It was eight o’clock in the morning and sweat droplets were already streaming down my face. A chaotic scene stood before me. I was in Battambang, a relatively relaxed town (by Asian standards) located in Southern Cambodia about three hours away from the glorious temples of Angkor Wat. The place was teeming with life and energy. I was the only foreigner at the central food market among the crowd of locals.
By my side was a local Khmer restaurant owner and chef who was guiding me through the market. Today was my introduction to regional produce unique to Cambodia and there was much for me to learn. About twenty minutes into the tour, I stumbled upon something that immediately caught my eye. I looked closer into the large, wicker basket next to a mound of dragon fruits and saw a heaping pile of dead crickets! I have heard a lot about the insect treats that Cambodians are known for loving. I was waiting with much anticipation for the moment when I would catch my first glimpse of a tarantula or some other creepy crawler. I come from a culture where eating insects isn’t normally a part of the daily diet, so I was curious to know more about the origins of this Cambodian tradition.
During my tour, I asked the chef how insects became a part of Khmer cuisine. He told me the primary reason was the Khmer Rouge. Having visited many of Cambodia’s museums and memorials dedicated to the Cambodian genocide, I was already familiar with the atrocity, and I did a little of my own research on the topic.
Essentially, eating bugs arose out of necessity. In 1975, people were brought from all over Cambodia to labor in the countryside where they were forced to endure long hours under the sweltering heat doing physically laborious jobs, like harvesting rice and building dams, with very little rest and very little food to eat. The entire Cambodian way of life came to a stand-still and was replaced with a communal agrarian-based lifestyle. Those who were seen as enemies of the government were tortured and killed. People were starving and in need of a source for energy and nutrition that would keep them alive. The solution? Insects.
Eating tarantulas or beetles in Cambodia is often seen as an “exotic” or adventurous aspect of Khmer cuisine. Foreign travelers to the country are always trading stories of the times they took the plunge and munched on a grasshopper or two at Siem Riep’s night market. Amid all the playfulness of the delicacy, it’s easy to forget that eating insects is a grim remnant of Cambodia’s dark past. On the other hand, it can also be seen as an inspiring embodiment of resourcefulness and perseverance.
Although insects are cited as being an addition to Khmer food during the Khmer Rouge era, the majority of Cambodian food culture (and general cultural and religious practices) was annihilated. Much was lost during Pol Pot’s regime: lives, traditions and customs. His goal was to completely destroy Cambodian culture as a whole. You can understand why his efforts were so successful — nearly two million people were killed during those five years of pure pain and hardship. Over time, much of Cambodia’s cuisine has been re-established. Even so, I have come across Cambodians discussing how bits and pieces of their food culture have yet to be regained.
Certain types of ingredients, recipes and methods for cooking specific dishes cannot be found in post-Khmer Rouge Cambodia. People who held these culinary traditions and secrets perished during the atrocities, while many others were forced to burn their recipe books and notes as a means of survival under their newly forced conditions of government servitude.
Despite all this, there is still hope that Cambodia can grow closer to regaining its culture in its entirety. Much to my delight, and to the delight of Cambodian culture lovers everywhere, restaurants trying to reconnect with the culinary customs of Cambodia’s past have begun popping up in cities like Phnom Penh where they feature original recipes of obscure dishes.
It was the most unlikely of places where I learned a very profound lesson. In the middle of that wildly busy market standing next to a mound of dead crickets, I realized the magnitude of Khmer cuisine and the potency of its historical and cultural significance. In many ways, to understand Khmer food is to understand Khmer history.
I know it’s an emotionally heavy topic and confronting Cambodia’s past isn’t easy, but it’s extremely necessary. It should be discussed because it’s important to Cambodians and it’s important to the world. It’s one thing to learn from history books, but it’s a completely different experience to touch the past with your bare hands and see it’s still very much a part of the present. Whether it be eating something as slimy as a silk worm or as crunchy as a spring roll, food is a powerful medium for people to connect and transcend through time.