Tuesday, March 15, 2011
Phnom Penh, Cambodia: An Incredible Feast Of Spring Rolls And Noodles
I have just spent my first day in Cambodia, and I’ve still got the smell of fish guts in my nostrils as I write this. Phnom Penh - a city of poverty and extreme wealth fast rising from the ashes of war and revolution - certainly is a visual and olfactory experience.
I spent the afternoon touring the Russian Market and a far less touristy food market near the Mekong River. I always find bazaars are the best place to start when looking at a country’s cuisine, and for some reason Cambodian food has always intrigued me.
For years people have been saying it would be the next new thing. There are one or two Cambodian restaurants that have started to get noticed in London, but Khmer cuisine has always been overshadowed by its neighbours Thailand and Vietnam. It's often been dismissed as Thai food without the chilli. And that’s a terrible disservice, because what I’ve seen and tasted so far is very encouraging.
Good food, of course, is nothing without the surroundings. And as far as capital cities go, Phnom Penh – which was described as the Paris of the East until it became a ghost town after the civil war in the 70s – has once again sprouted into a beautiful city. Certainly far more than the hideous, overbuilt metropolis that is Bangkok.
It’s also got a good feel to it. Thais like to tell you how dangerous the place is and how Cambodians will steal the pennies from a dead man’s eyes, but you can be unlucky in any city, and I’ve met a lot of people in Thailand who I wouldn’t trust with a bag of chips.
My trip started through the dusty streets in the back of a tuk tuk to the Russian Market. And this was another pleasant surprise - the tuk tuk drivers actually take you where you want to go. You don’t end up outside a massage parlour, Asian tailors, or gem store so they can get free gasoline and kickbacks.
The market (Psar Tuol Tom Pong – and pong it certainly does) is a warren of chaos like many crowded bazaars in South East Asia. But it’s different somehow. For a start it’s covered, and instead of being housed in a single building, the stalls have spread outwards in a mass of corrugated iron and cement.
The low ceiling and throbbing heat mean when you get to the food section you are hit in the face by a putrefying mix of durian fruit and preserved fish with the full thwack of a 7ft-long Mekong catfish's tail.
If you can imagine what fish and pork smell like when they’ve been sitting in a sauna for six hours then you’re half-way there. But, strangely, it’s not a completely unpleasant aroma, and if anything can mask the sewer-like odour of durian fruit, then it’s the stench of fermenting fish a few feet away.
It really was a massive assault on the senses. All seven of them, because after an hour I was sure I’d developed three different senses of smell – death (durian and dying fish), fresh (fruit, flowers, herbs and vegetables) and heat (cooking oil and sweat).
The market got its name because Soviets liked to shop there during the Cold War. And given the legacy of Russian people’s inscrutable taste, it is filled with fake designer goods, trinkets, souvenirs and bling. But of course I was only interested in the food, and soon I was chatting to the owner of a fantastic stall, which only sold one dish - spring rolls and noodles.
I have to say it was one hell of a meal, and I did my usual thing and badgered her about the ingredients and cooking method. She made the spring rolls by rolling up shrimps, minced pork, lettuce, spring onions, crushed soya beans, basil, grated carrot, and noodles in wafer thing wrappers and deep-fried them for 20 minutes (you can see the before and after shot in the picture below...)
This made them far crispier and chewier than the sort you usually get, and for me they were all the better for it. They were absolutely delicious and almost sausage brown in colour. They were cut up like bangers, and put on top of a dish containing three types of noodles – spaghetti size, vermicelli size and big, flat shoe laces that melted in your mouth.
The dish was finished with a huge sprinkling of ground peanuts and came with a jar of chopped red chillies in lemon juice. And what a spanker of a meal it was. It was absolutely delicious, and I was soon dripping not only from the oppressive 35C heat but the delicious chilli paste.
The peanuts, lime and chillies had echoes of a Thai green papaya salad, and the chewiness of the spring rolls were the perfect accompaniment. But the best thing of all was the lack of liquid. I got bored in Thailand with endless gallons of soup and liquor with everything. There are, of course, exceptions in a cuisine as diverse as Thai, but they do love to drench their food, and the dryness of this dish gave it real character. And the freshness of the boiled noodles rather than the fried ones you’d get in a pad Thai, gave it a lovely fresh taste.
Next the driver took me to a market near the river, where the locals were buying freshwater fish, prawns, cockles, meat and vegetables for their evening meals. Everywhere stallholders were scraping away at fish scales with small machetes, and pulling out guts.
I wandered around looking at the flapping catfish that they barbecue whole in bamboo shoots. I watched as a man crushed sugar cane in a hitlerite contraption that had a pipe leading off so his wife could fill bottles with the creamy juice.
The fruit and vegetables always look incredible in Asian markets, but somehow those ones, grown in the fine silt river soil, had an even greener quality to them.
I didn’t like the look of the slabs of pork sweating in the sun - obviously every part of the animal was there including the grunt - but the preserved fish looked delicious. And what an incredible range. Little brown dried fish, smoked fish, and bowls of fish fermenting into prahoc, the backbone of Khmer cuisine.
It all looks very promising, a bit of a culinary Phnomenon if you will, and I’ve only just scratched the surface...