Khmer spices at a local Phnom Penh market. Sovann Philong
FOR the past few years, Phil Lees, author of the popular Cambodian food blog Phnomenon, has been sharing his enthusiasm for Khmer food with a growing number of online fans, changing people's minds about the often-misunderstood cuisine.
Having lived on and off in Cambodia for four years, Lees's obsession with Khmer food is clearly evident from his Web site, with its drool-inducing photographs and culinary insight.
"There are a lot of misconceptions about Cambodian food," Lees told the Post from his home in Melbourne. "Cambodian food is rich and varied. There is a lot of depth there."
A common error, he says, is that people treat Cambodian food just like Thai food.
"But there is a different balance," he explained.
In Cambodia, he says, the flavours should balance each other across an entire meal. A meal can include a sour soup, a salty fish, fried vegetables and plain rice, and over the course of the meal, one can achieve "gustatory equilibrium".
In contrast, he says many Thai dishes attempt to balance sour, salty, sweet and spicy in a single bowl.
In Cambodia, even if no dish stands out, the meal as a whole could still be delicious.
Open mind and a healthy appetite
Lees's advice to people new to Cambodia is simple: Keep an open mind and dine with Cambodians as much as possible.
"Cambodians are incredibly open about food," Lees said, as he recounted a story of his Khmer workmates who a few years ago drove him all around town in search of the perfect papaya.
Even so, Lees is fast to criticise a notion that conflates poverty and authenticity, saying that street food is not necessarily more "authentic" than the Pizza Company at Phnom Penh's Sorya Shopping Centre.
"Expecting that the food that the abject poor eat is going to be better or more ‘real' than the food that the slightly-less poor eat is insanity," Lees writes on his food blog. "Some street food here is excellent, but most of it is not that good."
Though Lees currently resides in Australia, he says that he's definitely coming back to the Kingdom and will keep updating the blog as long as he spends time in Cambodia.
And given his love of freshly picked Kampot pepper, Lees will surely be back to Cambodia often.