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I’ve written a lot about how important soup is to Cambodian cooking. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever come across a food that is so dependent on broths and liquors. There must be hundreds of varieties across the country. And just when I think I’ve tasted all the soups worth trying, along comes another one I’ve never seen before – and not just a cannibalisation of a previous one, but a dish in its own right.

The other day, I was cycling down near the port in Sihanoukville, when I stopped at a fish restaurant where most of the local senior police officers seemed to be lunching. There were a couple of US Navy ships in, so there was more security presence than normal. But whatever the occasion, seeing police officers at a restaurant is always a good sign in Cambodia.

They seem to have more time and money to spend lounging around in cafes and restaurants than the rest of the work force, so given the amount of research they put in, it’s worth following them to their favourite whiskying holes, as it’s often a good indication of the food served there.

The soup they were slurping was gloriously different to any I’d tried before – sadly, I didn’t have my camera with me, but it was quite a sight. The bowl was packed full of tiny sea shrimps, no more than a couple of millimetres wide and a centimetre long – not much bigger than the freshwater shrimps you find in watercress beds in colder climes.

They’d been cooked whole in a pinky broth, flavoured with tamarind and dried shrimp paste, with thick slices of onion, a few fresh anchovies from the shoals you can catch here with a fine-gauged fishing net within feet of the shore, and holy basil leaves in at the end.

The liquor smacked of fresh, briny goodness, made even better by the sharpness from the tamarind, and a clove-like spiciness from the hot basil leaves. I sat there crunching through the prawn heads, feelers and shells, and microscopic pieces of meat, thickening the broth from time to time with a spoon from the always present rice bowl.

Then there was the fish and water spinach soup I had at the weekend at Sophie’s restaurant, where I’ve been learning a few Cambodian dishes, and teaching her a few Western dishes in return. I saw the family were about to sit down to eat their Sunday lunch, and asked if I could have the same. It was so different from the fatty roasts you get in Britain, and the expat restaurants over here determined to give people a taste from home.

“Is it in here?” I said, flicking through the menu and looking for the name.

“No, it’s Khmer food…” Sophie’s daughter laughed, almost apologetically.

There were a number of Khmer dishes on the menu, of course. But what she meant was proper Cambodian food – the magical, prahok-flavoured stuff the locals eat, but are afraid to give to the tourists.

She looked surprised and anxious when I ordered it. The Khmers are for some reason highly embarrassed about their beloved fermented fish paste and its ferocious smell, but I can’t get enough of it. It wasn’t the same as the stuff I’d seen them make on the banks of the Stung Sangker river in Battambang. The freshwater fish had been soaked in brine until fermented (above), but it hadn’t been pressed in barrels like it usually is to get the thickish, grey, cheesey paste (prahok means ‘cheese’ in Khmer). But the flavour and smell were as reassuringly strong as ever.

I finished the dish, eating it the Cambodian way by pouring spoonfuls of soup on to my rice. I have to admit that as a Sunday lunch, it didn’t quite measure up to the finest roast salt marsh lamb with samphire, or a bloody slice of bone-in rib with a freshly-grated horseradish sauce, but I felt a lot lighter than I usually do after eating Yorkshire pudding with all the trimmings.

Normally after a roast, cheese, and a few ports, I can barely manage a few turns in the garden, but after that clear, simple fish soup I felt ready to run a marathon – or at least get on my bike and surreptitiously cycle up the road in search of egg and chips.

After I’d finished, Sophie proudly explained how she’d made the dish (above). She’d put a saucepan of water on to boil, and then taken one of the small prahok fish she’d bought from the market, and soaked it for a minute in hot water. She’d mashed the fish, removing the bones, and poured the liquid, skin and flesh into the boiling water. She’d soaked some tamarind in hot water, removed the seeds, and added the pulp and liquid to the pot. Then she’d added small rectangles of barracuda steak and a handful of water spinach, cooked it for a couple of minutes or so, and then added salt and sugar to taste.

And that was that delightful Khmer family’s Sunday lunch, and they looked just as grateful and pleased to be served it as if it was roast turkey stuffed with prunes, duck flamed in cherry brandy, or spit-roast suckling pig with apple sauce. And after I’d got my shameful egg and chips craving out of my head, and allowed myself to bathe in the simplicity of that wonderful lunch served in the traditional Cambodian manner of making a small bit of protein go a long way, so did I.

As I was slowly getting round to saying, soup seems to be the most important meal in Cambodia. Look at a lot of Khmer literature, and if there’s mention of food, it will often be soup – whether it’s the preserved lemon soup eaten at weddings, or just a humble vegetable soup at a family gathering.

But I had no idea how much until I read one of Cambodia’s most famous folk tales, involving a curious character called Judge Rabbit – intelligent animals often appear in Khmer myths and legends, and this particular wise, old rabbit crops up in a few.

The translation from Khmer into English was pretty brief, and read more like a news bulletin, but I loved the story so much, I decided to write it out for my niece, elaborating it in places, and filling in the gaps where it probably wasn’t necessary. Well, here it is anyway, if you’ve run out of bedtime stories, or are stuck on a train somewhere with time to kill…


There once was a goatherd boy called Noy, who would wander over the hills and streams every day with his herd. He knew every rock and every river crossing and every colour in the landscape. If it was raining, as it would for half the year in the Kingdom of Cambodia, he would shelter at the foot of a gnarled, old jackfruit tree, or in a ruined temple filled with statues. The rich and beautiful land was dotted with temples around Angkor Wat and the sleepy town of Siem Reap.

His friend Judge Rabbit said they were from a time when magic ruled the earth and every king had his counsel of wizards and astrologers to help him rule the kingdom, and make the best decisions for the people. The ancient, fabled city used to be the mightiest in the world, he said, and had a market so huge and exotic that travelling merchants would ride there with their caravans from the four corners of the Earth.

But now there were just stones and forgotten memories where the city once stood. The huge moats they stocked with fish were still there, but they had slowly leaked over time and only the western one would remain full during the rainy season. The boy often spent the night curled up in one of the ruins, sheltering from the monsoon with his goats.

He thought of the strange people that had once lived there, and how busy and noisy and exciting it must have been. The only sounds he could hear were the happy chirping of crickets and the occasional crackle of a twig in the fire. It was so warm at night, he rarely needed a fire, but he liked to warm some water to wash his face before he went to bed.

Then in the morning, when the first light of day was breaking over the far off hills and forests, he would put on his clothes, pick up his crook, and stir the goats that were still sleeping. It was always the same ones, he noticed.

He led them down the hill to a small valley with fresh water for the goats to drink, and plenty of dewy herbs for them to munch. It was one of his favourite places because there were hot springs where he could bathe, and a waterfall which served as a shower. He loved standing in the hot midday heat with the cold water splashing down on him.

But only for a moment longer would it be the thing he loved most in the world. The boy had just sat down for lunch, and was busy peeling a huge, sweet mango in the shade of a tamarind tree, when he heard a noise. He could hear a young girl’s laughter. It was silvery and light. A few of the goats had heard it too, and were staring towards the waterfall, in the direction of the sun.

Suddenly a girl with raven hair and green eyes danced from the trees. She was running and laughing, and looking down at a little pug dog racing along beside her. She skipped down the path towards the boy. Noy couldn’t take his eyes off her. She was the most beautiful thing he’d seen. Was she a faerie from the hills – an Apsara nymph who lived in the waterfall? Judge Rabbit said there were many nymphs and nature spirits who lived in the waterfalls and sacred woods and the forgotten places people used to worship.

The girl smiled at him and Noy blushed when she said she’d been bathing in the hot springs. They chatted for hours about stories they’d heard and the villages he’d passed through in the countryside and the happy, peaceful people who lived there. And the boy hoped that the sunset would never come. He had never felt the warmth of flames so true in his life, and promised himself that one day Saray would be his wife. One day he would save enough money to build them a farmhouse near this magical waterfall, on the spot that they had met. And one day their sons would lead the goats across the fields in search of food and water, and they would grow green oranges – the finest in the land.

The boy spent years with his herd, strolling endlessly across the hills from sunrise to dusk. Sometimes in the rain, he would see a rainbow in the sky, and it would remind him of Saray and her yellow dress. And in the sunsets, when the sky was lit like a huge fire of reds and purples, he would think of the ruby that he would buy her for her wedding ring. His mother had always told him that ruby was the colour of love.

Then one day, when he decided he’d saved enough of the copper coins the merchants gave him for his wool, he left his goats in a neighbour’s pen and walked to the girl’s house. He knocked at the iron gates, and a maid appeared.

“Our knives are sharp, and we don’t need no pegs,” she said, wrinkling her nose at the boy’s dirty clothes.

The boy laughed – out of surprise.

“It’s me – Noy! I’ve come to ask for Saray’s hand in marriage,” he said.

“Have you indeed,” said Papa, appearing from the doorway, his face the colour of cherry wine. “And why would I let my beautiful daughter marry a poor peasant boy like you?”

“I’ve saved money all these years, sir – just like I said…enough to build a home in the valley. And I’ve still got my goats…”

“A shack in the woods! My daughter deserves better than that. Now begone with you! At once!”

“But I love her,” pleaded the boy.

He looked up at a window, and saw Saray staring back at him. The tears were welling in her eyes.

“I’d do anything to be with her!”

“Anything?” said Papa. “Well, if you really do love her, there is one way to test you.”

He went inside and talked to his wife, and they told the boy to follow them down to the lake. His legs would be bound, and he would have to stand neck-deep in water for three days and three nights without moving a muscle to warm himself. If he could stand there perfectly still without moving, only then could he have their daughter’s hand in marriage.

“I’ll do anything in my power to show you I love her,” said the boy.

“We shall see,” said Papa. “Now bind his legs.”

An old giant the family used to chase crocodiles from the grounds began tying the boy’s legs.

“Nice and snug,” said the giant, burping fishy belches as he pulled on the straps for the third time.

He helped the boy to his feet, and then dragged him into the lake, until he was neck-deep in water.

“Remember,” said Papa. “However cold you get, you cannot move to warm yourself. If you survive this trial of courage, then yes, you can wed our beloved Saray. But if you fail, you must take your goats to a distant land and forget all about this place.”

The boy stood in the lake for two days and two nights without moving a finger. He was tired and very cold, and had long lost all feeling in his arms and legs, but he knew losing Saray would break his heart. He would do anything to be with her. Anything.

He shivered again, but refused to move his arms for warmth. At dawn, he spotted a fire burning on a distant hillside. It was near the old temple of Phnom Bakheng. He thought he could hear the far off crackle of wood, and soon he thought he could smell the wood smoke, and it reminded him of his camps there, snuggled around a few burning logs with his goats.

Without thinking, he put his hands out to the distant flames, and rubbed them together, just like he did when he was sat near a fire. But just then Mama and Papa appeared, following the giant’s lumbering shadow.

“Haha, caught you!” said the giant. “There’ll be no wedding cake for you!”

“I told you he didn’t have the stomach,” said Papa. “Lucky we found out now Mama. You saw him warm his pinkies! Untie him. The boy has failed.”

Noy slouched back in his wet clothes under the clear November sky. But this time, rather than wondering in awe at the huge aura around the moon, and the twinkling diamonds on that black canvas, his head was bent to the ground. He had lost everything, and the one thing he truly cared about, apart from his goats, all because he moved his hands for a second to feel a fire he could not feel. He kicked a stone, thrashed his arms around, and then shouted up at the sky. It wasn’t fair. True love should never be parted, he wept.

Then he got bored of crying and decided on something, and turned back towards the village. The next day he went to see the village magistrate, an elderly man who hadn’t cut his toenails since he was a boy, and whose judgements were said to be as long and meandering. The magistrate was eating a chunk of crab, carefully dipped in salt and pepper, and looked annoyed to be disturbed in the middle of his meal.

The boy explained about his love for Saray, and her love for him, and how it wasn’t fair that they couldn’t marry just because he’d moved his hands to feel a fire he couldn’t feel. The magistrate said he would talk to her parents, and if they agreed, the trial would be heard at midday on the first Monday of the next month.

On the day of the trial, the boy walked up to the courthouse, and left his goats in the public pen. He was an hour early, but Mama and Papa were already there. He saw the gifts they had left for the magistrate – five barrels of salted fish, two pigs, and a buffalo. The boy had nothing to give, except his goats, and sat at a bench on the far side of the room. The magistrate listened to Papa’s evidence, smiling and nodding his head whenever appropriate, and then frowned at the boy.

“Saray’s loyal father is right to deny you. He set you a challenge to test your courage – and you failed in his honour and your own. You have lost your trial, and as a payment towards the ever rising costs of this court, you are to provide us with a delicious banquet no later than the next waning moon.”

The boy was furious and kicked more stones on the way home. He could feel the doom descending with every step. He looked up and saw Judge Rabbit hopping across the bridge towards him. The old, wise rabbit was whistling away and swinging his walking stick, and it wasn’t until the boy was in hearing range that he held a monocle close to one eye, sniffed the air, and bent towards him.

“Why are you looking so miserable young master Noy?”

“I’ve just lost my trial, which means my heart is broken and I’ll never marry Saray – the girl I love.”

The rabbit listened to the boy’s tale and told him to invite him to the banquet.

“I can’t promise anything, but I may be able to help you,” he said. “But just one thing – when you make the soup, and I do hope you’re making a soup, after all you can’t have a wedding without a soup, remember not to add any salt. Just pour the salt you would have used into a saucer and put it on the table.”

The boy had to sell his goats to pay for the feast. He bought pots of crabs and three whole cows to spit-roast, and then he made a huge cauldron of chicken and rice soup, but remembered not to put any salt in. He tried it several times. It was difficult to say whether it had any flavour at all.

He laid out all the pots and roasted meats on an oxen cart and then headed off towards the village to pick up Judge Rabbit, and they carried on along the slow, bumpy track towards the courthouse. Mama and Papa and the magistrate had invited all their friends round, and in the court gardens stood a rose marquee with vast, empty tables awaiting the food.

The magistrate lurched out of his hammock when he saw the pair coming.

“Brother Rabbit, what brings you here?”

“I have come to help you with this trial,” said Judge Rabbit, pulling a carrot from his pocket.

“Ah,” said the magistrate. “Then why not stop and have a feast with us.”

The boy unloaded the cart, and prepared the food. He heated the soup over glowing charcoal and then served it to the many tables. The magistrate was the first to tuck in. He took a spoonful of broth, and then another one, and then bellowed at the boy.

“Why is this soup not salted?”

The boy stammered for a moment, and was about to answer, when Judge Rabbit pointed at the saucer of salt in front of the magistrate.

“Forgive me brother, but I am curious to know one thing,” he said.

“What is it Brother Rabbit?” asked the magistrate.

“Well, I am curious to know how the fire burning on top of that far hill was supposed to warm the boy – and yet the salt for the soup, so not very far from the soup, does not flavour the soup?”

Ripples burst through the court, and then there was laughter and applause. The magistrate looked embarrassed and fell silent. He agreed that the boy hadn’t broken the rules of the ordeal, and they could marry at once.

Saray ran over to Noy and kissed him, and the feast turned into a wedding, and the salt went into the soup. The boy built a farm near the waterfall, and they lived there happily for the rest of their lives at that spot they shared with the faeries and nymphs in the jackfruit trees.


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