Cambodia’s food production chain: the rice
Being an Asian country, it goes without saying that since from some 10,000 years ago up to now the core of the region’s eating scene has been rice, Cambodia lives up to the expectations and made it its basic staple. The precious cereal grain is sown, harvested and put to dry in many areas in Cambodia and consumed either as a cereal or in other forms such as noodles and rice paper. While registered as a rice-exporting nation, the production sites I have visited are mainly for the local demand.
Rice is the most predominant food crop grown, according to USDA, in the country’s central alluvial plain making it for some 85 per cent of Cambodia’s total cultivated area. As FAO report, 3.7 million hectares are devoted to agriculture, of which 75 per cent is devoted to rice and 25 per cent to other types of food.
I started the rice-themed journey in the stilt village of Kompong Khleang, where they dry it, then continued to Battambang, where I saw how local women make rice paper mainly used for spring rolls and crepes, and finally the in-the-making of rice noodles by local women in Kampong Chhnang, so common in traditional cuisine. To make the noodles, they mix rice starch with water and salt in a huge rudimentary pot hanging over an abundant flame and they press it with an equally rudimentary lever put in action by two women who sit on one end in order to raise the other end.
After this lively process, the second team sifts through the almost ready noodles to separate and store them, ready for shipping. Delicious and ubiquitous, given the popularity of this staple I would have probably imagined a more factory-like place, but this corner of women chattering, pressing, sifting and laughing sure gives a better idea of genuinity and tradition.
An important source of proteins in the local diet is given by the fish, so fish farming is also an important part of Cambodia’s food production chain, and to get some clarity on the process I visited the lively and rather gruesome fish factory of Battambang. Here the fish is chopped and covered with salt and chemicals to be preserved and packaged for the finished frozen product. Not exactly an idyllic sight that kind of made everyone decide to cut on the fish consumption.
Farms are often family-run and organized in small ponds, the water level of which is constantly to be monitored both in the dry season and especially during the floods. Also for the fish market, Battambang province is one of the most productive.
Not only rice as a staple, but also cassava, another name for manioca, one of the most important upland crops in Cambodia. Very popular in many places, I tasted manioca in all its forms in Brazil, being my favorite dishes farofa (flavored manioca flour) and tapioca, typical from the northeastern state of Ceara and its capital Fortaleza.
In Cambodia, I saw locals cutting cassava and leaving it to dry at Banteay Chhmar community-based village that offers foreigners the experience of homestay.
Along with staple and proteins, Cambodia’s food production chain wouldn’t be complete without a healthy snack. Still in Battambang, I visited the house where a young woman produces kilometers of banana chips by finely cutting thousands of pieces of the sweet fruit and painstakingly arranging them on a wooden table to dry under the sun.
I bought a huge banana chips roll for one dollar, after almost two months I still have it and it’s still delicious, which makes me proud of myself for having a healthy snack sometimes, instead of the guilty chocolate ones.
Since a country can’t be defined merely by its historical landmarks and tourist attractions, I found the brief immersions in the local way of living of Cambodia through the different moments of its food production chain very enlightening. Apart from a better understanding of its economy mainly based on agriculture, if you ask me, entering people’s lives and routines is always eye-opening and worth anyone’s time.