When Kanika Linden was pregnant and living in London, she craved the food from her homeland. But since she didn’t know how to cook Cambodian cuisine, she gave her mother and experienced chef, Sorey Long, a call.
Slowly she started to learn the intricate balance of putting together these dishes. More than 10 years later, Linden, 45, and her mum have written an award-winning cook book. Ambarella, Cambodian Cuisine won the Asian prize at the world-renowned 2014 Gourmand Awards in Beijing last month. Linden took the photographs, while Long put together hundreds of exotic recipes. The result is a colourful collection of dishes to savour. “My mum knew that the young generation would have very little knowledge of cuisine culture before the Cambodian war,” she said.
Raised in France after fleeing her native country in 1975, Linden has lived in London for 15 years, and studied photography at Blake College and Westminster Kingsway. She now lives with her husband Alexandre and children Sovann, Séléna and Cyrus. Here she talks about Ambarella, Cambodian Cuisine and her family history.
What was the Cambodian dish you missed the most when you were pregnant with Sovann in 1999?
There were many such as soups, salads and desserts. But, of course, I didn’t know how to cook Cambodian food. In London, where I was living at the time, there were no Cambodian restaurants or cookbooks. In the end, I called my mum and she said: “Sure, I can teach you.” So that is how it started.
How did the idea to write a book about Cambodian food come about?
My mother is an experienced chef. She taught cookery in France, and kept her notes and recipes in a folder. I remember asking her: “Why don’t we make this more beautiful instead of putting your life’s work in a plastic folder?” That was when I came up with the idea to produce a book.
The first version was in French. How long did it take you to write the book?
About 10 years and during the process, I started a family. When we finished it, I had three children. A great deal of the time involved researching the names of the ingredients, such as herbs and vegetables. After finishing the French version, we published the English edition in October 2013.
What was it like working with your mother?
At times, it was complicated. We cried, we hugged, and we argued occasionally. We became very emotional. Of course, working with your mother is not like sitting next to a colleague. You cannot say: “Sorry, I don’t agree with you, mum.”
Why do you love Cambodian cuisine?
These dishes mirror the lushness of Cambodia as it draws on the abundance of fish, fruit and vegetables to create a fragrant cuisine.
What are your favourite native dishes?
Salads, soups and desserts have beautiful scents and flavours. You can taste Cambodia in them. For example, sawmlâw kâwko, a soup, blends the best ingredients in Cambodia. There is fish, kroeung, prahok, winged beans, pea aubergines, green papayas, green bananas and fresh leaves such as s’leuk bâh.
What dishes evoke memories from your childhood?
I would say beef and water spinach sour soup, sawnlâw m’choo kroeung sach ko. This is a very simple, classic dish in Cambodian households.
Do your children love Cambodian food?
My 8-year-old boy Cyrus loves grandma’s bananas in coconut milk with tapioca recipe. He really enjoys Cambodian food.
Ambarella, Cambodian Cuisine is published by White Tara Publishing.
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