When my wife and I were dating, one day she took me to one of her cousin’s houses to visit. They were cooking and asked me to stay for dinner. I accepted and we sat down to eat. They served the food ‘family style,’ in the middle of the table. It was grilled beef that was cut into thin slices, rice, and an assortment of raw vegetables. In front of each diner, they put a small bowl with some kind of paste in it. As we sat down, a few people started eating and the hostess, my wife’s cousin, looked at me with a smirk because it was obvious to her that I was out of my element. She asked, “Do you know how to eat this?”
This question, I came to find out later, is a literal translation of the Khmer (the Cambodian language) question, “Che’ nyum ah-nee te’?” This question has multiple meanings, depending on the context. It could mean literally, “Do you know how to eat this food or should I show you how?” More commonly, however, it is a nuanced way of asking, “Is this something you like to eat?” In this case, my answer was “No” to all of the above. The hostess then explained to me that what was in the bowl was prahok, a fermented fish paste that was the base for almost all Cambodian cooking. In this preparation, it was served in its raw form as a dip for the beef and raw vegetables. A bit nervous, I was willing to try it for reasons I have explained elsewhere.
Everyone looked at me with smiles on their faces. They knew, and then I knew, that this was the deep end of Cambodian cooking. This was real-deal Cambodian food, raw and unfiltered, prepared for their palate, not mine. With my chopsticks, I picked up a piece of beef, dipped it in the prahok, and ate it. The flavor was unlike anything I had ever had before and I was taken aback. It was strong, equal parts funky and bitter-sour. I tried it once more before determining that I did not like it. They all giggled as if this was the expected outcome and told me not to worry about it. We finished our meal, with me eating only the beef, rice, and raw vegetables. I thanked them for their hospitality and then we left.
We went back to where my wife was living at the time and told her other cousins the story. My wife and her cousins all started laughing hysterically. Her cousin then asked, “Why would you make him eat the prahok with the ant eggs in it the first time he tried it?” My eyes bulged in surprise and then we all began laughing together. “Well,” I thought to myself, “for fermented fish paste with ant eggs in it, it really wasn’t all that bad.” I checked it off as an experience worth having and knew that it would make me more open to other such experiences in the future, even if after asking better questions about the food beforehand.
A friend and teacher, Ellis Amdur has a saying, “When you go into lion country, you should never try to be a lion, instead just be a tiger and they will learn to like your stripes.” As adventurous and open-minded of an eater as I was, I was not and am not Cambodian (although I have learned to eat beef with prahok, if prepared for my palate). If I would have forced myself through the meal, eating everything I was served in spite of my distaste for it, my wife and her family would not have had any more respect for me than they did by my trying it (twice) and being honest about not liking it. In fact, this ‘lie’ would have actually harmed our relationship, even if subconsciously. By being myself, but still being open and gracious, I earned their respect and we all had a good laugh.
– Robert Van Valkenburgh is co-founder of Kogen Dojo where he teaches Taikyoku Budo and Gracie Jiu-Jitsu
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