Like so many other Khmers, Narin Seng Jameson fled Cambodia in 1972 during the midst of the Khmer Rouge regime. Growing up in Cambodia she hung around the family kitchen in Phnom Penh and waited to be chased out by the cook. But she had never prepared Cambodian food herself, and when she moved to Washington, DC at age 27 she had no idea how to find — or prepare — many of the dishes that featured so prominently in her memories of her homeland.
Thus began Jameson’s quest to recreate the tastes of her childhood and master the type of cooking that she remembered from the 50s and 60s — before war and violence changed the face of Cambodia. Since that period, she says, food has become less important to Cambodians. “It’s changed. People take many shortcuts now,” she told me. “Cambodian cooks copy the neighbouring countries’ foods. Food is a lot sweeter than what we used to cook.” Jameson spent decades perfecting recipes from her and her sister’s childhood memories, reaching out to the Khmer community in the United States for ingredients, advice and encouragement.
With her cookbook, Jameson hopes to bring preserve the culture and tradition of Cambodia that existed for generations before the war, and to draw attention the fact that it is changing. Because more than half of the population of Cambodia is under the age of 20, most have no recollection of the way Cambodia — and its food — used to be. “Everything I know I learned from my mother and her cook, who was the best in town,” Jameson recalled. Some of her fondest memories are of what went on in her childhood kitchen, and the delicious flavors that it produced.
Jameseson returned to Phnom Penh recently to celebrate the release of her cookbook, Cooking the Cambodian Way: The Intertwined Story of Cooking and Culture in Cambodia. The entire proceeds from the book go to Caring for Cambodia, a Siem Reap-based educational organisation for children.
The book explains in great deal home-style Khmer cuisine — the nuances, traditions and cooking methods that are in danger of being forgotten. Her recipes are straightforward and simple, but without shortcuts. You won’t find MSG or chicken powder in Jameson’s dishes as you will in most restaurants and homes in Cambodia.
Her favourite meal, a simple beef noodle soup found on nearly every street corner in Cambodia, is one that she remembers eating at Phnom Penh’s Psar Chaa, the Old Market, in the 1960s. “It reminds me of my young age,” she told the crowd that gathered at Monument Books to hear her speak. “We used to eat at the market — it’s now called Psar Chaa — it was a place for girls to meet boys and boys to meet girls…but I just liked the soup.”
Cooking the Cambodian Way: The Intertwined Story of Cooking and Culture in Cambodia
Available on Amazon.com.
By Lina Goldberg
Last updated on 3rd March, 2011.
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