Khmer Cuisine Vocabulary

by Saveros Pou

How Khmer culture set apart Sanskrit and Indian-influenced terms for cooking techniques and preparations mostly for rituals and religion-related foods.


Publication: Kambodschanische Kultur 4, 1992, Berlin. Reprint in Selected papers on Khmerology (Choix d' articles de khmerologie), Reyum, Phnom Penh, 2003, 488 p, pp 343-353.

Published: 1992

Author: Saveros Pou

Pages: 11

Languages : English, Khmer

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“In Old Khmer texts, one comes across some Sanskrit words all right connected with food, but a) they are nouns, and b) they referred to sacred food among offerings to the gods. In other words, their adoption answered a specific purpose, and in all likelihood they were not used by Khmer speakers at large. It is more worthy to note that, even in that context, not a single Indian verb (Sanskrit, Prakrit or Dravidian) occurred in epigraphic texts, and predictably none of the nominal loanwords has survived.

“In later times, one word became current in Khmer culture, with both name and referent, i.e. kari designating the Indian type of curry. It was very likely borrowed from Tamil, and has been used ever since as a noun exclusively. In brief, during twenty centuries of association with the Indian culture, Khmer has borrowed only one word from Tamil along with one type of food, i.e. "the Indian curry.”

On the other hand, Chinese techniques such as cooking in pork fat and tea-leaves infusion permeated the Khmer culinary style.


One of the vocabulary charts in the study.

Photo: a traditional Cambodian dish from The Culinary Art of Cambodia, published in association with Angkor Database in 2021.

Tags: culinary, Khmer cuisine, sanskrit, Indian influences, Chinese influences, Sino-Khmer, linguistics

About the Author


Saveros Pou

Saveros Pou (Saveros Lewitz in the 1960s-1970s) ពៅ សាវរស (1929, Phnom Penh- 25 May 2020, France) was a French linguist of Cambodian origin. A retired research director of the CNRS in Paris, a specialist of the Khmer language and civilization, she carried out extensive work of Khmer epigraphy, starting as a young researcher with her teachers George Cœdès and Jean Filliozat.

Born in a high-society and learned family -- her uncle, Nhieuk Nou (1900-1982), was 'okhnya mahamantri', Royal Palace secretary, and her grandfather, Ker Nou (1864-1958), a judge and 'pandit' (sage) --, Saveros Pou went to the Sutharot Girls School and Lycée Sisowath before moving to France for higher education, to become a leading researcher in linguistics and social history of Cambodia, as well as a respected teacher for several generations. Residing in England in the 1970s and 1980s, she furthered her research in several US universities, in particular in Hawaii.

Her work in the field of etymology, specifically applied to old Khmer (from 6th to 14th centuries) was seminal, while her varied skills enabled her to tackle areas such as the very rich processes of derivation in Khmer, religion, codes of conduct, zoology and botany, culinary art, etc. This encyclopedic approach is reflected in her Dictionnaire vieux khmer-français-anglais.

She is the author of more than 150 books and articles, published in several orientalist journals such as the Journal Asiatique and the Bulletin de l'École française d'Extrême-Orient. Saveros Pou's last book published before her death was Un dictionnaire du khmer-moyen (Phnom Penh, Buddhist Institue, Sāstrā Publishing House, 2017).


Saveros Pou in 1970 (photo Reyum/Mikaelian)