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Cuisine festival boasts diversity

Smoked fish from Pursat.  PHOTO SUPPLIED
Smoked fish from Pursat. PHOTO SUPPLIED

Cuisine festival boasts diversity

Raw fish salad and grilled chicken with red ants may not be the Kingdom’s best-known dishes, but curious gastronomes will soon get their chance to experiment as the country’s more obscure culinary offerings take the limelight this weekend at the Cambodian Cuisine Festival.

The festival will feature 44 dishes from 19 provinces in addition to more than 40 samples of Phnom Penh street food in tapas-size portions at the festival, organised by French NGO Pour un Sourire d’Enfant (PSE) in conjunction with the Ministry of Tourism.

Curry ingredients from Kampong Cham.
Curry ingredients from Kampong Cham. PHOTO SUPPLIED

Some 200 chefs, including small restaurant owners from around Cambodia and teachers from PSE’s hospitality training school, are scheduled to take part. Participants include members of indigenous tribes from the northeast as well as ethnic Kula, a Tai minority related to the Shan whose ancestors emigrated to Pailin from Myanmar in the 19th century.

One of the aims of the festival is to showcase the Kingdom’s culinary diversity not only to foreigners but to Cambodians.

“[People] prefer only the food that they usually taste, and the food from the other provinces is not shared enough with the general population,” said Ouk Sovan, PSE deputy program manager, adding that he could not find one of his home province’s most beloved dishes upon moving to Phnom Penh.

“In Kampot, we have a famous curry we call palm curry. When I grew up, I saw the palm curry at every event, every ceremony, every festival. But when I moved to Phnom Penh, I never saw this food anymore in the restaurants.”

The capital’s food, Sovan said, is a melting pot of food from all over Cambodia combined with Vietnamese, Thai and Chinese influences. But despite featuring elements from all over the country, few people can spot the regional peculiarities.

“Phnom Penh is actually fusion food, you can find a lot of influences from all over, but you don’t know which ones belong to where.”

Noodle soup from Kampong Cham.  PHOTO SUPPLIED
Noodle soup from Kampong Cham. PHOTO SUPPLIED

Seng Sim, a 35-year-old Takeo native and teacher at PSE, said he is looking forward to eating the food from his homeland: stuffed frog with spices.

“PSE gives the opportunity for everyone who wants to show any kind of food,” he said, adding that PSE recruited him while he worked at Sofitel Angkor Phokeethra hotel in Siem Reap. Other Takeo cooks will focus on the Takeo offerings this weekend, however, as Sim shares Pursat smoked fish and taro porridge, which he learned from his Sofitel days.

Sovan said that it is also important to show the world that there is more to Cambodian cuisine than fish amok and beef loc lak.

“We feel that our food is not shared enough with outsiders, that they just know a few items of Cambodian food. But actually there are plenty of foods that Cambodians serve up a lot.”

Plans are in the works at PSE to compile their knowledge into a cookbook of provincial dishes, which Sovan said is currently nonexistent.

“There are four [Cambodian cookbooks] published already, but they are more on the fusion food – not typical Cambodian food. We are going to bring food unknown to the general people to show to them.”

Palm curry ingredients from Kampot.
Palm curry ingredients from Kampot. PHOTO SUPPLIED

With 12,000 tickets for sale between both nights, Sovan said that he hopes to beat last year’s attendance of 8,000. Much of the festival’s joy, he said, comes from bringing people from across Cambodia and the rest of the world together to enjoy a meal while supporting a charity.

“When you put together the food, people will come together. Through the food, you can connect the people and express your ideas through the food.”

The Cambodian Cuisine Festival will run from 6:30pm till midnight Friday and Saturday at Olympic Stadium. Tickets are available at the door for $3, with proceeds supporting PSE.

Organic or conventional ?
The Cambodian Organic Agriculture Association (COrAA) hosted its second Organic Fair last weekend to promote Cambodia’s small organic farming scene. COrAA, a private trade organisation that issues organic certifications, requires that farmers not use genetically modified (GM) crops or synthetic “chemical” fertilisers or pesticides to obtain certification.

Winfried Scheewe, an agricultural engineer and advisor to COrAA, said that it is important for Cambodian farmers to adopt organic farming methods.

“Organic agriculture is one way to prevent any more of these chemicals from getting into the air, earth and water that sustain us,” he said.

Scheewe added that the introduction of genetically modified rice would threaten the integrity of Cambodia’s crop. Cross pollination with local strains, he said, could lead to violations of EU regulations that ban the importation of GM rice, reduce genetic diversity and create global dependence on a handful of companies which own the patents to GM seeds.

“That’s why it is so important to object to the planting of the so-called Golden Rice, which is a result of genetic modification,” he said, referring to a rice strain currently in development by the Philippines-based NGO International Rice Research Institute (IRRI).

IRRI representative Bruce Tolentino told 7Days that Golden Rice, which is undergoing trials in the Philippines, Indonesia and Bangladesh, would be not be commercially available for several more years as tests continue to ensure safety and effectiveness. When asked to respond to claims that Golden Rice is harmful, he linked to the blog of Dr Robert Zeigler, director general of IRRI.

Zeigler wrote in a post last October: “Golden Rice contains beta carotene, which could provide an additional source of vitamin A to the diets of millions of rice consumers worldwide. And that’s important because vitamin A deficiency can impair vision and cause other sight problems before killing you outright.”

He added that as many as 350,000 children go blind each year due to vitamin A deficiency worldwide.

Scheewe, however, dismissed Golden Rice as a “trojan horse” designed to fool the public.

“In my understanding, Golden Rice is promoted to divert the [attention] from the real issues.”

The concerns over corporate control of crop seeds are legitimate, wrote Zeigler on his blog, but not applicable to Golden Rice.

“Golden Rice was developed by public sector scientists using public funds. Private entities that hold patents over technologies used to develop Golden Rice have made them available freely for this purpose. So, can someone please explain to me why ‘activists’ should block a technology developed by the public sector and hold the world’s poor hostage over a fight about private control of agriculture in rich countries?”

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