Cambodia is an old country with unique cuisine. Cambodian cuisine has a long history and a wide variety of unique dishes. Khmer food is one of the oldest cuisines in Southeast Asia. When we are talking about Khmer cuisine, we cannot forget about Khmer noodle or Num Banh Chok. It is one of the signature dishes in Cambodia beside Amok, Somlor Kokor, Prohok Ktis, etc. Unlike other rice noodles in Asian countries, which usually come in dry form, Khmer rice noodles are served fresh. Even though there was a tragedy that happened in Cambodian during the 1970s, the traditional method of making Khmer rice noodles still exists as people have been passing it from one generation to another.
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What is Khmer Noodle?
Khmer noodles is a Cambodian rice noodle, which is known as Num Banh Chok in Khmer and it is often known simply as “Khmer noodles”. Num Banh Chok is one of the most loved dishes in Cambodia. We can even say that Num Banh Chok or Khmer noodle is the national dish of Cambodia. Khmer noodle is made from fermented rice which is served with many types of soup. One of the most common soup bases for Khmer noodles is Somlor Prahar or Somlor Khmer. Num Banh Chok is so aromatic as the soup consists of Khmer fermented fish, which is known as Prohok, Khmer “kroeung” and coconut milk. Moreover, the Num Banh Chok is served with fresh raw vegetables and herbs, which increases its aroma even more. The rice noodles are soft and fresh, the raw vegetables are crispy, and when it is served with aromatic broth, it creates an amazingly delicious dish.
History of Khmer noodles Num Banh Chok
According to Cambodian folk legend, Khmer noodles originated in Cambodia. In the legend, Thun Chey was a Khmer scholar, who was exiled from the Khmer Empire to China by a Khmer King after Thun Chey aggravated problems for the Khmer King and his officials. When Thun Chey was living in China, he earned a living by making and selling this rice noodle. The rice noodle or Num Banh Chok gained its popularity among Chinese people. Not long after, the news about such a delicious dish was heard by the Chinese Emperor. The Chinese Emperor requested Thun Chey to bring the rice noodle to the palace. After tasting the rice noodle, the Chinese Emperor appeared to like it a lot. However, during that time, Thun Chey incurred the wrath of the Chinese Emperor, and was sent into jail, and was deported back to Cambodia not long after. Until these days, you still can hear many Cambodians say that China got the idea for noodles from Cambodia.
How Khmer noodle was made?
Making rice noodles in the old traditional way consumes a lot of time and effort, but the taste of rice noodles will be guaranteed. People need to soak rice for two to four hours, and then ground the soaked rice into a runny paste. The grounding process takes so much effort as the rice is grounded by hands in heavy stone mills. People then compress the runny rice paste with flour and dry it inside calico bags. In this step, it needs at least 3 people working together. The runny rice paste turns into a thick paste and is squeezed through a tin can with holes in the bottom into a pot of hot water. At this step, the thick and sticky rice paste turns into rice noodles. After several minutes in the hot water, people rinse the rice noodles with cold water. Last but not least, people divide the noodles into portions and it is ready to be served. The fresh Khmer rice noodles can be kept for only 24 hours. However, nowadays there are factories making rice noodles, which require less time and labor, and the noodles from the factory can be kept longer. But once you have tried the fresh Khmer rice noodles, there is no coming back.
Different types of soups and how to eat Khmer Noodle?
Khmer noodle has several types of soup to eat with. In different regions, there are variations to the standard Khmer noodle. There are 3 main types of soup that are served with rice noodles, which are Num Banh Chok Somlor Kari, Num Banh Chok Somlor Nam Ya, and num Banh Chok Somlor Prahar.
The first type of soup is Somlor Kari. It is a Khmer curry soup, which is made with ground yellow “kroeung” (turmeric soup base) or red “kroeung” (chili curry soup base), and generally includes chicken or beef, carrots, onions, and potatoes.
The second type of soup is Somlor Nam Ya. The soup features a red fish curry.
The third type of Khmer noodle soup is Somlor Prahar or Somlor Khmer. Somlor Prahar is a fish-based green curry made of grounded fish meat, coconut broth, Khmer fermented fish (Prohok), lemongrass, turmeric root, and kaffir lime. Khmer noodle is always served with refreshing, crispy raw vegetables, including cucumbers, bean sprouts, banana blossom, mint leaves, basil, and water lily stems.
Moreover, there is a none soup base Khmer noodle, which is known as Num Banh Chok Kampot. Num Banh Chok Kampot is a cold rice noodle salad, featuring dried shrimp, spring rolls, grounded nuts, pork, a variety of herbs and raw vegetables just like the raw crisp vegetables served with the soup base Num Banh Chok, and fish sauce. If you are a spicy lover, you can eat Num Banh Chok with chili flake or fresh chili peppers, which go perfectly well together. Additionally, Kampot also has another Num Banh Chok specialty, it is known as Num Banh Chok Terk Mahech. This type of num Banh Chok features a clear fish broth cooked with vegetables and chives, and it does not feature Prohok. Do you know what is more interesting? Even the Cambodian royals also have their own version. The royal version of Khmer noodle is known as Num Banh Chok Somlor Makod or rice noodles with crown sauce. It is made with cognac, green peas, and chicken livers. The royal version of Khmer noodle was featured in the first Cambodian cookbook in 1965, known as The Cambodian Cookbook, which was an opus of Princess Rasmi Sobhana.
Best time to eat?
Num Banh Chok is the perfect dish to eat in warm weather, and as Cambodia is warm all year round, every day is the best time to eat Num Banh Chok. Cambodian people literally eat Khmer noodles at any time of the day. It can be served as breakfast, lunch, and even dinner. However, some people do not eat Num Banh Chok for dinner, because the fresh and raw vegetables might cause stomach ache. Num Banh Chok is served during ceremonial occasions, wedding ceremonies as well as family gatherings.
Where to find Khmer Noodle?
Because Num Banh Chok is an iconic noodle dish in Cambodia, you can find it at most Khmer restaurants and local markets, or even along the street. Khmer restaurants, such as Malis restaurant and Tbal Khmer Restaurant, which have Khmer noodle as their signature dish. The price of Khmer noodles in restaurants can be somewhere between 4.5 USD. Additionally, you can find Khmer noodles in local markets such as Russian Market (Phsar Toul Tom Pong), Central Market (Phsar Thom Thmey), Phsar Kandal….and even mobile carts along the street as well. Num Banh Chok in the local markets is surely under 2 USD, and for the mobile carts along the street, the price of Num Banh Chok can be as low as 3,000r Khmer Riel or 0.75 USD. However, Num Banh Chok Kampot and num Banh Chok Terk Mahech are regional specialties, so it cannot usually be found in Phnom Penh and other provinces in Cambodia. If you want to try these two types of Khmer noodles, you should go to Kampot province.
Khmer cuisine is unique and usually has strongly flavored. It might take ex-pats and tourists a while to get used to Khmer food due to the fact that authentic Khmer food is cooked with a lot of Khmer traditional spices and herbs, but I believe that each bite is going to be better and tastier. Khmer food is not only served to fulfill your hunger, but it is also a part of Cambodia’s culture and it has its own story to tell. To truly understand Cambodia, you should first try Cambodian food, and it is ideal to start with Khmer noodles. Different regions in Cambodia have their own regional specialty, which means they have their own styles of Khmer noodles, and it would be great for you to try every type of Khmer noodle when you are visiting provinces in Cambodia. Khmer noodle or Num Banh Chok is a must-try dish when you visit Cambodia.
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