Food is culture, and culture is an experience.
This dish is likely different from how the people of Laos and Thailand make it. It might be different from how other Cambodians make it. But every family has their own variation. And every individual adds something of their own. I like to believe culture can be a very dynamic thing: similarities here, and differences there—much like food.
I started to help my mother cook when I was 5. We used the mortar and pestle a lot, and that was something that could be done on the floor (what 5 year old can easily reach the counters?). I never knew was kreung was, other than that we made it very often. To this day, I’m still not really sure how to define it. I just know that we make it with lemongrass and grind it for a long time with other ingredients until it becomes a paste.
I helped my mother regularly with basic family dinners. It was mostly char (pronounced ‘chahhh’ aka stir-fry) and lok lak (pretty much the same thing presented differently and deconstructed). And then there were the Cambodian parties and barbecues…It was a chore and I hated it at the time, but I’m very appreciative now.
I don’t speak Khmer well. I don’t write in Khmer at all. And the only Khmer word I can read is “ខ្ញុំ” (had to use the googles) when it shows up in karaoke. But I sure am glad I am able to at least make a few dishes, after years of apprenticeship under my mother and all. This is Larb (Khmer pronunciation ‘lahhhp’).
It’s usually made with raw meat, but my mother had always used cooked beef and that’s how I’ve learned to practice making it. This is something I grew up eating only on special occasions or at Wat (Buddhist temple). It brings back many memories of various celebrations and rituals. The blessing of our family home. The monks sitting in our living room. The incense sticks burning in front of them with a Buddha statue somewhere in the vicinity. And us and our guests lining up to scoop rice into the tien (large silver/metal goblet/container thing) in front of the monks.
I share a lot of my cooking with my friends.
When I share my food, I am sharing a small piece of my culture, my family, my life, my experiences, and my love.