Gabrielle Yetter, author of new dessert book The Sweet Tastes of Cambodia, lifts the lid on the best of the country’s sugary treats. Photography by Dylan Maddux.

Every morning at around 2am, Vichet and Sreymom start boiling palm syrup in a large soot-encrusted cauldron. There’s often a cow or two grazing outside their front gate, while smoke from the fire imbues the surrounds with the strong aroma of burning wood.

At 5.30am, Vichet loads the freshly cooked batch of pong ansong — deep fried rice balls filled with beans and coconut and cooked in sugar — into a Styrofoam container, straps it to the back of his moto and drives to the local market in Ratanakiri province, where vendors from around the region display sweet treats in shiny silver bowls.

You won’t find chocolate cake and cream-filled cupcakes at this buffet. You’ll probably see purple kidney beans, green basil seeds, orange pumpkin, dried mushrooms and mung beans. More than likely, they’ll be drenched in coconut cream, condensed milk or palm syrup — or all three — and served over a heap of crushed ice.

It’s no surprise that Cambodia has a sweet tooth, but there are a number of unique ingredients and preparations involved in some of the country’s recipes. For example, crop chi is a creamy combination of kapok resin, basil seed, condensed milk and palm sugar that contains malva nut, which is said to have medicinal qualities.

Damnapp svay is made by cooking ripe mango with palm sugar and salt, then drying it in the sun for several days so it becomes like leather. Flavours of other desserts are enhanced by cooking with chak leaf or banana leaf wrappings, jasmine flowers and candied winter melon. Even shallots are sometimes added to bak kheng, a yellow bean custard, for additional taste. These are just a couple of tidbits I learned during my pursuit of traditional Cambodian desserts. For almost five months, I shadowed chefs, documented recipes and travelled the country writing The Sweet Tastes of Cambodia. The book, conceived by NGO Pour Un Sourire d’Enfant, is designed to document traditional recipes as well as tell the stories of the cooks, the legends and the countryside.

While researching such stories, I squelched through muddy paths in search of a lost village, sat on woven grass mats with elderly nuns in a mountaintop temple, and scurried past herds of angry buffalos in rice fields. I talked to villagers in dark, aromatic markets, and spent time with women who grind their own flour. I learned there’s an island near Kratie that produces the country’s sweetest pomelos, and a particular type of coconut in Battambang that is richer and more expensive than other varieties.

I discovered that much of the produce commonly grown in Cambodia — potato, corn, mango and taro, among others — often ends up on the dessert table. According to Tourn Kiv, senior chef at Pour Un Sourire d’Enfant, most ingredients used in Cambodian desserts originate from farming communities. “Cambodian desserts use a lot of legumes, roots and vegetables since these products grow near people’s homes and farms,” he explains. “Women added sugar and gave them to children as a snack, as well as to men working in the fields, because glucose gave them strength. Most desserts are steamed or boiled since people here don’t have ovens for cooking.”

One ingredient that is an essential component for most desserts is sticky or glutinous rice. Ansom chek, for example, is sticky rice filled with banana and wrapped in a banana leaf. Kralan is a bamboo stalk stuffed with sticky rice, coconut milk and kidney beans or black eyed beans, and num ple aiy are sweet dumplings made with sticky rice, palm sugar and coconut. Recipes for Cambodian desserts are generally passed down from generation to generation without being documented. With the younger generation moving toward more western style sweets like ice cream, efforts are being made to record the old traditions.
Chith Narith, a tourism officer at the Ministry of Tourism who helped organise a dessert show in Phnom Penh last year, says that Cambodian sweets are often regionalised and created for different religious ceremonies. “Num ple aiy is usually used for offerings during full moons because the dessert is white and the moon is white,” he says. “Desserts are often made in honour of the souls of ancestors, so Cambodians can take them to pagodas as offerings to the monks.”

Dessert in Cambodia is not just considered an after-meal experience — some of the busiest times at sweet stands are during the mornings or after school, when shoppers indulge in a sugary blend as they tend to their daily errands. Simply stated, dessert in Cambodia is for any time of day. The Sweet Tastes of Cambodia costs $20 and is available at Monument Books, International Book Centre, Flicks 1, Couleurs d’Asie, Lotus Blanc and restaurants around Phnom Penh.