Angkor was the capital of the Khmer Empire, one of the most remarkable civilizations the world has ever seen, which was at its height from the ninth to the fifteenth centuries. Cambodia was strongly influenced by the culture of India, from which they received Hindu and Buddhist religions, Sanskrit literature, and models for architecture, art, sculpture and music. The name Angkor derives from the Sanskrit word nagara, meaning city. No further description was thought necessary - quite clearly, no one believed that any other city like this could ever exist.
The first westerner to see Angkor, a Portuguese priest who visited in the sixteenth century when it was well past its peak, wrote that it “is of such extraordinary construction that it is not possible to describe it with a pen”. The first time you see Angkor you understand what he meant.
Angkor consisted of an inhabited area of approximately 1000 square kilometers, irrigated by a complex system of canals and lakes. Temples, of which almost a thousand have been excavated, formed the focal points of urban settlements. The temples were not just places of worship but also served as centers of education, courts of justice and financial hubs. Temples ranged in size from small shrines to massive complexes such as Angkor Wat and Bayon.
The temple of Angkor Wat was built as a shrine to the Hindu god Vishnu, but as the official religion of the Khmer kings changed to Buddhism, it was transformed into a Buddhist temple. Bayon, which was built later, is famous for the many towering statues, smiling serenely from its terraces and the enigmatic faces that are repeated across its walls, said to represent the Buddha.
Angkor was attacked and sacked by invaders from Thailand in the fifteenth century, after which it was gradually abandoned. The tropical jungle soon took over the city, burying the stones under creepers and vines until it all but vanished.
In the nineteenth French archaeologists rediscovered Angkor and led efforts to clear the dense jungle growth and restore the buildings to their former glory. The painstaking work still goes on, with restoration teams from around the world toiling on the many monuments and temples that are still being unearthed.
Today Angkor is Cambodia’s greatest tourist attraction with millions of visitors arriving each year. It takes several days to visit the many sites across the sprawling grounds, but it is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see what is one of the greatest wonders of the world. The temple of Angkor Wat is the most famous and visitors line up to see it at its best at sunrise or at sunset.
Cambodian or Khmer cuisine is also worth discovering for its complex, delicious flavours. It shares common elements with its Thai, Vietnamese and Laotian neighbours and has French, Chinese and Indian influences as well. You will find everything from noodle soups, stir fries, spring rolls and spicy curries to crusty breads and coffee!
We enjoyed wonderful dishes like Fish Amok (coconut milk based fish curry served in a banana leaf bowl), Beef Lok Lak (beef stir fry with soy and oyster sauce), Bai Cha (fried rice) and Khmer Laksa (spicy noodle soup with coconut milk), and were hooked!
Creamy, mildly spiced and delicious, this easy Khmer fish curry is one of my favourites that I often make at home. Cambodia’s famous Kampot pepper is the traditional seasoning here, adding a subtle floral aroma and delicate peppery taste to the dish. Named after the Kampot region where it is grown, this prized pepper is a favourite for flavouring seafood dishes. Since Kampot pepper is hard to find outside of Cambodia, you can use regular ground black pepper instead.
If you’re looking for more ways to make fish curry, try my spicy Kerala Fish Curry!
Khmer Fish Curry With Turmeric, Coconut Milk And Lemongrass
2 shallots or use 1/4 cup finely chopped red onion
2 cloves garlic
1/2 inch piece galangal or ginger
1 inch piece fresh turmeric or use 1/2 tsp turmeric powder
2 red chilies, sliced thinly, divided
2 inner, tender stalks of lemongrass (about 2 inches each), ends trimmed, tougher outer leaves removed
2 tbsp oil
Salt to taste
1 tsp brown sugar
1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
2 fresh kaffir lime leaves, slivered or use fresh bay leaves
1 cup coconut milk
1/2 cup water
1 tbsp lime juice
1 cup packed fresh baby spinach
1 lb any kind of firm skinless white fleshed fish fillet, cut into 2 inch chunks
1 egg, lightly beaten
1 tsp fish sauce
1 tbsp coconut cream (saved from the top of a can of premium coconut milk), for optional garnish
Using a food processor or a mortar and pestle, mince/pound together the shallots or red onion, garlic, galangal or ginger, fresh turmeric, 1 sliced red chili and the lemongrass, until a fine paste is achieved. If using turmeric powder, add it later in the recipe.
Note: If lemongrass is too fibrous and will affect the texture of the curry sauce, do not mince it with the above ingredients. Simply smash it in several places with the back of your knife to release flavours and use it whole or halved lengthwise.
Warm oil in a skillet set over medium heat. Add the paste (and whole lemongrass, if using) and sauté for about 8 min until it is aromatic and lightly browned.
Add salt, sugar, pepper, turmeric powder (if using) and half of the slivered lime or bay leaves (reserve remainder for garnishing later), stir for a few seconds.
Add coconut milk, water and lime juice, bring to a gentle simmer.
Add the baby spinach and cook 2 min until spinach starts to wilt into the sauce.
Add the fish, stirring gently to spoon sauce over the fish. Cook on low heat for 10 min until fish is cooked through and spinach is wilted, shaking skillet gently to cook evenly.
In a small bowl, combine 2 tbsp of the curry sauce from the skillet, the beaten egg and the fish sauce, beating gently to mix. Pour it over fish curry, swirling it in gently without breaking up the fish. Switch off heat and let pan sit covered for 2 min for the egg to set. Remove whole lemongrass if used.
Garnish with remaining lime leaves, remaining sliced red chili and the coconut cream (if using).