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.

“Very good are the words of the wise”: Plagues and Remedies of the Colonial Maya

By R.A. Kashanipour

Early Spanish settlers, administrators, and chroniclers frequently lamented how Old World diseases ravaged native communities in the New World. The famed Dominican Bartolomé de Las Casas described the ferocity of the first epidemics: “Then came a terrible plague, and almost everyone died, and very few remained.”[1] We know much about the devastation, but less about the everyday responses of the victims of disease, especially in the Americas where death and destruction accompanied conquest and colonialism.

In colonial Mexico, native scribes and healers recorded local remedies and cures as they treated populations ravaged by endemic and epidemic sicknesses. During the eighteenth century, a series of anonymous Maya curanderos (folk healers) recorded local ideas of science and medicine in a manuscript titled Tratado de las siete planetas y otro de medicinarium (Treatise on the Seven Planets and another on Medicine). Commonly known as the Chilam Balam de Kaua, this work circulated beliefs and practices about the natural world as it passed among healers. The work synthesized European accounts of astrology with Maya understandings of the ritual calendar.

Title Page of the manuscript known as the Chilam Balam de Kaua. The work derives its name from a sixteenth century Maya shaman known as the Chilam Balam (Jaguar Priest) and the community in which the manuscript was written, Kaua. This image is of a Photostat from 1920 housed at the Library of Congress. The original manuscript is lost.]
Title Page of the manuscript known as the Chilam Balam de Kaua. The work derives its name from a sixteenth century Maya shaman known as the Chilam Balam (Jaguar Priest) and the community in which the manuscript was written, Kaua. This image is of a Photostat from 1920 housed at the Library of Congress. The original manuscript is lost.]

Healers recorded remedies for common afflictions and ailments that reflected the intertwined relationships of the colonizers and colonized. An early passage of the work admonished readers to hold the knowledge with respect and care. “Very good are the words of the wise. [These are] recipes in the Maya language for those Indians that want to understand this medicine. Arte, it is called for those who are sick, also for those that are strong and well. Very good are the words of the wise.” [2]

The healers of the Chilam Balam de Kaua recorded remedies in indigenous terms that often reflected European categories of disease. Cures addressed common illnesses, such as cough (en), cold (sis), fever (chakuil), and periodic epidemic diseases like smallpox (nohoch kak), yellow fever (vómito de sangre), or measles (sarampión). There were remedies for everyday afflictions: headache (chibal pol) and earache (chibal xicin). Others were punctuated with magical intervention, including sorcery (pulbil yaah) and evil flowers (mal floral). Treatments attempted to reduce the aches that welcomed life–childbearing (alancil) and painful swollen breast (ya umil chup)–and the pains that greeted death–bleeding (kik) and cancer (caanzeel). There were remedies to treat the difficulties of manual labor: wounds (cinpahal), swellings (chuchup), and broken bones (sayal bac). In total, the Chilam Balam de Kaua contains over three hundred and thirty remedies.

One of the numerous cures for fevers captures the interaction between Mayan and Spanish knowledge systems.

A remedy for fever (tzacal chacuil) by the ancient people, here is the consumption tree (nech bac che), its other name is fever tree. This is boiled in water to wash people who have a fever. [The affliction] is called weakness (nach bahal) in their language and this is ético in the language of the Spaniards. Then leaves of the plant should be taken with the leaves of the night herb (akab xiu), whose leaves are pleasant smelling. The same amount of leaves are mixed together and boiled until soft. They may be taken [this way]. When the water is half finished, the affirmed may be bathed with the hot water, as hot as can be allowed. Four or five times, this is done… When covered and cool, they may arise to chocolate (cacau) leaves and the night herb… The consumption tree is to be twisted with the chocolate plant.[3]

Fevers were undoubtedly common in colonial Yucatán. As with most Yucatec remedies, the application appeared straightforward and matched symptoms with treatment. The heat of the fever was to be broken with a simmering herbal bath, followed by a concoction of herbs with chocolate.

The record keeper, however, also noted that remedy’s pre-Hispanic origins, establishing a connection to the past. In diagnosing the affliction, however, ancient Maya knowledge linked with contemporary Spanish perspectives. These fevers were called nach bahal or ético and, as such, the remedy could apply to Mayas and Spaniards alike.

The materials for the remedy were exclusively comprised of wild herbs, tying the uncontrolled disease with the unconquered frontier. While most healers may have sourced domesticated plants from herb vendors (yerbateros), this remedy required plants of the forest. The cure required knowledge of Mayan biological landscapes; to produce this remedy, the healer needed access to the untamed frontiers of the province.

This remedy, like so many of colonial Yucatán, showed that “the words of the wise” involved the convergence of distinct traditions in the everyday practices of curing. The Chilam Balam de Kaua and other medicinal manuscripts from colonial Latin America illustrate the localized processes in the production and circulation of medical knowledge in the early modern world.

[1] Bartolomé de Las Casas, Historia de las Indias (México: Fondo de Cultura Economica, 1951) 3: 270.

[2] Chilam Balam de Kaua (photostat reproductions), f. 7, Container 25,Ac. 4056, Indian Languages Collection, Library of Congress, Washington, DC.

[3] Chilam Balam de Kaua, f. 175.