Battambang’s Traditional Livelihoods
Battambang is the rice belt of Cambodia and although there are many rice growers in the region plenty of other locals use rice to produce consumables to sell as a way to make an income. I wanted to find out what kind of foodstuffs are being produced and the processes they use make them. What better way to find out than taking a bicycle tour through the countryside to check out some of the local traditional livelihoods. The day was stiflingly hot and sunny, with a threat of rain later in the afternoon, but luckily for me Battambang and it’s surrounds are flat, so biking it was relatively easy.
My guide for the day was Channa, a young university student working as a tour guide to help pay his way through university. We rode off into the countryside through the backstreets of Battambang until we reached the first stop of the day, rice paper making. Rice paper is used to make fresh spring rolls and the ingredients to make the paper are simple; rice flour, water, and a little salt. Here in rural Battambang they are painstakingly made by hand at the family home where they make around 1,500 sheets per day, which they sell for a measly US$1.25 per 100 sheets.
It is hot tedious work steaming two sheets at a time, burning rice husks which smoulder under the steamer and the hot plate made of stretched fabric. Once the mixture steams for around 30 seconds it is carefully placed on a rotating bamboo hanger for the next person in the production line to delicately unravel onto the bamboo rack for drying. The drying process usually takes 2 hours in full sun and the rice paper is then ready to stack for sale. There are many families in this area making rice paper and some sell fresh rice paper rolls right out the front of their house. I got to try some made with vegetables and rice noodles and a delicious sweet fish dipping sauce.
After scoffing down several rice paper rolls it was back onto the bike, but not for long, as not far down the road we pulled up in front of another family home where they dry bananas. There were racks of golden bananas, sliced so thinly you could almost see through them, drying in the hot sun. Now I am fairly handy with a knife, but the handiwork to get the slices so thin was nothing short of amazing. The lady who makes them could easily get a job as a sushi chef with knife skills like hers. And she would probably earn more than the 25c per bundle of dried bananas, approximately 250g worth, which makes it less than a dollar per kilogram.
The bananas are delicious though, sweet and a little tangy, with a soft, chewy texture. They make a great snack and with no additives or sugar are so much better than sugary sweets or the roll up fruit snacks available back home. They also make dried mango here which is cooked first and then dried into thin rounds, and it was equally as tasty as the bananas. There is a lot of work that goes into making these products, with little financial reward, but people make the best of what skills they have to keep a roof over their head and food on the table.
The techniques and ingenuity the locals use here is amazing to see. Everything is made by hand, and from scratch, and not just the ingredients. Most of the equipment used to make these food products are also made by hand. At the next stop the family make soft rice noodles which are used in soups. Here, they pound the rice into a paste with a hand made device, and then add water, to a batter type consistency. The batter is passed through a metal tin with holes in it and into boiling water, which cooks the batter into soft thin noodles. Unfortunately they had finished making the noodles by the time we arrived but I was able to sample them in a soup dish that they sell from the side of the road right outside the front of their house.
I wasn’t overly fussed on the taste of noodle dish but the next stop was about to be a full on assault to the olfactory senses. This place dries fish and makes all kinds of fermented fish products from the stinky process. They sell the dried fish, a sour fish mixture, and also Cambodia’s favourite fermented fish paste, prahok. This popular condiment is made by salting crushed fish and letting it ferment for months before it is used to flavour food, or is used as a dipping sauce. It’s actually quite nice if you get a mild flavoured sauce but what isn’t nice is the stench of the market style factory producing these products.
I could smell this place way before arriving here and once I got up close and personal it really did clear the nasal passages. I’m not sure how the ladies deal with the stench as they sit amongst the fish guts day after day, but I guess they just get used to it. Also, many people here don’t have a choice, and having a job, any job, is essential just to get by. Despite the smell it was interesting to see the processes and the different products they make from the dried fish.
As we left the incredibly bad smell behind the heavens opened up and soon the monsoonal rains began to drench us and cleanse away the remnants of the stinky fish. We took shelter under the awning of a roadside stall to wait out the worst of the heavy downpour. After half an hour we donned our rain ponchos and headed off to the last stop on the countryside bike tour. Kralan is a popular sticky rice snack, cooked in lengths of bamboo over hot coals. The rice is mixed with coconut milk, palm sugar, various types of beans, and sometimes sesame seeds and Is slowly roasted until the contents become a delicious sticky treat inside. The charred parts of the bamboo are removed before they are sold for between 50c and a dollar. It is really delicious but very heavy and filling so it’s better to share one between two people, at least.
Feeling rather full and tired from the afternoon’s activities it was time to make the trip back to town. The roads were busy with early evening traffic and large volumes of water had covered the roads in parts due to the heavy afternoon storm. Towards the end my legs were burning ,as I hadn’t ridden a bike for quite some time, and it was quite a relief to dismount for the last time that day. The tour had been a blast and it was fantastic to see the traditional lifestyles of the locals in the countryside. It also shows you how lucky we are back home as these people have a tough life and they work hard for the pittance that they earn. This traditional livelihoods tour is part of the Taste of Cambodia Food Adventure Tour. If you would like more information about this tour check out the full itinerary here.