Erica Em discusses the challenges of giving up traditional Cambodian food and the cultural consequences of becoming vegan
Switching to veganism has been a conflicting journey of balancing my personal beliefs on the one hand, and my cultural heritage on the other. Whilst I live in Australia, I have Cambodian parents, and food has always been one of the few ways I felt I could engage with my identity and family fully. For many vegans, the most daunting part of their transition is explaining their new lifestyle to others. For me, I had to give up all of the food that is traditional to my culture and cope with my new community denigrating the way that my family and loved ones continue to eat.
When I think back to my childhood memories associated with food: I loved meat! My favourite were prosciutto, beef steak cooked medium rare, roasted chicken, Chinese pork ribs, mum’s oyster sauce stir-fries, pho…but all of that changed when I switched to a more plant-based diet in January 2016.
Back then I would have never imagined that I’d be able to give up my favourite meals. My transition began after I spent three weeks in Hong Kong, Macau and Cambodia indulging in mainly meat and fish. Whilst it was a privilege to travel and sample so many cuisines, this trip also marked three weeks without fresh fruit and vegetables due to the quality of water in Asia – it was either cooked vegetables or nothing – which I hated at the time. When I arrived back in Sydney, I unintentionally had an entire week of eating only fresh fruit and vegetables. I was feeling great, and I decided that’s how I wanted to continue eating.
At the beginning, I told myself that whilst I would eat plant-based most of the time, I would make exceptions when attending family events or for cultural gatherings. I didn’t want to deprive myself of my favourite foods or reject the huge effort that my family put into making traditional dishes. However, a few months later, after I tried to eat steak at a family wedding and found myself not feeling well. I decided that I couldn’t really include meat in my diet anymore.
The hardest thing for me was explaining to my maternal grandmother why I went vegan. My Khmer is incredibly broken, so not only was it the language barrier that made explaining my new lifestyle difficult to her, but there is no Khmer word for “vegetarian”, let alone “vegan”. The closest would be “vegetables”. I’ve merely explained it to her that I have stopped eating meat for health reasons, but she stills tries to convince me that beef is beneficial for my health and reminds me how much I loved it as a child. She can’t fathom why anyone would choose to give up food, after her experiences of poverty and malnutrition during the Khmer Rouge rule of 1975-1979.
To decline food from the people who prepare it so lovingly, people who have seen so much scarcity is an act of disrespect.
As I continue to live my vegan lifestyle, I’ve been feeling excluded, not only from family gatherings and barbecues, but I feel a sense of disconnection from my culture. There are dishes that cannot be made vegan.
It’s not just the food itself that I’m missing out on, but the activities and values that are embodied in its preparation and enjoyment. They involve labouring long hours in the kitchen together, learning from elders and discussing methods. The experience of eating is deeply communal, especially in Southeast Asia where individuals have their own plate of rice but share meats and vegetables. For me to go completely vegan, I had to give all of it up.
My grandmother’s prahok, a pungent fermented fish paste that is integral to Cambodian cuisine, used as a salty, tangy flavouring for many dishes or eaten as a dip for every meal, almost like a Khmer kimchi.
My aunty’s bok-la-hong, papaya salad, and num-banh-chok, a vermicelli rice noodle dish topped with a fish-based curry, a popular and beloved Cambodian dish, which is usually eaten on special occasions in my family.
Even as I wrestle with these conflicts, they come into sharper relief against the backdrop of the white vegan movement. I remember coming across a video of Angelina Jolie teaching her children how to prepare tarantula and cricket in Cambodia on a vegan Facebook group that I follow. Reading the comments, it was upsetting for me to see the racialised undertones to calling Cambodian eating practices ‘barbaric’.
It takes a certain kind of middle-class privilege to ignore that others may not have the same food choices available that we do. White vegan tendencies to claim moral superiority over other cultures treads a dangerous line that sees the rich west at the front whilst everyone else lags behind.
The majority of Cambodia is an agricultural society. Many Khmer immigrants had a farming background so they’re greatly aware of the privilege of walking into a supermarket to buy their food because they had to grow, harvest, raise livestock or food. Fish and seafood are staples in Cambodia due to their abundance with the Mekong River. Tarantula, crickets, turtle and frogs are also commonly found in the country.
Although it is very difficult for me to enjoy traditional Cambodian food, I have been helped greatly by other vegans of colour MommyTang and The Kale Sandwich Show on YouTube who provide inspiration that I don’t have to give up my culture to be vegan. I’m also very blessed to live close to an abundance of Vietnamese vegan restaurants. Although I can no longer enjoy authentic Cambodian food, as I improve on my vegan cooking skills, it is a goal of mine to fill this cultural void in my life by learning how to mimic the unique flavours of Cambodian cuisine.
Erica Em is currently a Communications undergraduate student at the University of Technology, Sydney. Driven by the lack of representation of South East Asian affairs, especially about Cambodia, her interests include extending the mic for other South East Asian women through writing about her own personal experiences and upbringing living in a western country. Tweet her @ericagm
Main image via Flickr T.Tseng
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