At Backstreet Academy, we can’t get enough of the local Cambodian food. Our love affair with the cuisine have manifested into a popular cooking class and a street food tour that have seen hundreds of travelers enjoy local fare in its most pristine form, unspoiled by the westernization of local dishes to suit international palates (beef loc lac with ketchup is out there on top of the list). And in exploring the local cuisine through the years, we noticed a recurring theme of local delicacies that were popularized during the Khmer Rouge. Some of the most interesting dishes in Cambodia seem to have been discovered during Pol Pot’s regime, a time when two million people are said to have perished and thousands more starved. However, the Khmer people found clever and ingenious food sources to supplement their insufficient diet, food that have survived the genocide and come to be loved by the local people today. Here is a list of cuisine spawned by the Khmer Rouge.
Borbor (Rice porridge)
Day in and day out, the people under the Khmer Rouge survived on a diet of borbor. At the time, it was served as a watered down version to feed the countless citizens who moved to the countryside. Under dwindling shortage of rice, the watered down version of borbor was the only way to feed everyone.
Since the Khmer Rouge, borbor has come to live amongst the hearts of Cambodians as a popular ‘soul food’ where a much heartier version of the dish has taken the place of its former self. It is typically served with shredded chicken, congealed blood, pork intestines and pork bits garnished with crispy fried onions, cilantro and paired with lime and chili. And water has been replaced with a rich pork or chicken broth to cook the rice in. Borbor has come to be a popular breakfast option among the locals. You can find a bowl at most makeshift stalls you will see on the streets.
Insects (of every variety)
As the Khmer Rouge came into power in 1975, they immediately ordered two million citizens from the capital to move to the surrounding villages to work as peasants. This was to be ‘year zero’ in Pol Pot’s vision of a new rural, classless society. A result of an extreme form of Maoism. The people were forced to live and work in inhumane conditions, being served a bowl or two of borbor (rice porridge) a day. This forced people to find other sources of nutrients and one that was in abundance were insects. Spiders, crickets, grasshoppers and water beetles provided an important source of energy for millions of men, women and children who were malnutrition during Pol Pot’s regime.
However, unlike what we see on the streets today, where these delicacies are fried to crispy perfection, they were mostly eaten raw during the Khmer Rouge. It was illegal to eat anything as being caught consuming any other food besides what was provided meant likely execution or punishment. And fire to cook the insects would certainly reveal the unauthorized activity.
If you’re brave and want to try out sampling some of these creepy crawlies, try out the Fear Factor Challenge in Siem Reap – it will be bound to be an adventure you won’t forget. 😉
Pset (Oyster Mushroom)
Wild mushrooms provided a healthy diet source during the Khmer Rouge. Mushroom was found wild in the rice fields and thus entered into the ‘illegal’ diet of the people during the Khmer Rouge. If you were caught picking mushrooms, say because, your sister was pregnant and could do with more than a watered down rice porridge, you were jailed.
Mushrooms today have entered into the Cambodian diet, supplementing soups, curries and countless other dishes as a integral ingredient in defining the Khmer flavors.
Frogs are eaten in most Southeast Asian countries. This popular snack in Cambodia is enjoyed either grilled or deep fried. However, during the time of the Khmer Rouge, any alternative to Bobor was prized as luxurious. And when the monsoon season would arrive, frog could be found in abundance in the wild. Frogs too were illegal during the Khmer Rouge but it was relished as a healthy source of protein. Today, you can find deep fried and grilled frogs in almost all the food markets around Cambodia. The local wet markets also sell skinned frog, ready to be on your dinner table in no time.
If you are on the look out these must try delicacies in Siem Reap, you can simply head down to Psar Leu, the biggest local market in Siem Reap where you will be on a good spot to try out these food and a lot more. If however, you’re feeling a bit adventurous and want to learn how to prepare a frog dish, it’s worth checking out this Evil Cuisine Cooking Class.