It started unexpectedly. Craving homemade food during her pregnancy, a Cambodian woman who was living in London and had never cooked before embarked on a journey that would turn her into a chef and the author of globally recognised cookbooks.
Ambarella, Cambodian Cuisine, by Kanika Linden and her mother Sorey Long, has won the Best Asian Cuisine Cookbook category in the 2013 international Gourmand World Cookbook Awards. With the award now under their belt, the pair will compete for the Best in the World title, the result of which will be announced at the annual awards ceremony in May.
Available in Europe and the US, Ambarella, Cambodian Cuisine showcases more than 100 authentic Cambodian recipes, and is the second book from the mother-daughter duo who published Authentic Cambodian Recipes, from Mother to Daughter, in 2010. That book was originally published in French under the title Au Pays de la Pomme Cythere, de Mere en Fille, Authentiques Recettes Khmer.
Linden’s family settled in France after fleeing Cambodia in 1975, when she was five years old. As her father was part of the government, the family was evacuated by helicopter from the US embassy and later landed in a refugee camp in San Diego. Linden’s father chose to live in France, where his daughter went to school. After graduating from French business school ESSEC, she moved to London and has lived there for the past 15 years.
It was there that idea for the books came to her, when she was pregnant with her first child. She now has three.
“I was craving for my mum’s Cambodian food. I had not learned to cook as my mother felt it as her duty to cook and feed her children. Very few Cambodian cookbooks were available. My mother had penned down her recipes over 10 years and the idea to gather them in a cookbook became compelling.”
The pair began to talk about family recipes and history, Linden said.
“As my mother’s life unfolded, I learned about her family and her budding passion for food. For both of us, it was a journey of reconnection,” she said.
Her husband encouraged the pair to turn the project into a reality and it finally happened when Linden travelled to Cambodia to visit her parents in 2008. Here she began using photography skills developed in picture-taking classes and a brief period of work for a photography charity to document Khmer ingredients, including the sour ambarella fruits, or m’kak in Khmer.
“I spent many days on measuring quantities and cooking times as in the traditional cooking, kitchen scales and timers were not used. I created conversion charts between imperial, metric and American measurement so that the book could be easily used by all.”
Linden also created an exhaustive glossary containing pictures, Latin names, descriptions of the ingredients as well as possible substitutes for those living in countries where Cambodian ingredients are scarce.
As she was self-publishing, Linden and some friends took charge of each step of the process, from photography and translation to design, editing, publishing and distribution.
Linden received the first copies of the French edition on April 17, 2009 – 24 years to the day after the fall of Phnom Penh.
“For me this was more than a pure coincidence. It was as if the book had a life of its own and was telling us, ‘instead of focusing on tragedy, we can choose to see the beauty of Cambodia through its culinary tradition’.”