Tuesday, October 18, 2011

7 things you didn't know about Cambodian kitchens

Or maybe you already knew all of this. But I certainly didn't when I first moved to Cambodia.

 1. No ovens

 Ovens are not a traditional part of Cambodian cooking, which relies most on stir-frying, grilling and soups. The only way to get an oven in a Cambodian flat is to rent an apartment that's been tricked out for Westerners (and if you have an apartment with an oven, you're probably paying double what everyone else pays) or buy a standalone oven. I have done neither of these things, and have lived without baking for over a year now.

My current, tiny Cambodian kitchen. At least it has a cabinet.
 2. Bugs

 A standard part of tropical living, my kitchen is filled with creatures. This is not because I leave food sitting around, this is because the weather is conducive to critters, I live in a slum and my neighbors have different standards of hygiene than I'm used to (ie. they leave rotting garbage all over the street). At this moment, I have a dragonfly trapped in my kitchen who refuses to leave. Most days, there are at least a few geckos staring at me blindly as I prepare my lunch.

 The worst are the ants. If I cut an apple on the counter and don't wipe the counter down afterwards, within 6 to 8 minutes, the entire counter is swarming with ants trying to lick the knife. They expectantly wait on the edge of the sink for the water to dry, allowing them to traverse the edges of my drain for stray grains of rice. I have come to believe that the ants are not just innocently trying to feed themselves, but are only here to antagonize me. At one point in my life I didn't believe in pesticides. Now I use Raid like hairspray.

3. Gas burners

 Perhaps this goes without saying, but I was surprised when I moved here to find that my stovetop involves a giant gas tank and a couple of burners. Apparently not turning off the gas is incredibly dangerous, but I cannot remember to do this. One of my friends tells me this is because I was not raised watching Asian soap operas where someone would ring the doorbell and the entire house would explode because of some housewife's failure to close the gas tank. When I die in my apartment inferno, people will point to this blog post as an eeire forecast of things to come.

4. No storage

 Most Cambodians only buy as much food as they will serve to their family that day. They do not understand the concept of buying in bulk. Even staples like uncooked rice can be bought in portion-sized servings. The average Khmer will have bottles of oil, soy sauce and fish sauce, and containers of sugar, salt and MSG next to their gas burner. And that's it. Because they do not understand the Western desire to compulsively hoard food, they do not put cupboards or storage of any kind in the average Cambodian apartment. If you are lucky, you'll find a small tiled pantry, but many kitchens do not even have this. My kitchen has a giant bookshelf that I moved into it, which is a constant reminder of what a glutton I am.

My first kitchen in Phnom Penh. Who needs food storage when they shop every day?
5. MSG

 Yes, I said it. All Cambodian kitchens have MSG in them, usually in at least a few formats. The salt-like crystals, the chicken powder, the chili sauce. The great majority of Khmer household chefs seem to be...not lazy, exactly, but interested in making cooking as quick and dirty as possible. That said, their dinners are pretty good so maybe they are on to something.

6. Hot

 Another probably obvious one, but Cambodian kitchens are hot. The temperature here hovers around 90 most days, but the 70% humidity brings the "feels like" temperature over 100. Even at night. About 20 degrees more, and that's my poorly ventilated kitchen. Imagine trying to prepare dinner in a dry sauna and you'll know what my mealtime is like. This is why many families drag their little grill onto the sidewalk outside their house and make dinner out there.

7. Fruit and veg 

Lest I seem like I'm complaining (I'm not), there's another addition to my kitchen that was non-existent when I lived in London and Dublin. Fresh fruit and vegetables, and not of the depressing potatoes and cabbage variety. I can get fresh mangoes for $0.25 apiece here, and right now I've got fresh papaya, bananas and lychees waiting for me to devour them. I used to pay 60 cents for one stalk of lemongrass when I lived in London -- now I pay 2 cents per stalk. There are a plethora of vegetables on offer here, and though I don't know what half of them are, I appreciate their existence. For the first time in my life, I am getting my 5 a day and I'm not even trying.


  1. Nice post. Have you tried one of those electronic pest repellers to help shoo away some of the critters? Let me know if you need one from the States.

  2. Thanks for this. The kitchen looks very pretty and clean. Please be careful about using Raid. It is TOXIC. My place was aswash in ants, which I ignored, until I noticed that they had largely disappeared after I started grinding rosemary in the blender everyday, and also burning it as incense. Since there are pieces of rosemary everywhere ,and its aroma, the ants evidentally find it repulsive.

  3. Use Terro anti ant bait a container with liquid that will let ants carry the bait to their hiding place and the entire colony will be wiped out. Such a good product, you have to use it to believe
    it. here is the link http://www.terro.com/