Consumed by Cambodians for centuries, Num Ansorm and Num Kom are more than just ricebased snacks – they carry a special spiritual, and sexual, significance.
Mom Thy, 47, wakes up in the dead of night to make a stack of the banana leaf-wrapped sticky rice treats called Num Ansorm, which he pedals around town on his cart filled with hot coals.
“I wake up at 1am to prepare them and start selling at 5,” he says. “I go until I run out of Ansorm to sell.”
They go for 1,500 riel a piece, and Thy’s been selling them for seven years, ever since he moved to the capital from his native Prey Veng province, where he was a rice farmer. For Thy, Num Ansorm are a fact of Cambodian life, as certain as the sun rising in the east.
“I have no idea what their story is, because nobody has ever asked me; I just know it is called Ansorm since I was born,” he says.
According to the renowned Cambodian restaurateur Luu Meng, Ansorm is more than just a snack. It’s a signature dish.
“It’s the real farmer’s dish when they have a good harvest,” he says. “They make it to celebrate the harvest ... People get together in the villages cutting the banana leaf and marinating and cooking a pig.”
But the treats, which can be grilled, fried or steamed and filled with jackfruit, coconut, banana or pork, also have a special significance in Khmer mythology.
Along with their banana leaf-wrapped steamed counterparts, Num Kom, which are filled with sweet beans or fruits and made from a rice-powder jelly, they are common offerings at temples during Khmer New Year or the Pchum Ben holiday.
At the northern entrance of O’Russey market, Num Ansorm and Num Kom are readily available for sale, but the vendors pled ignorance as to the symbolic significance their products carried.
“I know people take them to the pagodas for the holidays,” says Mam Phally, a 36-year old vendor at O’Russey Market. She’s been selling the traditional food items for 10 years. The largest is the pork-filled Num Ansorm for 3,000 riel.
“Cambodian people are shy to talk about this,” says historian Sambo Manara with a chuckle. The reason for this is that Num Ansorm and Num Kom are physical (and edible) representations of a Lingam and Yoni – or the god Shiva’s phallus and his wife Uma’s female reproductive organ.
“It represents the rite of respect of the mother and father,” Manara explains. This is a tradition that originates in the first century, he says, when Cambodia was steeped in Brahmanical belief systems.
“In that time, the whole society respected women as the centre of society,” Manara says.
Up until the 15th century, a central feature in temples was the Shiva lingam set upon a Yoni. This Yoni not only represents Uma, Shiva’s wife, but also “mothers, women, and water”, he explains. When Cambodia’s temple-building traditions died out, so too did the architectural manifestations of Shiva Lingam and Yoni.
Nonetheless, the concept of Mea Ba, or the respect of mother and father, persisted.
“We stopped building them out of stone, so we changed to build it out of rice,” he explains.
“That can be understood for our own ceremonies, like for Pchum Ben, marriage, or other rites after the 15th century until now. So Num Ansorm and Num Kom exactly represent Mea Ba.”
Num Ansorm has also made appearances in popular culture. On April 14, 2015, Siem Reap City Hall set a Guiness World Record for cooking the largest-ever Num Ansorm, which weighed in at 4,040 kilograms. That same year the provocative pop star Neay Koeun released a comedic song called Darling! You Throw My Num Ansorm Away and Go Eat Baguette in which the phallic attribute of the food is a dominant theme.
“My Num Ansorm as well as my two Num Kom are ready for you for Pchum Ben, darling,” Koeun croons, using not-too-subtle euphemism.
“It’s sweaty and almost spoiled, as it is waiting for your return. I asked your acquaintances why you never show up, and they told me that you will never be back. You are in the city now eating baguette,” he sings, in this case referring to either foreigners or city-folk as being the baguette.
As Manara notes, whether used in an ancient or contemporary context, Num Ansorm and Num Kom will likely always be a significant part of Cambodian cultural identity.
“All of this is concerned with the concept of our ancestors.”