Where the Wild Things Are on the Menu

Doctoral student Sovanneary Huot has created a collection of recipes that highlights the nutritional value of wild plants.

closeup of a shrimp and rice dish on blue and white plate with green-washed background photo of woods, courtesy

Sovanneary Huot’s parents avoided starvation during the ruthless regime of Cambodian dictator Pol Pot by eating wild plants. Huot, who was born at the tail end of the Khmer Rouge regime, lost several relatives during that cruel time, in which it’s estimated that close to 3 million Cambodians perished. Her parents, she says, would eat those plants in secret, just so they could put something into their stomachs.

cover of cookbook, courtesyNow, Huot, a Penn State doctoral candidate in rural sociology, is researching these so-called “famine foods” and bringing them to the attention of a new generation of Cambodiansmany of whom have no idea that these plants exist, she says, even though they grow abundantly in the country’s hills and mountains, alongside rice fields, and even along the roadside. According to the United Nations’ Food and Agricultural Organization, 45% of Cambodians face food insecurity, and in rural areas, some villagers harvest these wild plants for lack of other food sources without realizing their nutritional potential. Or the fact that they can actually taste good.

Huot has created a cookbook of recipes using 24 of the more than 100 edible indigenous plants found in the country, highlighting those that offer the greatest nutritional value. Cambodian Food Culture: Wild Food Plant Dishes contains 13 recipes made with wild, indigenous plants like aquatic morning glory and climbing wattle (which villagers often train into a living fence to keep wildlife off their plots). Huot has also put in a new recipe for a salad made with sand ginger (Kaempferia Harmandiana), an abundant spinach-like green. “I made that salad for my family and they all loved it,” she says, “even my small niece.”

Huot grew up around food—her father was a chef, and her mother loves to cook, too. But beyond creating tasty dishes, her work documenting underutilized plants is helping to conserve knowledge that could otherwise vanish, and that has the potential to help Cambodian farmers today.

“In Cambodia, there are two periods of time where it’s difficult to grow traditional vegetables: the rainy season, where the soils are usually saturated, and the hot, dry season, where it’s simply too hot, even if you had irrigation,” says horticulture professor Ricky Bates, who serves on Huot’s graduate committee. “It’s during those two time periods that food insecurity rises. A lot of these plants that Neary has been documenting and characterizing are perennial species, and they’re either productive during these times or they can be managed to be productive during these times.”


a person in waist-deep water in jungle with another person looking on, courtesy


Part of Huot’s project entails encouraging Cambodian farmers to plant some of these perennial species alongside more traditional vegetables. “Bringing five or six of these species to a household will do a lot in terms of improving nutrition, increasing food security, and even bringing a cash crop to the local market,” Bates says.

The inclusion of wild, more resilient species is increasingly important for farmers everywhere in the face of climate change, Bates saysincluding in the U.S., where there’s a resurgence of interest in wild fruits and vegetables like ramps and paw-paws.