Sunday, March 20, 2011

Cambodia: A Meat-Eater’s Paradise

One thing you miss in SE Asia is meat. It’s not that they don’t do it well, or the meat is of an inferior quality – the barbecued chicken on Thailand’s Koh Chang island, and the turmeric-lined pig roasts in Chiang Mai were some of the best I’ve tasted.

It’s just that you don’t get much of it, which is hardly surprising in countries where meat is a luxury and is used more as a flavouring than a main ingredient.

But that’s certainly not the case in the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh. The BBQ beef joints near the old market are a veritable meat-eater’s paradise.

And there is only one name on the salivating lips of the tourists and locals who flock there – koo dut, a whole calf spit-roasted over charcoal and served in slices with raw vegetables and spicy garnishes.

For me, there is no finer smell than the waft of scorched beef and the greasy smokiness of yellow fat as it drips into hot embers. And what a way to spend an hour – drinking ice-cold Anchor beer and chatting to a cook spit-roasting an 80kg fatted beast in the blazing sun.

The animal had been stuffed with paddy field herbs and lemon grass, and occasionally you’d get the crackle of dried reeds sticking out of its behind.

The cook carved hunks of pink meat, and then finished it off over the hot coals until the fat was crispy. Then he’d chop it up on his board and nestle the slices on a bed of julienne raw onions before they were snatched away by waiters.

Lesser known cuts of the animal were grilling away too, including the neck, intestines, and a part affectionately described on the menu as “beef’s dick”.

I ordered koo dut in two of the restaurants, to see how they served it in each rather than just sheer gluttony, and I’m still drooling at the deliciousness of that meat.

The first, at The Mid Night Restaurant, came with a tray of raw green beans, shredded banana flowers, white cabbage, and slices of green banana, carrots, cucumber, and green tomatoes.

The veg was dotted with ice cubes to keep it fresh, and each added something to the dish – the crunchiness of the green beans, the bitterness of the unripe banana, and the earthiness of the carrots.

The beef was incredibly tender and scrumptious, and came with two sauces. The first was a dark, spicy lemon dip reminiscent of a peri peri sauce. The second was flavoured with palm sugar, spring onions, chilli and crushed peanuts, and was as sweet as melted toffee.

I scanned the menu, and the whole place was a temple to meat: BBQ goat, frog, duck, chicken, pork, eel, octopus, and it had specialties for all of them.

At the second place, Dara Angkor Chey Restaurant, the calf roasting outside had been basted in soy sauce and lime for flavour and colour, and the meat was even more delicious and tender.

The steer had only been over the coals for a couple of hours and was almost raw inside, so I got the cook to serve me rare meat from the rump. It came on the same bed of raw onions, and with the same selection of veg.

But instead of the sauces there was a small bowl of Srey Ambel rock salt mixed with crushed Kampot pepper, and a tray of condiments – sliced fresh lemon grass, crushed peanuts, sliced red chillies and lime quarters.

It was a wonderful meal but although the region’s famed Kampot pepper was a worthy addition, it lacked the wetness of the sauces at Mid Night’s.

Next time, I’ll order the BBQ frog, partly in the name of research. I just hope I’ll find room for a few slices of that splendid beef.