We speak often of Indian, French, Chinese, Thai and Vietnamese influences on Cambodian cuisine. But there is one group of people whose journeys radically transformed what we eat in the Kingdom today.
In May 1498, three strange ships appeared in the harbour of Calicut, on the Malabar coast of Kerala, India. They had survived a 10,000 mile journey from Portugal and carried the first Europeans to reach Asia by sea. At that time, Calicut was the centre of the global spice trade, and Vasco de Gama and his crew returned home with a cargo of 100 tons of pepper, ginger and cinnamon, worth 60 times more than the cost of the expedition. His return marked the beginning of a period that would transform cuisines all over Asia and the world, including Cambodia’s.
It was the Portuguese who led Europe’s first forays into the worlds beyond their borders. In a period that became known as the Age of Discovery (to Europeans; others may have a less self-congratulatory term for the era), the Portuguese set forth in ships to map the world, spread Catholicism and open up trade. Starting in 1419, their journeys led them to Africa, Canada, Asia and Brazil and it was the last two which were to have the profoundest impact for how millions of people eat right up to this day.
It’s not clear exactly when the Portuguese first sailed onto Cambodia’s horizons, but it was most likely sometime around 1513. The Portuguese, aware of their early advantage in discovering the route to Asia, did not publish much about their adventures at the time. In less than 100 years though, their adventures here would come to a bloody end.
One manuscript that describes their early encounters with a wide range of cultures, including Burma, Siam and Cambodia was written by Lisbon apothecary, Tomé Pires. Cambodia, he noted, was then at war with Thailand and Burma, and sometimes Champa. He mentions the independent character of the king and warlike nature of the people, before going on to itemise the things Cambodia had that might be interesting to trade. In particular, Cambodia produced “quantities of rice and good meat, fish and wines of its own kind,”, gold, lac, ivory, and dried fish (essential to seafarers). Cambodia was a trading nation, unlike Champa which depended mostly on agriculture, and Pires noted the presence of imported fine white cloths from Bengal, a little pepper, cloves, vermilion, quicksilver, liquid storax and red beads. Cambodia, moreover, was a country with “many horses and elephants”.
Pires and his cortège sailed on beyond Cambodia, making for Champa, The Philippines, China, Japan (Jampon), which they arrived at by accident, and Malaysia. Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, two years after de Gama dropped anchor off the pepper-rich Malabar coast, Portugal had dispatched another expedition to India, but although it followed the same winds as de Gama had, the second fleet wound up in Brazil.
These journeys set in train a process of cross-pollination of a tremendous number of fruits and vegetables, including papaya, tomatoes, pineapple, peanuts, cashews, avocados, vanilla, custard apples, passionfruit and sweet potatoes from the New World (South America) to the old (Europe and Asia). It was the Portuguese who brought the South American chilli to Asia, where it was adopted with such gusto that it has become a defining feature of cuisines such as Thai and Indian. Europe’s chefs on the other hand were not so enthusiastic about this delicious spice, despite medical conclusions that the fiery pepper offered comfort and healing, promoting gastric health.
But the Portuguese also had a more direct effect on local cuisines too. Japanese tempura and India’s potent vindaloo curry were both Portuguese creations. So too is Malaysia’s spicy stew, debal. In Macau and southern China, egg tarts — which can also be found in Cambodian markets — are heirs of Portugal’s famed pastel de nata. More sweets can be traced back to their influence too.
Krob Knor (jackfruit seed dessert) is a direct descendant of Portugal’s fios de ovos (egg threads). In Cambodia, it is a traditional dessert made from cooked yellow split mung beans, coconut milk and sugar. The mass is moulded into oval balls, then dipped in egg yolk and cooked in boiling sugar syrup and then dipped into cold sugar syrup.
In a neat circling of life, Longteine de Monteiro (the wife of a descendant of one of the earliest 16th century Portuguese to arrive in Cambodia, whose family went on to occupy important positions in Cambodia’s courts and politics) describes a recipe for golden angel hair in The Elephant Walk Cookbook, a collection of recipes from her immensely popular Boston restaurant.
The dessert that Longteine describes is closer to the Portuguese original, and has corollaries in Thailand (foi thong — golden thread) and Japan, where it is called keiran somen. Cambodia’s egg cake (noum barang) most likely has Portuguese origins too (in common with the Thai version, khanom farang).
In 1570, it was the Portuguese who first described the wonders of Angkor to the rest of the world, but their time in the country came to a brutal end after they tried to help the Khmer King Chey Chetta I in Longvek defend what remained of his Kingdom from Siam (Thai) invaders. They sent a delegation to the Philippines to ask the Spanish for help. The Spanish, seeing an opportunity for trade and evangelism agreed to help and sent soldiers, but they were too late. King Chey Chetta I had fled north, and his enemy and cousin King Ream I sat on his crown.
The Portuguese and Spanish attack the new king, slaughtering him, his family and court and destroying their palace. The massacre lasted for a whole night leaving “the earth strewn with corpses, the streets running with blood, the women wailing, some for their husbands, some for their sons, others for their brothers and so the city seemed like Rome burned, Troy annihilated, or Carthage destroyed” as described by Dominican friar, Gabriel de San Antonio, in his book Brief and Truthful Accounts of the Events in the Kingdom of Cambodia.
Following the fight, two explorers, the Portuguese Diogo Veloso and Spanish Blas Ruiz, set off to find King Chey Chetta I in order to reinstall him. This is how they became the first westerners to set foot in Laos, but by the time they found their king in Vientiane, he had already died. Determined to put his son in his place, they returned to Cambodia and placed him on his throne in return for which the new King Barom Reach II granted them landholdings south of Phnom Penh.
But anger remained, and the new king faced rebellions. Following a series of low-level conflicts, Veloso and Ruiz appealed for Spanish reinforcements, but again they were too late. In mid-1599, everyone seemed to turn against the Spanish and Portuguese conquistadors, and every one bar a small handful was killed. The Chams and Malays took the opportunity to pursue and finally kill King Barom Reachea II and his Kingdom disintegrated into numerous territories.
Though the Portuguese influence on Cambodia lives on, not only through ingredients and flavours, but through something we all touch every day, the Riel, which is probably derived from the Portuguese unit of currency, the Real, which was in use from 1430 to the beginning of the 20th century.