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Omnivorous: A Potluck With the Spirits

With no Cambodian restaurants in Chicago, the festival of Pchum Ben offers a rare chance to try Khmer cuisine.



All throughout a recent Sunday morning, Cambodians filed into the Uptown Kampuchean Buddhist temple Watt Khmer Metta, toting cylindrical tiffin tins filled with hot, home-cooked food. They climbed the stairs to the third floor, where they portioned their curries, salads, noodles, vegetables, soups, rice, and sweets into small dishes before prostrating themselves and placing the food on a dais before the temple's two monks. It was more than the pair—who only eat once a day—could possibly make a dent in, but it wasn't really intended for them anyway. The foods were meant as symbolic offerings to the dead ancestors of the supplicants.

"We bring food, we offer it to the monks, and then we get a prayer," said Kathy Reun, a community health organizer for the Cambodian Association of Illinois. "It's like inviting the dead, the spirit, to come and look for the family." Reun had brought samla kako, a chicken soup brimming with homegrown Thai eggplant, long beans, and pumpkin flowers and flavored with kroeung—an herb paste usually consisting of pounded lemongrass, garlic, shallot, galangal, turmeric, and another rhizome called krachai. The paste is an elemental seasoning in Khmer cuisine.

Down in the basement, a 58-year-old woman named Saroeun was standing at a stove making yet more food for the feast, stirring garlic, pineapple, lotus root, and fistfuls of green herbs into a tamarind-based fish soup called samla m'chou Siem Reap. Saroeun, who didn't want to give her surname, is one of a group of women who cook for the monks year-round. This particular event was a fund-raiser for the Cambodian Association's museum in Albany Park, with cash donations going toward a massive stone Buddhist carving for the building's facade.

When the food had been dished out, the monks prayed both for the dead and for those assembled. Then, while temple elders made speeches, the monks ate, slowly and deliberately. When they finished, plastic mats were laid over the carpets and the remaining food was spread across the floor. The crowd's chatter faded to a murmur as they dug into dishes like a mild red catfish curry called amok or pig trotters in palm sugar with bamboo shoots. There were several kinds of prahoc, a pungent paste of fermented fish that's as core to the cuisine as kimchi is for Koreans—used ubiquitously as a seasoning or, in this case, as a dip for raw vegetables. The dozens of other preparations included fried catfish paired with pickled mustard greens, earthy tripe stewed with Chinese watercress, sweet coconut jelly, and a porridge of coconut, taro root, and tapioca.

Saroeun also prepared an enormous freestyle salad (nhoam) with five different bright green herbs, including red basil, mint, and chi ma-hao, a triangular leaf with a small attached blossom. Reun translated its name as "fish cheek," and in fact it smells like fresh fish with mint and lemongrass. These were tossed with shrimp, pork, "krab," cucumbers, carrots, onions, white cloud fungus, and crushed peanuts. Dressed with a mild, citrusy fish sauce, it was a riot of crunchy textures and cool flavors. (Watch Saroeun prepare it at the Reader's Food Chain blog.)

Khmer food is frequently—sometimes unfairly—compared to Thai food, and there are analogous dishes in the two cuisines (amok, which is traditionally steamed in banana leaf, seems little different from the Thai hor mok). But while Cambodian cuisine avoids the extremes of sweet, sour, spicy, and salty characteristic of Thai or Vietnamese food, it's no less balanced, nuanced, or varied.

Sugar and salt are ingredients Reun advises the community to be careful with. She works with the National Cambodian American Diabetes Project, a federally funded program to combat the high incidence of the disease among Khmer in this country. Reun, 34, and many of the first-, second-, and third-generation immigrants she advises are survivors of the Khmer Rouge's Killing Fields, and a variety of factors—mental trauma, overeating, difficulty adjusting to the Western diet, and a more sedentary lifestyle—make them especially vulnerable. She advises them to exercise, sleep seven to eight hours daily, and eat smaller portions four to five times a day rather than the customary two big meals.

There are no Khmer restaurants in Chicago, and opportunities for non-Cambodians to experience this extraordinary cuisine are rare. The Cambodian New Year, celebrated in April, is one. Another is the festival of Pchum Ben, or Ancestor's Day—akin to the Mexican Day of the Dead—which Watt Khmer Metta and Chicago's other Khmer temple, Watt Khemararam, will celebrate this weekend.

The festival of Pchum Ben runs for 15 days beginning in mid-September, when souls that haven't been reincarnated are released from the spirit world to seek assistance from their living relatives. In ceremonies called Kann Ben, hosted by various families over the first 14 days, the survivors pray and offer food to reduce the bad karma that prevents the spirits from being reborn. On the last day, all the families gather for a final ritual that culminates in a public feast.

Cambodians from across the region will travel here to attend, but outsiders are welcome—particularly if they follow the ceremony and bring offerings of their own. (These don't have to be Khmer dishes; fruit and cash donations are also welcome.) Reun, as part of her community work, will have a table set up on both days, and she's offered to guide befuddled newcomers through the protocol.v

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