimming in the aquarium nearby, we ordered a couple of popular Cambodian dishes.
At the bottom of the photo is my “original Khmer” luk lak, a dish of sautéed beef served over salad and accompanied with a lime pepper dipping sauce. (I enjoyed another version of this dish at the Elephant Walk in Cambridge last year, at our wedding reception!) At the top is Jess’s spicy mee ka-tang, containing flat rice noodles stir fried with eggs, tofu, bamboo shoots, and vegetables. Except for a few pieces of lettuce, we cleared our plates.
After lunch, we strolled deeper into Cambodia Town until reaching Pailin Square, which sits at the heart of the community. There, we found a bustling collection of shops and markets.
We stopped at a grocery store called Pailin Market to pick up a couple of ingredients that we hadn’t been able to find closer to home, including a jar of pickled krachai (a rhizome related to ginger) imported from Thailand. On our way out, we spotted this small shrine in the corner of the parking lot:
We weren’t exactly sure of its purpose (though we had also noticed alters inside both the restaurant and the grocery store) but we mentally added our wishes that Cambodia Town would continue to flourish and then caught an afternoon train back to Boston.
That evening, Jess made samlor kor ko, a Cambodian vegetable stew. This was a rich combination of coconut milk, pumpkin, shiitake mushroom, and Japanese eggplant, and spinach, served over rice. This was also her first time using some of the recipe’s ingredients, including kaffir lime leaves, fresh lemongrass and galangal, a root that’s somewhat like ginger (but not to be confused with krachai, the other ginger-like item we bought earlier in the day).
While we ate, we watched a 2012 episode of WGBH’s Neighborhood Kitchens that was filmed in Cambodia Town and focuses on Simply Khmer, the very restaurant where we had eaten lunch.
We watched a documentary after dinner called The Flute Player (2003) about a Cambodian-American musician named Arn Chorn-Pond. Having lived in the United States for many years, Arn returned to his native country to seek out the handful of master musicians who survived the Khmer Rouge in order to preserve their music and teachings for later generations.
As we ate another tasty breakfast of bor bor the next morning, we glanced at some tourist footage taken at various locations around Cambodia, including at Angkor Wat—the famous ruins of the capital of the Khmer Empire which are now a World Heritage Site.
While I dashed out in search of some banana leaves with which we hoped to make a popular Cambodian dessert that afternoon, Jess prepared a lunch of Amok, known as the country’s national dish. While the traditional recipe calls for fish and fish paste, Jess had discovered a vegetarian recipe that substituted tofu for the fish and a combination of tamarind paste and soy sauce for the fish paste.
Having managed to find some banana leaves but not, unfortunately, some kitchen twine (we substituted unwaxed dental floss), I spent much of the afternoon assembling some rolled banana cakes, or num ansom chek.
After spreading a layer of sweet rice and coconut cream on the inside of a banana leaf, I rolled a ripe banana in sugar and placed it in the middle. Rolling the entire cake into the banana leaf (like a burrito) was difficult because the leaves kept breaking even though I had doubled them up. You can see one of the cakes above, before we discovered whether or not my knotwork would withstand the heat of the stove. But we needn’t have worried. After boiling them for about 90 minutes, we set the cakes out to cool:
For dinner, I pulled together a basic Cambodian recipe for Mee kchop char nung poan moan, or, for you English speakers, stir fried instant noodles with eggs. We enjoyed it topped with chili sauce and tamari.
It was finally time to unwrap the banana cakes, which had miraculously held together through the entire hour and half of boiling. Inside the banana leaf was a rather mushy log of rice, and inside that was the cooked banana itself, sweet and still warm. We sliced the log just like a maki roll and served it in discs on a fresh banana leaf.
The warm num ansom chek was a delicious way to conclude our dinner, and our weekend in Cambodia. From wrangling yard-long banana leaves to exploring the streets of Cambodia Town, the weekend brought us many exciting (and tasty) adventures. Until next time, leah sin houwy!