Seeing as you eat, in general, three times a day, food and drink is something you regularly come into contact with. I thought I’d discuss some of the cooking, dining and drinking customs I’ve noticed or even been a part of.
It will come as no surprise, being an Asian country, that Cambodia’s staple food is rice. In fact, the name for breakfast, lunch and dinner translates literally as morning rice, midday rice and evening rice. This may sound monotonous, but Cambodian cuisine has such a range of dishes to go with it, it has yet to get boring. Also, it turns out, there are quite a few ways to cook rice. Furthermore, main meals are often served with more than one dish to go with it, again adding to the variety.
They do also eat noodles, and often a baguette with chicken curry. Baguettes, dumplings, desserts and snacks are all served on roadside stalls too.
Kitchens in Cambodia usually aren’t extensive or spacious like in the west. Some Khmer people will often cook outside, on coals. They are experts at controlling the temperature of the coals, whereas I can’t even control the temperature of a hairdryer.
Cambodians, it seems, don’t really do small knives. Everything is done with cleavers or large knives. In fact, knives I consider large and unweildy, Khmer call small.
Generally, I wait to be seated. Sometimes the seating is ordered by hierarchy. However, in most of the contexts I’ve found myself in, it’s usually quite flexible. Also, wait to start eating; again, it’s polite if the oldest person / most senior person starts the process.
Normally, you eat with a fork and spoon. (No knives, they’re too massive to be practical.) In a Khmer style restaurant, they are often already at the table, and you wipe them down with tissues provided. The spoon goes to your mouth; the fork is just used to manoeuvre food onto the spoon. (On a random aside, I learnt that we Brits eat with the fork’s tines down. I read it on the web, thought it was ridiculous nonsense, until I noticed that I was using my fork like that.)
Chopsticks are used for noodles. There as some dishes where hands are required (in fact, it’s acceptable to pick up bones to chew meat off of).
When eating, any rubbish (e.g. the tissues) goes in little bins at the end of each table. However, more often than not, it ends up on the floor. It sort of makes sense that you want rubbish to be removed away from your food as soon as possible and, as floors are usually tiles or concrete, it’s quite easy to clean up. It can be a bit strange when a Khmer guest does it at your house for the first time (a fellow expat, who has been in the country longer than me, was more prepared and descretely picked up the tissue and put it in the bin; she was hoping I didn’t notice- my housemate didn’t though).
Often, you will automatically be given water or iced tea. The old warning about being careful with ice does apply here. However, it’s often fine as it’s usually factory produced and delivered each day. This is a relic from Cambodia’s history as a French protectorate. The ice cubes will usually be bullet shaped and hollow inside. You will also see blocks of ice being delivered to fish and meat stalls at markets (this type of ice is not used in drinks). Apparently, you might need to be more careful in rural areas (I have yet to eat in a place further than 15 km from a city or town). If it’s crushed or irregularly shaped, don’t drink it.
Khmer people will use straws to drink most things: water, beer, coffee. They will often add ice to most things: water, beer, coffee.
Iced coffee with sweetened condensed milk is a standard drink here. It’s very tasty but will probably hasten onset of cardiovascular disease or diabetes.
When drinking beer, they clink glasses or bump cans a lot. When you open a drink, you all say cheers and toast. When anyone sips their drink you say cheers. If you top up your drink, you toast. I had to explain to Vitou that, in England, we generally do it once and then just drink (although there is always that one drunk person at every party that is perpetually toasting for some reason). There are a lot of Cambodia brands of lager here.
So, um, cheers.