All photos by the author.

Cambodian Ghosts Love Sticky Rice Cakes

On Pchum Ben or "Ancestors' Day," Cambodians believe the ghosts of dead relatives return to earth. They are offered Num Om Saum, a sticky rice cake wrapped in banana leaves.

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Apr 25 2016, 10:00am

All photos by the author.

Cambodian ghosts like cake. Specifically, savoury rice cakes filled with pork and mung beans. Once a year, on the Pchum Ben or "Ancestors' Day" festival, the gates of hell open and dead relatives swill around the homes of the living.

In order to satiate this hellish menagerie, Cambodians must feed them Num Om Saum, banana leaf sticky rice cake. It is believed that when the hungry ghosts eat the cakes, they are transformed into smiling deities and will bless the country's rice fields.

"Num Saum" (for short) are wrapped in banana leaves and shaped like phalluses to represent Shiva, the primordial masculine force of the universe. Some are molded into a triangular shape representing Shakti, the feminine principle. At the end of the festival, they are cast into the water of the rice fields in a fertility ritual that harks back to ancient times.

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Radhe and her grandmother Yay make rice cakes in Baray, Cambodia. All photos by the author.
cambodia-radhe-washing-beans Radhe washes the mung beans.

In Baray village, two hour's drive south of capital Phnom Penh, three generations of women gather to teach one comparatively enormous Englishman how to make the cake. With no gas cookers, fridges, or microwaves, food preparation here has barely changed since the time when the only clock was the vaulting sun.

Sokunthea, a coffee saleswoman, is at work so it's her daughter Radhe and mother—known simply as Yay, meaning "grandmother"—who busy themselves under the palm leaf shack that afternoon. The sun glints green from surrounding rice fields swollen with monsoon rain.

Yay plonks a tub of pre-soaked mung beans on the table. She grabs a handful and spreads them on a plastic tray. After running her worn fingers over them, she scoops water into the tray, letting loose the green skins to float to the surface. Careful as a prospector panning for gold, she then tilts the tray back and forth and releases the water back into the bowl.

The process is repeated until all the skins are removed. We take turns—while one of us baptises the beans, the others wipe banana leaves ripped from a garden tree or peel dry bark into binding strips.

Sokunthea arrives home as Yay is running salt through a basket of dry rice. This is local eating at its best—when cooked, village rice has a marshmellow-y texture and light, ever-so-nutty taste.

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cambodia-sokunthea-and-yay Yay and daughter Sokunthea.

Yay lays out three overlapping banana leaves, shuffling uncomfortably in the heat of the ascending sun. Laying out a square of rice in the middle, she spoons on some beans and lines up three strips of pork fat. Folding and pinching the leaves, she then rolls the mixture into a tight cigar.

After binding the cake with several strips of banana leaf, Sokunthea piles them up ready to cook. While this goes on, Yay's husband Tha is silently excavating a mini fire pit in the rain-softened earth. He lights the fire and brings a large pot of water to boil. The completed cakes slide inside.

With the banana leaves creating a waterproof layer, the mixture inside is steamed, allowing the rice to release a sticky starch and form a potato-like texture, while the pork fat melts into the swelling beans.

That evening, inside a corrugated iron shack, the family gathers around a TV to watch a badly dubbed Thai soap. For a moment, they look like an English family watching Eastenders. Outside, the cakes have been cooking for three hours and Sokunthea goes to fish them out, before setting them aside for the ghosts and taking one for herself to eat straight away.

Peeling apart scalding leaves, the cake inside tastes plain and starchy with a pork zing. A little salt is needed—maybe some soy sauce. The family seems to enjoy it more than me. It wasn't unpleasant, just underwhelming.

But these rice cakes aren't for me, anyway. Indeed, they're not for anyone living.

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The next day, on Pchum Ben day under clouds the colour of iron, we walk down a soggy dirt road to the temple. The main hall is packed. In Cambodian culture, old people have ceremonial roles to play so every village elder is present, sitting cross-legged on the floor.

A garish, fairy-lit Buddha shrine shines like a carnival and, above the hubbub, a clergyman chants like an auctioneer as the faithful pour forward with cash offerings. Dozens of Num Saum cakes are stacked in a pile, guarded by squatting clergy who pat the mound affectionately. The cakes would be blessed and eaten by the monks later.

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Only monks have the power to convert offerings of money and cakes into "good merit"—metaphysical gold stars that can be transferred to dead relatives. As well as making offerings of food in their own homes, Cambodians dedicate Num Saum cakes and money to monks who transfer the good merit to the dead. Grateful ghosts return the favour with harvest blessings.

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Sokunthea takes the last cake home. There, she places a few slices and a little cash into a tiny wooden boat. She then walks to the rice fields, bends down, and places the boat among the emerald stalks. The ghosts have eaten their cake and can now sail back to the land of the dead.

This post originally appeared on MUNCHIES in October 2015.