Most of Washington state’s estimated 13,000 Cambodians live in King and Pierce Counties, with the majority living in south and west Seattle neighborhoods, such as Rainier Valley and White Center. Cambodian refugees entered the state in waves in the mid and late1970s, fleeing the brutal regime of the Khmer Rouge, and continued to trickle into Seattle throughout the early and mid-1980s.
Cambodians in Seattle often carry on the nutritional traditions of their homeland – much of the Cambodian diet is based on foods readily available at home. An extensive assortment of greens and tropical fruits were grown in gardens or gathered from wild plants. Poultry was raised on rural homesteads. Fish – cheaper than coveted beef and pork – was popular for main dishes, sauces and soups. These food items remain popular with Cambodians in Seattle.
The shelves of local Cambodian markets in White Center and the Rainier Valley are crammed with bottled sauces and canned fruits, 50-pound bags of rice, noodles, cookies, candies and teas. Freezers are filled with catfish, mudfish, shrimp and eel. Marinated quail wings soak on ice and barbecued chickens hang by their feet. Impulse items – fried bananas, sticky rice wrapped and tied in banana leaves, plastic cups of sweet rice and green rice flour noodles – await hungry shoppers near cash registers.
Local Cambodians say every food item they want to purchase is available in Seattle, though many are imported from Cambodia and Thailand, driving up prices. Jackfruit, a popular dessert, costs about $5 per pound in Seattle. In Cambodia, they are plentiful. Guava, durain, bitter leaf, sadoa leaves, bamboo shoots and wing beans are also more expensive and rare. Canned or frozen items are often more economical than fresh food. Spinach may be substituted for rare, expensive greens.
The Cambodian diet is naturally nutritious, full of fish and other seafood, vegetables and fruit. Unlike the average American diet, Cambodian meals are generally low-fat and low- calorie. Local Cambodians say there’s not much in the diet to watch out for. Still, locals say some older people splurged on more fattening foods after immigrating to Washington – they weren’t accustomed to watching their diets in Cambodia and were deprived during the war. One local grocer said many Cambodians become more health conscious after immigrating to America and learning about fatty foods and cholesterol. Still, he said, “Some cannot resist the pork even though they know it will give them problems later.”
Fish and meat with rice and vegetables is considered nutritious. The concept of “junk food” is not the same in Cambodian culture, though coconut is cited as very fattening. There are, however, foods that are considered “junky.” Many, especially city dwellers, consider strong-smelling pickled fish distasteful.
Common Cambodian breakfast foods include: a porridge-like rice broth called congee, Chinese donuts and noodles. Dried mudfish, Chinese sausages, tofu, salted duck eggs or dried shrimp might be eaten with the congee. Coffee with condensed milk or tea is also common. Lunch and dinner are similar. Rice is a component of all meals, accompanied by a fish or meat stir-fry or soup. A variety of fresh, cooked or pickled vegetables are used. Soups are very popular, such as sour soup with pork, catfish, pineapple, tomato, lotus rootlet and coconut; curry soup with meat; and vegetable soups with lemon grass, turmeric, garlic and fish.
Fresh salads with fish-flavored dressing are common. The most popular vegetables used in soups, stir-frys and salads are bean sprouts, carrots, cabbage, cucumber, red pepper, watercress, string beans, egg plant, bok choi, a variety of greens, broccoli, green onion, red onion, mushroom, lemon grass and bell pepper. The most common spices are garlic, pepper, turmeric, tamarind, chili, ginger root, basil and cilantro. Fruit, such as papayas or mangos are often used in sauces or cooked as vegetables. Jackfruit, durain, longans, lychees, coconut, mango, papaya and bananas are also commonly eaten fresh for dessert. Coconut milk with banana, sugar and tapioca is another favorite, as is sticky rice filled with pork, jackfruit or banana. Water, soda, juices, coffees or teas accompany meals.
Children are generally breast fed in Cambodian culture, then switch to formulas and pureed baby food. They are often fed congee and noodles as toddlers. Locals say Cambodian children in Seattle are often Americanized and prefer fried rice and chicken to spicier dishes. Though parents encourage Cambodian cuisine, they say they often need to shop at two grocery stores – a Cambodian market and Albertson’s or Safeway for items like cold cereal.
Local Cambodians say there are many food-based remedies for illnesses in their culture, though some are considered old-fashioned. Some people believe drinking a mix of freshly squeezed lemon juice and honey that sat out overnight to collect the evening dew can cure sore throats. Honey with wine is supposed to be good for chest pain, and bitter melon can be squeezed into water to cure high temperatures. Congee with dried mudfish is also believed to lower body temperature and crushed ginger is sometimes rubbed on sprained or swollen limbs. Sadoa, a bitter vegetable, is believed to prevent sickness.
There are few fasting traditions in Cambodian culture. Locals report that certain groups of very dedicated Buddhists sometimes fast for a day, or eat only rice, or drink only water.
Khmer New Year, a harvest festival celebrated every April, is the biggest festival of the year. Many common foods are produced in larger masses for this three-day festival, and sweet rice cakes with a variety of stuffings are baked. Prachum Ben is another popular holiday, celebrated in the fall. On this day, people take food and offerings to the temple for the monks and ask for forgiveness for wrongs committed during the year. This is also when spirits with bad karma are allowed to visit. Steamed sweet rice wrapped and tied in banana leaves is a common treat for Prachum Ben.
Cambodian Noodle Soup, served on New Years, Prachum Ben and at housewarmings, is a special occasion dish representing long life. The soup is made with fish, lemon grass, lemon leaf, turmeric and coconut milk, and served with fresh vegetables, such as string beans, bean sprouts, shredded green papaya and sour leaf.
References and Resources
One caseworker/ interpreter, community educator and cultural consultant from Harborview Medical Center, one researcher, interviewer and community educator from Harborview Medical Center, two local grocers, one high school student and daughter of local grocers (who also consulted with her mother), one high school student and daughter of local restaurateurs, and one cook at a local restaurant.