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.

“A Recipe for Cooking Husbands,” and Nineteenth-Century Joke Recipes

Avery Blankenship, PhD Student, Department of English, Northeastern University

“A good many husbands are utterly spoiled by mismanagement,” begins a recipe printed in the December 31, 1885 edition of the South Carolina Anderson Intelligencer [1], “some women go about as if their husbands were bladders and blow them up. Others keep them constantly in hot water; others let them freeze by their carelessness and indifference. Some keep them in a stew by irritating ways and words. Others roast them. Some keep them in pickles all their lives.” The writer of this recipe, referred to only as a “Baltimore lady,” however, promises to provide a tried and true method for cooking a husband to perfection. 

Image 1 – “A Recipe for Cooking Husbands,” The Anderson intelligencer. December 31, 1885, Image 4. Courtesy of Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers.

This recipe, like many of the joke recipes that made the rounds in nineteenth-century newspapers, takes the form of a recipe and puts a unique twist on it. Typically, these joke recipes have very little to do with food—often focusing on domestic issues such as marriage, keeping house, and tending to children. In this particular recipe, the reader—who presumably has yet to be married—is instructed to not “go to market for him, as the best are always brought to your door.” The rest of the recipe unfolds like a recipe for boiling crab or lobster, instructing the reader to make and cook them while alive, add “sugar” in the form of affection but never vinegar, and that in doing so, he will “keep as long as you want, unless you become careless and set him in too cold a place.” 

Joke recipes, particularly in the nineteenth-century, though their popularity certainly continued beyond this one-hundred year span, enabled people primarily operating out of the domestic sphere to speak to a wider audience through a genre that their audience might not typically read. Occasionally, male writers would attempt to copy the style of a joke recipe, for instance in the February 6, 1885 edition of the Maryland Aegis & Intelligencer in which a male writer is directly responding to the popularity of  “A Recipe for Cooking Husbands.” The writer is offering up advice on how to cook a wife, though he admits “I have never tried any of my receipts yet, but I am anxiously looking around for some one to practise them on.” 

Through this style of humorous recipe writing, domestic writers were able to set aside the seriousness of a typical nineteenth-century recipe with its precision and focus on the task of feeding families in order to share frustrations, joy, sadness, and even anger with others operating in domestic spaces. Particularly for nineteenth-century domestic writers and workers, for whom the division between work and leisure time was indistinct, carving out a place where they could play within the framework of work was especially important. Through joke recipes, domestic workers could take the frame of labor—in this case the recipe form—and share a particular type of humor that is associated with their lives outside of the kitchen. The appearance of the  “A Recipe for Cooking Husbands,” recipe in a newspaper, as opposed to a formally published cookbook or even community cookbook which both occasionally printed joke recipes, points to the ability of the joke recipe to speak back to audiences outside of the domestic sphere. On one hand, the recipe is a humorous inside joke amongst women, but with the wide readership of the newspaper, it ensures that male readers will also come across the recipe and take note of the complaints that women have regarding their domestic lives. 

“A Recipe for Cooking Husbands” not only provides a window into domestic humor in the nineteenth century, but also domestic struggles. The recipe urges its readers to not be lured in by silvery appearances or by a golden tint. In other words, to not prioritize looks or wealth over other factors such as attitude. The recipe also provides guidelines for when one’s husband angers, writing that “if he sputters and fizzes, do not be anxious; some husbands do this till they are quite done.” These lines, though comical, provide advice to young women either in the early stages of marriage or considering marriage, warning against too much focus on wealth and appearance and providing instructions for dealing with disagreements using humor to mask domestic advice.

The humor of “A Recipe for Cooking Husbands,” although crafted around nineteenth-century domestic life, continued to have cultural relevance even into the late 1950s, appearing in reprint in community cookbooks, magazines, and other domestic ephemera even the particular style of recipe writing used was outdated. This uptake and re-circulation of joke recipes shows that the stories coming out of the domestic sphere—tensions within a marriage, trouble with raising children, and even abstract depictions of joy, happiness, and even anger have a cultural relevance that extends beyond a single lifetime.  

Previous posts on parody and joke recipes have focused on early modern Russian recipes. 

Notes:

[1]  It should be noted that this version of the recipe is a reprint of an earlier version which appeared in the Baltimore Sun. Based on commentary from other reprints of this recipe, we can guess it was originally printed at the end of January 1885. The Baltimore Sun is not included in Chronicling America’s database of historical newspapers, so I’ve pulled an early reprint of the recipe.