Vegetable vendors at Doeum Kor market in Phnom Penh say it is unlikely their sales of potatoes will rise in the future, despite the health and agricultural benefits the hardy tubers have over rice.
With the price of rice at an all-time high and global stockpiles alarmingly low, there is a growing movement to introduce the humble spud as an Asian food staple.
China saw gains in potato farming last year amid devastating drought that prompted agricultural experts there to press for a switch to the more resilient potato. This month, Bangladeshi authorities urged villagers to eat potatoes to ease demand for rice, which has seen prices double in a year.
The prospect of mashed, baked, boiled or fried potatoes seems to have little traction with Cambodians, however.
While for Western expatriates in Phnom Penh the potato recalls buttery memories of festive feasts, the vegetable is held in low regard by most Cambodians.
Hout Penglay, a produce vendor at Doeum Kor market, said consumers were sticking to rice despite the soaring prices.
Trying to introduce the potato into everyday cuisine was a desperate measure, he said, and would not be resorted to by Cambodians unless absolutely necessary.
“I can’t go back to life under the Pol Pot regime when I and other people ate potatoes instead of rice,” said Em Sokha a shopper at Doeum Kor market.
“If there are political problems or war again, then maybe they can use potatoes to replace rice.”
Internationally, there are fears food security is already sufficiently threatened to justify elevating the spud’s status. The United Nations has dubbed 2008 the “International Year of the Potato” (IYP) to encourage consumption of the vitamin C and potassium-rich tuber.
“The potato produces more nutritious food more quickly, on less land and in harsher climates than any other major crop – up to 85 percent of the plant is edible human food, compared to around 50 percent in cereals (including rice),” the Food and Agriculture Organisation says on the official IYP website, www.potato2008.org.
While promoting potato farming has yet to make its way on to the Cambodian agenda, the head economist at the Cambodia Institute of Development Study, Kang Chandararot, said diversifying the Kingdom’s heavily rice-based agricultural sector could help stabilize food prices.
Chan Tong Yves, secretary of state of the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, said he is keen to see more potatoes grown in Cambodia.
“I think it’s a good idea and I support the farmers who plant potatoes because it’s part of the food supply for Cambodians, but Cambodians can’t eat potatoes as a substitution for rice because potatoes serve just as a kind of snack,” he said.
“I know poor people in isolated areas eat potatoes in place of rice when they ran out of rice, but this rarely happens.”
Ratanakkiri, Mondulkiri and parts of Pursat would be best suited for potato farming due the regions’ cooler climate, according to Yang Saing Koma, president of the Cambodian Center for Study and Development in Agriculture.