Cha (ឆា):The Remarkable Role of Stir-Fries in Khmer Gastronomy and Healing

By Ashley Thuthao Keng Dam

Within the grand, yet nebulous universe of what food and culture writers deem as “Asian” cooking and gastronomy, there is a deep love and affinity for the stir-fry. In a hot oily pan, various combinations of vegetables and proteins are tossed and transformed into something wonderful. The simple act of tossing becomes momentous – a way to incorporate flavours and aspects of a cuisine’s eccentricities with chosen ingredients in an endless number of ways. To say that the stir-fry “belongs” to as specific culinary tradition is contentious at times. While the origins of stir-fry, as a cooking technique and dish, originated in China, many cultures across the Asian continent and beyond have embraced it within their own cooking traditions.[1]

Growing up in the Khmer diaspora of the United States, my family and friends have had many conversations about what truly constitutes “Khmer” food and cuisine. More often than not, a joke about Cha (ឆា) would be made. Typically referencing how our moms would throw together whatever vegetables were floating around in our fridges with slices of random meats to feed us on small budgets of both time and money. To spruce up one’s cha,  additional clumps of garlic, onion, chili peppers, and or ginger were fried and immediately dashed with soy sauce, fish sauce, and oyster sauce.

A plate of cha trakhoun (morning glorywith chicken and rice

These core ingredients, with their strong and savoury aromas, constantly perfumed our kitchens. We ate cha for lunch, for dinner, at family potlucks, and when we were sick — to the surprise of many. Stir-fries as being curative cuisines, or the foods you consume (and lean on) when you’re unwell, is not a common association. In what reality could an oily and heavily spiced dish facilitate healing?

These were just some of my initial thoughts when I began my doctoral research in Siem Reap, Cambodia on Khmer traditional and folk food-medicines used in response to changes brought forth by seasonality, maternity, and the COVID-19 pandemic. Across the interviews and conversations that took place, the consistent mentioning of a number of Khmer dishes which defined my childhood arose, with several types of cha being the most common. As I listened to each study participant’s reflections on food-medicines and/or curative cuisines, the actions and rationalities of my mother began to clarify intensely.

Whenever my sister or I were sick, she’d encourage us to eat chili peppers, limes, black pepper, ginger, and garlic in excess. Her rationality was that I needed to “warm my body” and that these ingredients would do that for me. Alongside bowls of borbor (rice porridge) and snau (soup), she’d prepare us some cha kgneuy (ginger stir-fry). This orientation of rice, soup, and stir-fry embodied the characteristic spread of Khmer cuisine — a little bit of everything: rice, soup, a fresh vegetables and herbs plate, and cha to bring it all together.[1]

A typical Khmer meal spread with rice, cha, vegetable/herb plate, snau (soup), and grilled fish

In both traditional and folk Khmer medicine, health and wellness are partially reliant on the balancing of bodily humors. Under the humoral theory of medicine, the body is made up of four distinctive humors (blood, phlegm, black/yellow bile) which correspond to specific organs and well as conditions (hotness, coldness, wetness, dryness). When these humors are pushed out of balance for one reason or another, illness ensues. To address this, both traditional and folk Khmer medicine approaches feature consumable remedies that shift one’s humoral orientation back into alignment.

In traditional and folk Khmer food-medicines, cha is a ubiquitous remedy because of its versatility. The ingredients of the cha determine its humoral qualities and impact. You can humorally “cool” or “warm” your body by eating a specific kind of cha. During pregnancy, cha trakhoun with oyster sauce (stir-fried morning glory) or cha mereh (stir-fried bitter melon) is eaten to cool and soothe the humors. In contrast, during postpartum as well as for COVID-19 prevention, cha kgneuy (stir-fried ginger with slices of meat) is used to warm the body and increase immunity.

A plate of chicken and chili pepper cha and sour snau soup

 In combination with other nourishing Khmer dishes, as well as the occasional medicinal decoction, cha dishes act as core components of the traditional and folk Khmer food-medicine healing regiments. In this way, cha blends together processes of eating and healing within certain contexts. The importance of cha to Khmer culture is exceptional, no matter how you frame it. Walk into any restaurant in Cambodia, and you’ll be sure to find one on the menu!


References

[1] http://www.china.org.cn/english/MATERIAL/26142.htm.

[2] In, S., Lambre, C., Camel, V., & Ouldelhkim, M. (2015). “Regional and Seasonal Variations of Food Consumption in Cambodia.” Malaysian Journal of Nutrition, Vol. 21, pp. 167–178.

Danny Bowien’s Post-Authentic Asian America

By Leland Tabares

In a recent interview, James Beard Award-winning chef and restaurateur Danny Bowien admits that if he were to create authentic diasporic Asian food, he would be making “Hamburger Helper” and “buttery canned vegetables.”

A Korean adoptee of a white middle-class family who grew up in Oklahoma, Bowien shows the relationship between food and diasporic identity to be messy when it comes to authenticity. For instance, he never tasted Korean food until he left Oklahoma for San Francisco at the age of nineteen and never formally trained to cook Chinese food prior to opening his now famous Mission Chinese Food restaurant. Discourses on authenticity do not readily account for ethnic narratives like Bowien’s. Indeed, he considers himself “the least authentic chef.” Influenced by his unique background, Bowien sees the current culinary world as what he calls “post-authentic,” defined more by “credibility” than “heritage.”

Bowien’s notion of the post-authentic becomes legible through a recent collaboration with the Arizona Beverage Company. The New York-based company, known for their AriZona Iced Tea line and intentionally gaudy 1990s aesthetic, partnered with Bowien to create a special one-time menu using AriZona beverages as the primary ingredients. This brand deal was organized in 2019 as a pop-up event held at the Brooklyn outfit of Mission Chinese Food.

Image Credit: AriZona Iced Tea

The “Great Buy” menu—a reference to AriZona’s “Great Buy! 99 Cents” tagline—featured two entrées, a dessert, and a cocktail. They included, respectively: Mucho Mango Fried Rice, Smoked Green Tea Chicken Noodles, Grapeade Ambrosia, and Green Tea Ginsenger. The 99-cent price point for the dessert paid homage to the tall 99-cent AriZona Iced Tea cans popularized in the 1990s and early-2000s.

Image Credit: AriZona Iced Tea

To many in the culinary establishment, the notion that a chef would monetize his menu is antithetical to the profession’s values around creative freedom. Celebrity chefs like Tom Colicchio, Michael Symon, and Marco Pierre White have partnered with brands like Coke, Lay’s, and Knorr. But none had brought a sponsored product into their restaurants. Famed food writer Pete Wells of The New York Times equated the event to Bowien selling a brand “access to [diners’] heads.” Bobby Flay publicly condemned Bowien, saying that he would “never take a product and force it into [his] menu” because such an act desecrates the “sacred” nature of a chef’s menu.[i] The backlash to Bowien’s collaboration would appear to have damaged his credibility, a devastating irony for a chef who places credibility at the forefront of the post-authentic. But Bowien remains as popular as ever.

What the collaboration makes visible has less to do with Bowien and more to do with the culinary establishment. It reveals how industry norms gatekeep minoritized chefs who prepare nontraditional foods, demonstrating how access to credibility is unequally distributed. As I have written elsewhere, Bowien represents an emerging generation of misfit chefs whose nontraditional approaches to professionalism literally and symbolically mis-fit within the industry. Acts of mis-fitting expose how industry norms render some chefs unfit for professional belonging. Professional norms thus play direct roles in the formation and regulation of culinary authenticity and identity. Bowien realizes as much when, in response to the criticism, he explains, “I believe in breaking the system that says a certain type of cuisine or price point should be frowned on.”

Bowien’s notion of the post-authentic then does not do away with identity, as if identity no longer matters. In fact, he indicates that identity is essential to the post-authentic: “Identity definitely interests me. I feel like today it’s all about identity.” Rather than using terms like inauthentic or nonauthentic, terms that might signal a refusal or avoidance of engaging with authenticity, Bowien employs post-authentic to highlight the important (and often damaging) ways that the restaurant industry’s professional norms—norms that place value in Western Anglo-European food traditions—not only contribute to the production of authenticity but also commodify and exploit minoritized cultures in the process.

By monetizing his menu, Bowien asserts control over the means of commodifying his Asian Americanness. In the fashion world, streetwear culture popularized brand collaborations between industry elites and smaller independent businesses. Bowien draws inspiration from these collaborations because they challenge the ideologies that separate so-called high and low culture. “Look at fashion,” Bowien explains, “how brands are doing collaborations with other brands. There’s this old guard that says you have to be haute couture or you’re not one of us: you have to do your haute couture first, then you can do your street-wear line. I’ve played that game [in the food world] and tried to do what made everyone else happy, but I wasn’t happy.”[ii]

Bowien’s collaboration with AriZona turns the tables back on the culinary establishment to insist that a menu composed of mass-produced commodities and branded content not only emblematizes an authentic contemporary American dining experience, but also illustrates the degree to which culture industries—from fine dining to advertising—produce and regulate notions of authenticity. For Bowien, the post-authentic is a critical accounting of these processes of cultural regulation by capitalist industries. Rather than refuse to participate, Bowien leans in to assert his own agency and individualism amid the system: “I believe that what I’m doing is good. I want to be myself.”[iii]


References:

[i] Qtd. in Wells, Pete. “This Menu Is Brought to You by Arizona Iced Tea,” 7 May 2019.

[ii] Qtd. in Birdsall, John. “Chef Danny Bowien doesn’t care that you have a problem with his Arizona Iced Tea deal,” 10 May 2019.

[iii] Ibid., Birdsall.

Cassava: A Contested Good

Brandi Simpson Miller

The widescale adoption of cassava in Ghana today has its roots in the nineteenth-century transition away from the slave trade to the “legitimate” trade in the palm oil that lubricated British industry. Cassava was introduced to the Gold Coast in the seventeenth century and flourished in the arid climate and infertile soils of the Osu environs of the Danish Fort, Christiansborg. Soon after, local experimenters tried to adapt the introduced varieties of cassava they found near Christiansborg into types that had a lower poison content (as recognized by taste), while maintaining attractive features, such as hardiness.[i]

Cassava or tapioca plant. Coloured etching by J. Pass, c. 1809. Courtesy of the Wellcome Library.

Intermittent food shortages in the southeast throughout the mid-eighteenth century gave experimenters the imperative to continue their development of cassava as a hunger food. Cassava gardeners were gratified to find that plants grown from cuttings rather than seeds halved the time it took to produce tubers of harvestable size. Cooks discovered that clones grown from a stem cutting produced tubers less fibrous and thus more suitable for making ampesi (boiled starch) and fufu (boiled and pounded starch dumplings).[ii]

 

By the 1780s farmers around Accra had produced cassava cultivars that were distinct from original, introduced stock from the New World. Their cassava was less poisonous, and Accra consumers considered these new types to be edible. These types were not completely free of cyanogenic glucosides, but cooks who peeled the tubers made the remaining starch safe because the toxicity of the hybrid cultivar resided in that outermost layer of the fibrous husk they removed.[iii]

The transition from the slave trade to the “legitimate” trade in palm oil resulted in conflicts that increased the consumption of cassava. The cessation of the slave trade resulted in an Asante invasion of the coastal Fante beginning in 1806-7 to monopolize any remaining trade with Europeans. This invasion was directly responsible for a series of famines beginning with the 1809 famine, as people were unable to properly attend to cultivation for the persistent fear of attack. The 1816 famine alone was responsible for the deaths of many thousands of Fante.[iv] Fante farmers turned to cassava to buttress themselves against famines by planting the crop in soils that were dry, nutrient-poor, or otherwise unsuitable for maize (which did not tolerate saline spray) or plantains (which required shelter from wind, and moisture).[v] Cassava, which stored well underground, could be grown in poor soil and retrieved under these arduous circumstances to stave off hunger.

Afro-Brazilians who resettled in West Africa following a series of slave revolts in Bahia between 1831 and 1835 contributed to the development of new cassava dishes.[vi] The dish now known as gari fortor—most likely derived from the Brazilian-Portuguese farofa or grated, roasted maniocmixes flavourings like onions, tomatoes, and eggs into the shredded cassava before frying and has become a residual marker of the Brazilian contribution to today’s Ghanaian cuisine.[vii]

Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Jean Blackwell Hutson Research and Reference Division, The New York Public Library. “Accra, Gold Coast.” New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed July 9, 2021. https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47df-a1a7-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99

However much cassava came to be consumed on the coast by the Fante it was never to attain the positive associations that the eating of yam or maize embodied in daily life or in ritual. After the 1803 Danish ban on trans-Atlantic slave trafficking, Danish traders relocated toward the Legon Hills and along the Akuapem Ridge near Accra and used slave labour on plantations of indigo, cotton, or sugar cane.[viii] Cassava was chosen as a staple on slave provisioning plots and on core plantation grounds for the sustenance of the workers.[ix] As Europeans in the early nineteenth century began to ban the slave trade, merchants in Accra adjusted to the downturn in the maize trade by using their slaves to produce cassava for the coastal towns.[x] These choices resolutely identified cassava as the chief sustenance for enslaved people and reinforced its association with misfortune. Despite the low esteem in which cassava was held, cassava gari had become a staple food by the end of the nineteenth century. Gari is an excellent example of how the global migration of humans contributed to the ideas, tools, and techniques that make a cuisine.[xi]

 

[i]  J. D. La Fleur, Fusion Foodways of Africa’s Gold Coast in the Atlantic Era (Leiden: Brill, 2012), 163.

[ii]  E. V. Doku, Cassava in Ghana (Accra: Ghana Universities Press, 1969), 4-12.

[iii]  La Fleur, Fusion Foodways, 165.

[iv] Brodie Cruickshank, Eighteen Years on the Gold Coast of Africa (London: Hurst and Blackett, 1853), 118.

[v] La Fleur, Fusion Foodways, 168.”

[vi] Paul E. Lovejoy, “Background to Rebellion: The Origins of Muslim Slaves in Bahia,” Slavery & Abolition 15, no. 2 (1 August 1994): 151–80; Lisa A. Lindsay, “‘To Return to the Bosom of Their Fatherland’: Brazilian Immigrants in Nineteenth-century Lagos,” Slavery & Abolition 15, no. 1 (April 1994): 22–50.

[vii] Fran Osseo-Asare and Barbara Baëta, The Ghana Cookbook (New York: Hippocrene Books, 2015), 152.

[viii] C. D. Adams, “Activities of Danish Botanists in Guinea 1783-1850,” Transactions of the Historical Society of Ghana 3, no. 1 (1957): 30–46.

[ix]  Ray A. Kea, “Plantations and Labour in the South-East Gold Coast from the Late Eighteenth to the Mid Nineteenth Century,” in From Slave Trade to Legitimate Commerce: The Commercial Transition in Nineteenth-Century West Africa, ed. Robin Law (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 137; Henrik Jeppesen, Danske plantageanlæg på Guldkystem, 1788-1850 (Place of publication and publisher not identified, 1966), 57–59.

[x] Kea, “Plantations and Labour,” 125.

[xi] Rachel Laudan, Cuisine and Empire: Cooking in World History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2015), 2–3.

 

About

Brandi Simpson Miller is the Visiting Assistant Professor of History at Wesleyan College Macon, Georgia. Beginning in the autumn term she will also serve as the Assistant Director of the Wesleyan College Center for Social and Racial Equity. Here research interests include the study of West African foodways from the seventeenth century to the present. Her current publications include a book chapter entitled ‘Food and Nationalism in an Independent Ghana,’ published by Bloomsbury in The Rise of National Foods in 2019. Her thesis, entitled ‘The Social History of Food and Cooking in Nineteenth- and Twentieth- Century Ghana,’ is being published as a monograph with Palgrave MacMillan. You can follow her on Twitter: @bsimpsonmiller1.

The Journey of the Hairy Fruit

By Semine Long-Callesen and Nancy Valladares 

“Rambutan, William Farquhar Collection of Natural History Drawings,” early 19th century, Malacca, watercolour on paper. Courtesy of the National Museum of Singapore, National Heritage Board.

In winter of 2020, we travelled to Honduras to visit Nancy’s family. Driving across the country from south to north and along the west coast, we passed an endless landscape of banana and coffee plantations. One day, approaching Santa Rosa de Copan, we made a pit stop at a small stall where carts were spilling over with little round red fruits. Nancy jumped out of the car and returned with rambután. Curiously, the deep-red almost black fruits with the distinct long hairs were so similar to the rambutan that Semine knew from Malaysia. Indeed, in Malay, rambutan literally means hairy fruit. How did this fruit and its Malay name migrate across the tropical belt and become ubiquitously sold and eaten in Honduras?

Rambutan, water-colour. Image courtesy of Semine Long-Callesen.

One of the earlier recordings of the rambutan is the William Farquhar Collection of Natural History. The encyclopedic watercolors of Malaya’s flora and fauna were painted by unknown Chinese artists under the patronage of William Farquhar during his posting as Commandant and Resident of Malacca (1803-1818) and Resident of Singapore (1819-1823). The collection of drawings offers insight into fruits endemic and foreign to the Malay world at the time and includes several depictions of red and yellow rambutans, stating that the fruit is of Indo-Malay origin. 

About a century later, the rambutan appeared in William Popenoe’s Manual of Tropical and Subtropical Fruits. An American agricultural explorer, Popenoe crossed the tropics in the 1920s to document and identify profitable crops that could be transplanted to Central and North America. When not travelling, he managed botanical stations, not least Lancetilla Botanical Experimental Station in Honduras, which carried out experiments that had huge impacts on the ecological systems of Honduras and its trajectory towards becoming a banana republic” under the shadow of the US. 

William Popenoe, Manual of Tropical and Subtropical Fruits (New York: MacMillan Company, 1920), 330. Image courtesy of Archive.org

Nancy tells that the rambutan most likely first was planted in Honduras in a horticultural station like the one on the humid north coast in Lancetilla where a family member worked as a gardener. Like other botanical gardens that were entangled with imperial searches for revenue, Lancetilla germinated exotic fruits from around the world to see if they could yield profit. 

William Popenoe, Manual of Tropical and Subtropical Fruits (New York: MacMillan Company, 1920), Plate XVII. Image courtesy of Archive.org.

Over time, Popenoe’s tropical botanical gardens became manufactured sites of biodiversity that did not mirror the exterior landscapes of large-scale industries with monocrops such as bananas and coffee. The botanical gardens were fantasies of a disappearing paradise that served colonial, industrial demands for resources and pursuits of revenue. Paradoxically, colonized nature was an “untouched” and “unspoiled” terra incognita that was being shaped by imported species; tropical nature was imagined as an abundant garden of Eden, its soil suitable for extraction while at the same time being unhygienic, degenerated, and dangerous. 

Botanical gardens contributed to rendering the colonized territory readable and visible to industries and governments[i], for instance, by dividing the world into distinct biomes: by means of taxonomic illustrations and notes like that of Farquhar and Popenoe, fruits were evaluated in terms of profit and climate fit. With botanical travellers and plantations, the tropics became a uniform landscape. 

William Popenoe, Manual of Tropical and Subtropical Fruits (New York: MacMillan Company, 1920), 318. Image courtesy of Archive.org

Our discovery of the rambutan’s journey made us curious about the overlapping flavors in Honduras and Malaysia, geographies that were nodes in the same imperial networks. Using the surprising culinary similarities, we created Garden Blues with Agnes Cameron, a virtual garden where each flower holds a recipe that reflects this tropical transversality. Farquhar and Popenoe’s botanical explorations resulted in streamlined tropical biomes, which also manifested themselves in a shared sensorium of flavors. Garden Blues demonstrates that food culture depends on a territory much greater than national boundaries and that nothing is inherently Malayan or Honduran. The economy of imperial circulation created an in- and outflow of species which continues to unsettle the idea of local nature. 

 

[i] James C. Scott, Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998).

 

 


About

Semine Long-Callesen holds a BA in Art History with Distinction from the University of Cambridge and a Master in Architecture Studies in the History, Theory, and Criticism of Art and Architecture from Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Her research examines colonial museums and archives in Denmark, Malaysia, and Singapore, and artistic practices that respond to such institutions. She is a former Fialkow Fellow and Paul Sun researcher at MIT, and is currently a NEH Graduate Fellow at the Currier Museum of Art, and a researcher at the architecture practice APRDELESP. 

Nancy Dayanne Valladares (b. 1991) is an interdisciplinary artist from Tegucigalpa, Honduras currently based in Boston. Her work traces the colonial legacies and agricultural histories of Central America through the lens of human and non-human migration. Her practice intersects various fields and practices—drawing from economic botany, archaeology and archives to re-configure historical narratives through biofiction. She is currently a fellow at Harvard University’s Film Studies Center. She received a BFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and a Science Masters from the program in Art, Culture and Technology at MIT. Her work has been exhibited at The Art Institute of Chicago, Sullivan Galleries, SUGS Gallery X, ExFest Film Festival, The Research House for Asian Art, Columbia College, and Roman Susan Gallery in Chicago.