Khmer produce has a history of being overlooked by both national and global consumers. Writer Eve Watling meets the people pushing it back on the menu, and finds out why they are encouraging us to buy local. Photography Lucas Veuve.

The notes of fragrant lemongrass, galangal and sweet basil that shoot through Cambodia’s traditional cuisine pay testament to the unique flavours of the national native produce. Yet although 80 percent of the country relies on agriculture as a livelihood, poor farming infrastructure and competitive prices from neighbouring countries are holding back local produce from dominating even the domestic agricultural market.

However, moves are being made to champion the nation’s beleaguered veggies. From Ministry of Commerce-organised fruit and vegetable shows, to NGO programs training farmers in organic production methods, this new drive supporting the nation’s farmers reflects a sea change in attitude – both global and Cambodian – towards encouraging local production.

It seems these initiatives are finally paying off. Cambodia’s 2014’s food imports for domestic consumption has slumped by 7.4 percent since 2013, bucking a trend that had seen sharp rises in imports during previous years, indicating a move away from reliance on international produce.

Acclaimed chef Luu Meng is at the centre of the Cambodian Chef’s Association’s mission to get Phnom Penh’s restaurants cooking with Khmer produce. He believes consumer awareness is crucial in the wellbeing of the nation’s agriculture. “It’s important to recognise the value and hard work of the farmers, to support them fanatically, and watch the country turn green,” he says.

With their bewildering array of produce, narrow walkways and pungent smells, food markets are the iconic heart of every Cambodian community. Although the expansion of import-stocked supermarkets into the country may be tempting some shoppers away, marketplaces are still the best place to join the local produce revolution.

“Cambodia doesn’t produce onions, potatoes or carrots as they’re hard to grow due to the lack of clay in the soil, but it does produce amazing leafy vegetables. Herbs and spices also grow very naturally – our lemongrass, kaffir lime, cashews, and salad plants are fantastic,” says Meng.

“Along with buying local themselves, people should be asking their chefs how much of the ingredients they use are Cambodian. It’s my duty as a chef to use Khmer ingredients and let people enjoy local products. Cambodia has such a wealth of unique produce – Kampot papayas for example. They are a little expensive, but their taste is amazing.” he adds.

Another chef taking full advantage of Cambodia’s unique produce is Timothy Bruyns, owner and head chef of The Common Tiger in Phnom Penh. From Kep crab mousse to banana leaf wrapped, barbequed sea bass with Keelung marinade, his menu conjures innovative, modern plates with local produce firmly at the heart.

“I’ve been coming to the markets every day for two years”, he says. “At the supermarkets, a lot of things are flown in from abroad. In the markets, more and more of the produce is local, and it’s often cheaper too. And of course, I’m always hoping to discover a weird and wonderful vegetable to play around with.”

A foodie adventure
Alain Darc, the rambunctious chef and quality controller at Thalais Group, is touring central market with a group of young chefs, organised as part of the Cambodian Chefs Federation’s local food mission. He dishes out advice on how to make the most of what markets have to offer.

Darc recommends buying market meat – as long as the quality is checked first. He picks up a kidney, and ignoring the side-eye from the vendor, advises customers to “smell it. If it smells like pee, don’t eat it.” The next internal organ to be manhandled is a giant, muscle-streaked cow heart. “It’s great with garlic and lemongrass,” he adds.

Glistening mounds of seafood arrive at Central Market from Kampot and Sihanoukville at 5am and 3pm. Darc recommends shopping just after these times to get the freshest produce. “When vendors stack the fish in between piles of ice, the water melts in the heat and washes out the flavour from the produce. You can avoid this by buying fish the moment they arrive, or fish that are wrapped in plastic,” he says.

Why local?
Despite the wealth of local produce on show, the seafood industry is currently dominated by farmed Vietnamese produce, reared cheaply using industrial methods. Small-scale, local fishermen are having a hard time competing; yet although their produce is slightly more expensive, the benefits of buying unfarmed Khmer seafood go beyond simply supporting local people.

According to Meng, ancient farming styles that are still widely practiced means these natural production values extend to Khmer vegetable produce – to an extent.  “Many famers do grow their food naturally, although they often don’t have any concept of what ‘organic’ is. However, the farmers that do use chemicals often use too much because there aren’t enough regulations here for industrial farming.”

Luckily for unsure shoppers, the Cambodian Organic Agricultural Association began certifying organic and chemical-free produce in 2012, and list certified producers and vendors on their website (coraa.org).

Convenience may have dominated the food market for a while, but it seems that more and more people are discovering that in every food shop lies a potential adventure, as well as an opportunity to support the growth of local, healthy produce.