Today is the first day of the Cambodian New Year in 2018, Khmer: បុណ្យចូលឆ្នាំថ្មី or Choul Chnam Thmey, literally “Enter New Year.” The holiday lasts for three days beginning on New Year’s Day, which usually falls on April 13th or 14th, which is the end of the harvesting season, when farmers enjoy the fruits of their labor before the rainy season begins. Khmers living abroad may choose to celebrate during a weekend rather than just specifically April 13th through 16th. The Khmer New Year coincides with the traditional solar new year in several parts of India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Thailand. It was originally pegged to the lunar calendar, but is now more fixed within the Gregorian calendar. Cambodians also use the Buddhist Era to count the year based on the Buddhist calendar. For 2018, it will be 2562 BE (Buddhist Era).
The three days of the new year are:
Maha Sangkran (មហាសង្រ្កាន្ត)
Maha Sangkran, derived from Sanskrit Maha Sankranti, is the name of the first day of the new year celebration. It is the end of the year and the beginning of a new one. People dress up in new clothes and light candles and burn incense sticks at shrines, where the members of each family pay homage to offer thanks for the Buddha’s teachings by bowing, kneeling and prostrating themselves three times before his image. For good luck people wash their face with holy water in the morning, their chests at noon, and their feet in the evening before they go to bed.
Virak Vanabat (វិរ:វ័នបត)
Vireak Vanabat is the name of the second day of the new year celebration. People contribute charity to the less fortunate by helping the poor, servants, homeless, and low-income families. Families attend a dedication ceremony to their ancestors at monasteries.
Vearak Loeng Sak (វារៈឡើងស័ក)
T’ngai Loeng Sak in Khmer is the name of the third day of the new year celebration. Buddhists wash the Buddha statues and their elders with perfumed water. Bathing the Buddha images is a symbolic practice to wash bad actions away like water clean dirt from household items. It is also thought to be a kind deed that will bring longevity, good luck, happiness and prosperity in life. By washing their grandparents and parents, the children can obtain from them best wishes and good pieces of advice to live the life for the rest of the year.
In temples, people erect a sand hillock on temple grounds. They mound up a big pointed hill of sand or dome in the center which represents Valuka Chaitya, the stupa at Tavatimsa where the Buddha’s hair and diadem are buried. The big stupa is surrounded by four small ones, which represent the stupas of the Buddha’s favorite disciples: Sariputta, Moggallana, Ananda, and Maha Kassapa. There is another tradition called Sraung Preah (ស្រង់ព្រះ): pouring water or liquid plaster (a mixture of water with some chalk powder) on an elder relative, or people in general. This is now mostly a lark for younger people. I will have to watch my step.
There are also a number of traditional games performed over the three days.
Chol Chhoung (ចោលឈូង), for example, is played on the first nightfall of the Khmer New Year by two groups of boys and girls. Ten or 20 people comprise each group, standing in two rows opposite each other. One group throws the “chhoung” to the other group. When it is caught, it will be rapidly thrown back to the first group. If someone is hit by the “chhoung,” the whole group must dance to get the “chhoung” back while the other group sings to the dance.
Chab Kon Kleng (ចាប់កូនខ្លែង) is a game played by imitating a hen as she protects her chicks from a crow. Adults typically play this game on the night of the first New Year’s Day. Participants usually appoint a strong player to play the hen who protects “her” chicks, while another person is picked to be the “crow”. While both sides sing a song of bargaining, the crow tries to catch as many chicks as possible as they hide behind the hen.
The Khmer New Year is also a time to prepare special dishes. One of these is a “kralan”: a cake made from steamed rice mixed with beans or peas, grated coconut and coconut milk. The mixture is stuffed inside a bamboo stick and slowly roasted. I have prepared ansom chek (អន្សមចេក) for today – sticky rice and banana steamed in banana leaves. It’s traditional and not that hard to make – if you live in Cambodia. I’ll make a sour fish soup that I like, as well. Also, very popular for festivals. This site gives a ton of Khmer recipes for festivals. As ever, the challenge is finding the right ingredients http://www.khmerkromrecipes.com/recipes/recipe273.html . I’ll break my normal reluctance to post recipes from Asia because of the difficulty in getting ingredients (this once). If you do not know what you are aiming for I will not be answerable for your results. I’ll also embed a video at the end for good measure (in English). Fish amok is a fish curry with coconut that is very common in Cambodia, year round, but you will find it on festive tables too. Unless you live in SE Asia you will not find all of the ingredients, but here’s the recipe anyway.
Fish Amok (ហហ្មុកត្រី)
For kreung paste
5 kaffir lime leaves, ribs removed, thinly sliced
3 dried Thai red chiles, soaked in water until soft, drained, seeds discarded, chopped
3 slices galangal, peeled and chopped
3 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
3 slices kacheay (also known as lesser ginger or lesser rhizome), peeled and chopped
3 shallots, thinly sliced
2 stalks lemongrass, bottom parts only, thinly sliced
2 small pieces fresh turmeric, peeled and sliced, or 1 teaspoon ground turmeric
For fish amok
½ cup coconut milk, plus extra
1 tbsp Cambodian chili paste
1 tbsp Cambodian (or Thai) fish sauce
1 tbsp sugar
1 tsp shrimp paste
½ tsp salt
1 egg, lightly beaten
1 lb boneless skinless meaty white fish, cut into chunks
8 banana leaves
¼ cup nhor/noni leaves (morinda citriforlia), shredded
4 fresh red chiles, cut lengthwise in thin strips
First make the kreung paste. Pound together the lime leaves, red chiles, galangal, garlic, kacheay, shallots, lemongrass and turmeric, a few ingredients at a time, using a mortar and pestle until a fine paste forms. You can do this in a food processor, but mortar and pestle is better.
Mix the kreung paste with the coconut milk, chili paste, fish sauce, sugar, shrimp paste, salt and egg in a large bowl. Add the fish and combine well with the kreung paste marinade. Set aside and allow the marinade to infuse the fish for about 15 minutes or longer.
Set up a steamer. Make banana leaf bowls (konthoangs) by placing 2 banana leaves on top of each other and folding into little rectangular bowls with the tapered sides folded up and held together with bamboo toothpicks. Make 4 in total. Make a bed of noni leaves in the bottom of each konthoang. Divide the marinated fish between the bowls, and place on top of the noni beds. Spoon 2 tablespoons of coconut milk over each serving of fish and top off with a fresh red chile. Place the filled konthoangs in the steamer and steam until the fish is cooked through, about 20 minutes. Serve with plain, boiled jasmine rice.