With such wealth of traditional home-cooked Khmer fare available, god forbid you should offer the ghosts of your ancestors junk food for Pchum Ben
IT’S 4am – in the middle of a dream. Clanging, calling, clanging and calling: “Come and eat!”
Cambodia’s most famous king, Jayavarman VII, started the holiday of Pchum Ben in commemoration of the warriors who died during the great boat battles with the Cham in Siem Reap.
Centuries later, it has shifted to a remembrance of family ancestors. And just like those long-lost warriors, they need some nourishment.
The food, of course, will have to be to Khmer tastes. My friend Chab Kunn says even ghosts would wrinkle their noses at foreign foods, and god forbid you try to give them junk food. It’s only the good old family recipes that will satisfy.
Only a few traditional dishes are offered up to ancestors during Pchum Ben.
Chop chai soup, made with pork, vegetables and pork skin, is one of the essential dishes.
I asked Chab Kunn what kind of vegetables and he said: “All kinds. Whatever they grow in their province.” It reminds me of the old family recipes cooked up at Christmas by my family in the States.
“There are different styles, but they are all Cambodian,” he says.
Pork with fried noodles is the other main fixture on the festive menu. Other dishes include chicken or fish fried with ginger, and roast chicken.
“If people have a house, they have chickens,” he says.
The women prepare the dishes, and they are stacked in a bunto – the cylindrical lunch box – and brought to the pagoda to be offered up to the monks.
Some people start cooking and sending in food to the pagoda 15 days before the day of Pchum Ben. However, most will prepare two or three days beforehand.
The mass of food can’t all be eaten by the monks, so it is also a time for giving.
Monks will arrange for food to be sent to troops who can’t get back to their home provinces, and the poor will go to the pagodas to ask for food from the monks.
With people returning to their home province for this holiday, food is being cooked up for their families as well.
This is a special time for city folk to eat the clean country food not found in the cities.
Kunn tells me: “The strong chickens in the countryside are much tastier. They haven’t been pumped up with water like city chickens. And the fish are better, too. They grow up in the rice fields only in the rainy season and have only clean food to eat.”
Then there are the cakes. There are traditionally four kinds of cakes made for Pchum Ben, but two are most prominent.
In keeping with the Hindu and Buddhist faiths, a holiday for the dead should have some symbols of renewal present.
The nom ahnsahm is a linga-shaped cake made with a layer of sticky rice laid in a banana leaf with spread of bean and pork lard. Traditionally, the leaf is wrapped into a roll and the phallic cake tied with the fibre of the banana tree “trunk” and steamed in a large pan.
Nom gkohm starts with a rice flour dough placed into a banana leaf in an oval shape.
It is filled with sesame seeds, red bean paste, palm sugar, peanut and coconut, and also steamed in a large pan and resembles a yoni when finished.
The other two cakes, are nom jaik, which is a banana wrapped in sticky rice wrapped in a banana leaf and boiled, and nom tmei, which is the same as nom gkohm but without the red bean paste.
These two linga and yoni cakes are not as prevalent.
The cakes will be made up ahead of time and hung on the wall. They are usually eaten for breakfast after being grilled for a few minutes.
But why was I woken at 4am? Bai ben, the rice offering where people throw rice around the pagoda to start things off.
A time to reconnect, a time for renewal – a time to eat.