Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Kebab Pop-Up Skewered On Opening Night

The initial trial of the pop-up restaurant turned out to be an eventful evening. But then, I suppose, what did I expect living so close to Serendipity Beach?

It was New Year’s Eve, but the place was dead. Many of the bars and restaurants had shut for the four-day holiday period so the Cambodian chefs, cooks and waitresses could go home to their families. Some of them were travelling hundreds of miles to ramshackle farms and slums in northern Cambodia.

Two days on bone-cracking roads, and two days with their loved ones. It was tragic to think that some of the young mothers only saw their children two or three times a year, and then only for a couple of days. The rest of the time the youngsters are brought up by the grandmother while the mother sends money home. I could only wonder at the strength they had to get back on the bus, back to their tiny, shared rooms, knowing they wouldn’t see their children for another few months. There’s definitely something not right with the world.

Not that the global food crisis and Cambodia’s Great Land Grab were of much concern to Rodney. He kept pointing at all the closed bars and rubbing his hands. By 7pm, he’d snared most of the drinkers on the hill.

All the food experts were in there, muttering about kebabs, and the best ones they’d had. And whether it was best with naan bread or pitta, and whether they liked pickled green chillies in theirs, and the culinary merits of minced lamb compared with slices, and the divisive issue of whether the chilli sauce should contain grated carrot, and whether it was a gentleman’s right by God to insist on “crisp, fresh slices” from the elephant’s foot rather than “stewed slices from the pot”.

The boxer was there with his new Cambodian girlfriend. He’d met her in the street two nights ago. He started boasting about how he once lived above a shop that sold the best kebabs in the world. When I told them I only had chicken they shook their heads, and sucked through their teeth like mechanics under a bonnet, and I had to keep explaining about the price of lamb.

We had all chipped in $20 to buy Akara, Rodney’s bar manager, a single mattress and a double one for her parents for New Year. They all slept on the floor in a wooden shack down the road. It was heart-breaking to see. I walked past on my way to the beach each day. Her father would always be sat outside playing cards. Akara once muttered: “If my father work, family have mattress.”

We always tipped her well, and Rodney paid her $5 a day – double the normal wage in Cambodia – but we suspected most of it went to pay off her father’s gambling debts. “Her father not take care,” Rodney would often say.

With the midday sun burning down, and 35C temperatures in the shade, it was miserable to see a family of six living in that 20ft by 10ft wooden shack without a fan or air con, trying to get to sleep on nailed boards, bugs below them, mosquitoes on top. Akara showered using a bucket filled from a water butt, but came in every day looking immaculate. None of us knew how she did it.

Josh and Rodney crept upstairs to get the mattresses and we all gathered round. It was a touching moment. Akara’s face broke into a huge smile and she wiped away tears from her eyes. Her father arrived later on a moped to take the mattresses home. I was worried he was going to head straight round to the pawn shop with them. I told Rodney I’d give my share of the kebab money to Akara. After that they all wanted kebabs, and I had eight orders all at once.

It was easy juggling the food, the biggest problem was competing with the beer glasses (above). There was only one sink, so we battled for space. And talk about an open kitchen. It’s one thing being on show in a restaurant, but at least you’re tucked away behind aquarium glass like a zoo exhibit, or separated by a counter too high to jump over - you don’t have to put up with people walking through the kitchen to get to the toilets.

It was impossible. The food experts were all far too curious, and kept stopping for a chat. At one point a man called Steve walked through. He was barred from most of the bars on the hill, and had been in the country for three years without a visa. There were dark rumours about why he couldn’t go back to the UK.

“What bread are using for the kebabs, kiddo?” he said, venturing into my side of the kitchen. He was definitely past the water cooler. He was definitely off the toilet right of way.

Wraps, I said. I told him I was using wraps.

“Wraps! Jesus! Why don’t you use pitta bread, that’s a proper kebab that.”

I politely pointed out that it was just a trial and we were checking out suppliers, and it was easier to get fire-breathing midgets in Sihanoukville than pitta bread, and tried to get rid of him. He was still hanging round as I wrapped the kebabs.

I was annoyed with Rodney for letting him in the bar in the first place, let alone allowing him to loiter in the kitchen. But then it was my kitchen now. Rodney had told me himself. “That bit’s mine, this bit’s yours. Luvvly jubbly,” he’d said.

I hate people hanging around in the kitchen, but this was a frightening looking man, and my usual hints were lost on him. In the end, I was forced to put my arms up and walk towards him in an uncertain shooing manoeuvre. Luckily it worked and he loitered off.

My T-shirt was soon stuck to my back. It was truly unpleasant. I’d never enjoyed running around in wet clothes. I thought about cooking bare-chested, but I didn’t want to put the customers off. Rodney had mentioned putting a fan in the kitchen. He had one standing idle in the bar. He came through at one point and joked: “I’ve been thinking about it. But I thought, no, I want the customers to smell the food! Then they’ll order more!”

I wanted to teach Akara how to make the kebabs, but she was far too busy. Every time I showed her how to cook the chicken there was a shout from the bar. I didn’t know how long I’d be in Cambodia for, and I wanted to make sure she could take over when I left. Even if she sold four kebabs a night, it would double her daily wage.

We sold all the kebabs in three hours. A young Aussie had three in a row, and the Finnish boys had two each. I cleaned down and went to sit with the others. They kept talking about the food and the Finns raised their thumbs. And then a row broke out between Steve and the boxer’s girlfriend.

It turned very ugly, and people began to leave. I tried to calm it at one point, but Steve immediately eyeballed me.

“Believe me Tiger, you don’t want to get involved,” he growled.

He was right. I didn’t. I went off and sat at the bar. “You don’t need this when you’re trying to sell food,” the young Aussie whispered to me as he paid his bin.

In the end, Rodney closed the bar and kicked everyone out. He spent the rest of the night muttering to himself about how they were all barred, and how his friends had let him down. He brightened up after a couple of hours.

“Do you know something?” he said. “I love it!”

I went back to my room and lay awake for hours. The night had been a disaster. Even the thought of Akara’s joyful tears was soured by the ugly scenes at the end. There would be no mention of the food on the expats’ rocket-fuelled grapevine, just the trouble. Then I tried to make light of it. If it wasn’t Cambodia’s first pop-up restaurant, and it probably was, it was definitely the first one to bar all its customers on the opening night. What was it about kebabs?

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Cambodia's First Pop-Up Restaurant

Tom was slouched in the lounge, drinking gin. He smiled as I walked in. Not even a thank you. Not even the slightest bit of shame at stealing my recipe. I ordered a sandwich and coffee. As soon as Tom rode off on his scooter, I went into the kitchen. Dee wasn’t there.

“You have chicken curry?” I asked the cooks.

There was a bit of confusion for a while, and then they realised what I was talking about.

“Yes, yes, one you made,” one of them eventually said.

It was impossible. Josh had said they’d sold out. I looked in the fridge. None of the bowls were covered. It was a world away from food premises inspection reports in the UK, and all those tedious manuals to document recipe production steps, and fridge temperatures morning and night.

Then I spotted a portion of what looked like my curry sitting uncovered on the bottom shelf with raw mince above it. I was delighted. The rage evaporated. My bruised ego was restored. They hadn’t nicked my curry recipe after all – not yet anyway.

I met Josh in the street later and he asked about the pork pies again. He said he’d bought some belly and was rendering down the fat in his kitchen at home.

“Got to be right, got to be right,” he said. “Leave it to me.”

I suggested we experimented with the pastry first, filling the pie cases with chopped onions rather than meat. I said they’d still give off moisture, like meat, and it would be cheaper to crack the pastry first before moving on to the filling and jelly. But Josh said pork was cheap enough in Cambodia. It was roughly the same price as chicken breast – about $4.50 a kilo.

I still wasn’t looking forward to the pastry, especially in that cramped kitchen. I needed to find bigger premises. That way I could set up a pop-up restaurant for a few nights, and experiment with the pie pastry at the same time. It would probably be Cambodia’s first pop-up restaurant – there was no sign of another one on the internet.

I asked Rodney if I could use his kitchen (above). It had been well-furnished when he bought the lease two years ago, but he’d ripped it all out and given the equipment to Josh and Tom. But it was big enough and had the basics – two hobs powered by Calor gas, a sink, fridge, shelf space, and a tiny plastic chopping board. It would be fine for pot-based dishes.

And then it came to me. That was it – kebabs. I could start the pop-up with a few kebab nights over the Khmer New Year: Year of the Rabbit to get used to the kitchen. It would give me time to check out food suppliers. Then I could start on more cheffy dishes. There was even an unused bar upstairs that would take 25 covers. Rodney said he was happy for me to put tables up there and do a few pop-up evenings for the many wealthy Belgian expats in town.

They say it takes people a long time in business to discover that you need to make what customers want rather than what you want to make, and I was aware of making that mistake. It would probably be fairly tedious churning out kebabs, but they were the ideal food to get the name out there. You couldn’t get a kebab anywhere in Sihanoukville. The nearest one was a five-hour bus ride away. I knew lamb was hideously expensive, so I’d go for pan-fried chicken doner-style kebabs. I’d made them a number of times in Blighty and they’d always gone down well.

I headed down to the supermarket the next day and bought 2kg of chicken breast, a pot of paprika, salt, white pepper, ketchup, vegetable oil, a decent knife, foil, kitchen paper, a large covered container for the chicken, a bowl for the salad, and three pots with spoons for the sauces.

Then I came across a major problem. The tortilla wraps were $5.50 for ten. It was much more than I was expecting, and they were small round ones, meaning I’d have to sell the kebabs as more of a snack than a meal. I wouldn’t be able to sell them for more than $2.50, meaning a fifth of the food costs would just go on bread. It was disastrous, there was no way I could make a profit. Not that I expected to make any money. Pop-ups are just about marketing really. I thought about making the flat breads myself, but the kitchen was far too hot and underequipped for all that.

I bought two packs of wraps, and reckoned I had just about enough chicken to make 20 kebabs. On the way back, I stopped at the market and bought half a huge white cabbage, tomatoes, cucumber, onions, garlic, limes, and chillies. I’d spent $40 including the tuk tuk fare. If I sold all 20 kebabs, I’d make $10 profit. And then there was Rodney’s share to take into account. We still hadn’t really discussed that.

Rodney chatted away non-stop as I prepped the chicken, and kept sticking his thumbs up and saying “luvvly jubbly”. Imagine David Jason 30kg lighter, with dreadlocks and Keith Richards' wrinkles, and you’re half-way there. The facial resemblance was so strong that for the first year, Cambodian kids would run past the bar and shout ‘luvvly jubbly’ at him, much to his annoyance. Then he slowly joined in, and the catchphrase stuck from there.

“Everyone’s talking about the kebabs, you know!” he said. “The boxer phoned up earlier asking about them. He’s having one, and I’ve got another three orders from the Finnish boys.” He rubbed his hands together again. “Luvvly jubbly!”

I chopped the chicken into thin strips lengthways and marinated them in oil, garlic, paprika, salt and pepper. Then I finely shredded the cabbage and sliced the tomatoes, onions, and cucumber. I mixed the salad together and stored it in a bowl in the fridge. Then I made the sauces. For the hot chilli sauce, I finely minced red chillies and mixed in ketchup, lemon juice, and spices. For the garlic, mint yoghurt sauce, I finely chopped fresh mint, garlic and cucumber and added two tubs of yoghurt and plenty of salt and pepper and lime juice.

Then I tried a prototype. I got the largest frying pan smoking over the hob, dripped in some oil and there was an explosion of flames as I threw in a handful of chicken. After three minutes I let the chicken rest as I heated the smaller frying pan and toasted the tortilla wraps until they were puffy and slightly scorched.

I lay the tortilla on a tray, put chicken in the middle, spooned over the yoghurt and chilli sauces, and topped it with salad (above). Then I made a half-moon shape with the bread and folded both sides inwards and folded up the kebab. I rolled it in a piece of foil like a Cornetto. A Babnetto if you will.

Rodney came back a few minutes later, saying he couldn’t find his other sandwich board to advertise the kebabs on. He said he’d write out a sign on a piece of paper and stick that over his existing board.

“How do you spell chicken?” he said.

I told him I’d write out the sign.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Killer Curry In Cambodia: The Verdict

It was 6.15pm when I turned the curry off and tasted it for the last time. I was dripping with sweat. I was as wet as a Thai police officer during Songkran. I realised how out of practice I was, but I’d never cooked in a tropical kitchen before. Tom was hovering near the door, holding his neck. I asked him how hot he wanted it, saying it was just under the radar of what I’d call a medium hot curry.

“Well, it can’t be too hot, or the Western customers won’t eat it,” he grimaced. “But the Khmers will – they’ll eat anything.”

He washed a spoon and dipped in.

“Oh yes, that’s good. It’s got a kick, you can feel it,” he said, clutching his throat as he swallowed. “I don’t think it needs to be any hotter than that.”

I wasn’t convinced. I was sure the panel of food experts at the bar were looking for a hot curry.

Tom and Josh went off in a huddle in front of the now fixed computer to work out a price. It really looked like they knew what they were doing. They decided on $4 for a bowl of curry with rice or a baguette.

I reckoned there were at least 16 servings in the pot – even with the huge portions they served. The ingredients had cost a maximum of $30 (£20), even if you took the tuk tuk into account, and it looked like I was cooking for free – there hadn’t been any mention of money - so they were left with a $34 gross profit if they sold it all, plus whatever they made on drinks.

Normally in the UK, you’d go for a 30% food cost, meaning if you bought £30 of food, you’d sell it for £100. We were working at around a 50% food cost, but the overheads and wages are much less in Cambodia – the monthly rent on the restaurant was just $300, plus $20 to the police, and the odd crate of beer to the real police force in town, the tuk tuk drivers. And as for wages, cooks and waiters get a paltry $15 to $30 a week for 12-hour days and two days off a month – which is why Tom and Josh rarely did anything at the restaurant.

A 50% gross profit margin was good money in Cambodia, especially compared to some of the Khmer restaurants in town. One up the road served a delicious chicken cordon bleu I’d ordered a couple of times. I’d been in the kitchen to see them make it.

I had no idea how they could make it for the money. It was 11,000 riel (just less than $3) for two big chicken breasts stuffed with slices of ham and cheese, and coated in Japanese-style breadcrumbs, and it came with salad and a mound of mashed potato. They were probably making 50 cents on the dish – if that.

I went back to my room, had a cold shower, and lay on the bed for an hour, bathing in the tickling chill breeze of the air conditioning unit. It felt good to be back in the kitchen. Very good.

I met the old Aussie in the street on my way to the bar. He was looking at Josh’s specials board. Most nights he had cottage pie in there.

“You can’t sell it like that! Gorr, how long did it take him to come up with that one?” he said.

We both looked at the board. All it said was “chicken curry $4”.

We headed up to the bar. Josh turned up later with a bowl of curry for his supper. All the food experts were there. I ordered another drink, sat at the bar, and waited for the verdict. I couldn’t bear to turn round. The suspense was awful.

“Oh, ten out of ten,” said the boxer. And I knew I was saved.

There were five orders and another three from across the street, and I don’t know how many they’d sold down at the restaurant.

“That’s a proper, proper curry. Yep, that’s a good curry,” Josh said, but he still made me pay for my own one.

We chatted away until the small hours. By the end Josh and the bar owner Rodney were trying to persuade me to open my own restaurant down at the beach. Josh said there was one going for $13,000.

“You’re never going to make a billion, no you won’t make a billion,” said Josh. “But you can make a good living here, especially if you can cook like that.”

I went to bed happy and exhausted, but like everything in catering, it wasn’t to last.

The next day, Josh told me they’d sold out of curry. I walked past in the afternoon, and there was a new sign up. I was furious.

They’d stolen my recipe! I stood in the street for a while, wondering what to do. The food experts had mocked Josh about his sign, and when he’d asked me what it should be called I said it was a Madras-style curry. And there it was, less than 24 hours later.

Dee must have remembered everything I told her. They’d got the spices I’d bought, so they knew what was in it, and I’d shown her every part of the recipe. I stood there steaming in the heat, then I returned to the restaurant.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Killer Curry In Cambodia: In The Kitchen

Luckily there was a 2kg tin of tomatoes being used as a doorstop back at the restaurant. Dee, one of the Cambodian cooks, was serving a few customers. Josh told me to come back at 4pm when the broom cupboard kitchen would be quieter. I had between 4pm and 6.30pm to get a killer curry made before another two cooks turned up.

Dee was finishing her last order when I returned. Josh was fretting around behind me.

“So what do you need? What do you need?”

Thankfully, he soon left us to it and returned to his card game with a man on red wine. I borrowed a chopper, board, and a plastic bag for the off-cuts and got to work on the sack of onions.

Dee was standing around, watching me anxiously. She still had no idea what the strange long nose was doing in her kitchen. All Josh had said was “we make curry.” She obviously wanted to chop the onions, but I wasn’t taking any chances. The onions had to be right. I’d had enough set-backs already without ballsing up the onions.

I got her to peel some garlic, and then I realised just how good a cook she was. She blitzed the garlic, then started on the meat. I showed her how I wanted the breast cut up, with six cubes out of each one, and two minutes later there was a mountain of glistening, perfect cubes. She told me she’d started in the kitchen as a pot wash at 14, and had worked for the past six years under a series of long nose chefs. It was in her blood.

I threw chopped onions, ginger, garlic, red chillies, and two scoops of sea salt into a huge pot with plenty of vegetable oil, and started cooking the curry base down. I didn’t want to rush the sauce, but the clock was ticking and another order had come in to mess things up. I let the onions simmer for 30 minutes until they had that sweet, melted confit texture you’d use for onion marmalade.

I started thinking about the customers again. They were no doubt already down the bar swigging ice cold Anchor and talking about their curry. They’d probably even written out score boards. I knew they were anxiously waiting for me to mess things up. One of them, a huge pit bull of a man, had already cracked jokes about if his curry wasn’t good enough, he wasn’t going to pay for it. But as he’d survived five years in a Thai jail I wasn’t going to argue with him.

Dee was fascinated by the curry, and I could tell she was taking it all in. I said Tom and Josh were lucky to have such a good chef, and told her to ask for a pay rise. I got her to sniff each of the spices as I threw them into the onions and explained how it was important to cook the sauce for a long time. I fried the spices for a few minutes and then added two fat cinnamon sticks and three bay leaves, and more water to stop the paste catching on the bottom.

Dee finished chopping the tomatoes, and added them to the pan with the juice from the tin. We’d let them cook down for another 45 minutes. It gave us about 30 minutes to finish the dish. Josh popped his head in, and showed me the blender he’d promised. It was about the size of a coke can.

I had about 10 litres of sauce to blitz. I didn’t have another big vessel to pour the pureed sauce into, and there wasn’t the time or the surface space to fill up a load of plastic containers.

I was just glad I’d finely diced the onions, and got Dee to do the same with the tomatoes. With plenty of oil and cooking it should almost go down to a smooth sauce, but again it wouldn’t be perfect. Then Josh came back and said he couldn’t find the grinder for the fenugreek. I thought about the boxer again and his freshly made curry pastes on the Curry Mile.

The onions had almost dissolved by the time I put the chicken in. I let the curry gently cook for another 30 minutes or so. I added more salt and some lemon juice, sugar, and tomato ketchup (the secret ingredient in Indian restaurants). It was as good as any I’d made at home, I was sure of it, but then it was hard to remember. I was in foreign climes, nursing myself with gin and tonics to quell the afternoon sun, my mouth salivating at the very thought of curry. I was in no position to judge.

But somehow there was still something missing. I tried more lemon juice and vinegar, but there was a sharpness missing. Then I reached for the bottle with the cobra curled up inside.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Killer Curry In Cambodia: Gone To Market

The alarm went off and I pressed snooze, then I pressed it again, and eventually woke up with a blinding headache at 12.30pm. I was four hours late for the market. I grabbed my lucky hat and headed over the road to the restaurant with my tail between my legs.

“How’s your head?” said Josh as I arrived.

Tom was in the background fiddling with his computer. Somehow he had managed to turn the screen upside down and had his neck tilted at a painful-looking angle, trying to read as he typed. He was in a wretched mood, and was already on the Pastis.

“Good morning,” he said, looking at his watch. “Well, I suppose it’s afternoon now...”

Josh began fretting about what ingredients we’d need for that night’s curry I’d promised to make. It was all in hand, I assured him. He grabbed a tuk tuk and we headed down to the covered central market in Sihanoukville. It was like a pizza oven. Luckily, Josh didn’t want to buy the chicken from there. But not for hygiene reasons, he just said they were too scrawny.

He said he always bought imported ones from the supermarket. They were much plumper, but the Cambodians wouldn’t eat them because they said the Thais fill them with chemicals to make them grow.

Josh’s order was already bagged up at the stall (above). I bought what I needed for the curry – a sack of onions, tomatoes, a huge lump of ginger, two heads of garlic, a handful of chilli peppers, but no coriander. I wandered round the stalls. None of them had coriander. They were selling celery leaves, but no coriander.

But far worse, there were no dried spices anywhere. It wasn’t a good start. We loaded up the tuk tuk with bags of rice, flour, and potatoes, and headed to the supermarket for spices.

The second one was worse than the first, so we went back to the first one. Josh showed me the enormous range of vodka bottles. There was a bottle of local spirit with a cobra curled up inside (top pic).

“I bet that’s got a bit of bite,” I said.

“Jesus no, that’s for the Cambodians. Never touch the stuff. No way. Not in a million years. Forget it!” he replied.

It may have had every vodka brand under the sun, but there was a very poor spice selection, especially for a country historically influenced by India, and a town filled with expats. You can buy anything in Cambodia from a live Russell's viper to a hand grenade, but cumin seeds? Forget it. I could imagine what the boxer was going to say.

The only relatively cheap spice was ground coriander. You could get a bag of it for $1.50 (£1) - but everything else was expensive, especially by Cambodian standards. A small pot of cardamom would cost an average Cambodian more than a day’s pay. We were going to struggle to make a profit on this meal. But then it was only a trial, I suppose. They wanted to see whether I could cook.

I bought ground coriander, ground cumin, cayenne pepper, turmeric, cinnamon sticks, black onion seeds, fenugreek, and a bottle of the snake liquor. It was far from perfect, but it was enough to make a decent curry. I’d put in plenty of ginger and garlic and pep up the cayenne heat with some finely chopped red chillies.

I thought about what I’d said the night before, and how I’d boasted that I was going to make them “the best bloody curry they’d ever had”. I stood in the aisle flinching at the words. Then I consoled myself that a cook can only work with the ingredients and kitchen he’s got, and I’d just have to make do. It would add to the challenge.

But I knew they wouldn't take excuses. Then I thought about the boxer stuffing himself with his favourite curries on the Wilmslow Road, and tried to get the thought out of my mind. I knew there was nothing wrong with my recipe.

I’d made it as a staff meal for the chefs at the Fat Duck. As Masterchef’s narrator would say, it was the toughest cooking experience of my life. But they’d liked it, or at least said it was okay, which is a glowing accolade in cheffing terms, and they were three star Michelin chefs, not a tattooed bunch of renegade food experts who’d found themselves washed up on Sihanoukville beach.

Then we had a major problem.

“I hope you’re not looking for tinned tomatoes,” said a miserable, old Brit as we walked up the aisle.

He was enraged about not having any tomatoes to go with his bacon the following morning. I was worried about not having any for 20 customers that evening. You can say what you want about using fresh tomatoes, but good quality tinned tomatoes make a better curry, especially if you compare them to the bland, white-centred offerings you get in Cambodia.

“It’s okay, it’s okay, there’s a tin in the kitchen,” said Josh. “Yep, yep, I’m pretty sure there’s a big tin in the kitchen somewhere.”

Then there was more to come. The supermarket had almost sold out of chicken. I didn’t fancy a trip back to that hot, sweaty covered market. All they had were chicken wings and breast. I remembered the boxer harping on about how breast meat is “tasteless mush”, and the wings were no good, and then I thought about that stupid drunken boast again.

We bought four big bags of frozen breasts for $16 and loaded up the tuk tuk, and called into a computer repair shop to send someone round to fix Tom’s screen. He’d phoned up to say he was going for a massage because he’d got a crick in his neck.

Saturday, April 09, 2011

Making Pork Pies In Costa Del Cambodia

It all started in a drunken conversation in a bar in Sihanoukville, when I met this retired financier from New Zealand, who part owns a restaurant on the corner, and he convinced me that the next big thing in Cambodia would be the pork pie. He said expats and tourists were crying out for them, but he couldn’t get them anywhere, and he’d had no luck making them.

“It’s the pastry! I can’t do the pastry,” Josh said, rocking from side to side with a cigarette in his mouth. “I can do everything else. I’ve got this delicious jelly I’ve made in the freezer. Wonderful!” He smacked his lips. “There’s a mincer in the kitchen, but the pastry, no. I can’t make the pastry...”

We sat around for a few hours discussing the merits of pork pies and I thought that was pretty much the end of the matter. Then I saw him in the same bar the next night and he started going on about pork pies again. I may have mentioned that I’d worked as a chef. I may even have boasted a bit about my pie-making skills. But at some point, I must have agreed to help him. Josh introduced me to his business partner Tom, an English gent who’d retired to the tropics after he got tired of show jumping.

“So you’re the pork pie expert?” he said, shaking my hand.

I knew I was in trouble.

“I have to tell you, I’m quite a lover of pork pies,” he added.

There was only one thing for it. I’d go back to my windswept, Wild West-style guesthouse, and do some pork pie research on the internet and then practise the pastry in their kitchen until I perfected it.

I told Josh we’d need some lard. Luckily, he said you couldn’t get it anywhere in Cambodia.

“Butter no problem. But lard? No. No lard. Forget it.”

I got some recipes and tips from some helpful food writers, bakers, and chefs on Twitter - thanks particularly to @dan_lepard and @meemalee and @AoaFoodie and those purveyors of very fine pork pies @Brays_Cottage - and spent the next night making notes as I read everything I could on pork pies.

Some hot water crust pastry recipes use butter and even eggs as well as lard, but they all use lard to some extent. The only one I could find that used butter and no lard was Rick Stein’s pork pie recipe. But I was dubious about that. I knew what he’d done to the Cornish pasty, and how he’d upset the locals by using the ‘wrong’ pastry.

I was convinced Tom – who clearly was the senior partner in the business (and what’s that? Was I beginning to detect the notes of a long-faint Leicestershire accent?) – would be a stickler for a traditional pie crust. Stein’s version also used anchovy essence in the filling, like Jane Grigson’s famous recipe, and I had doubts about what Tom would think of that, even if it was said to be a traditional Melton Mowbray ingredient.

I told them it was impossible without the lard.

Then Josh had an idea. He could scoop off the fat that collected when he boiled down “bags of beef” for his dogs. I wasn’t keen. I didn’t like the sound of bags of beef in Cambodia, especially meat set aside for dogs. There were far too many people disappearing in the town.

I pompously told him the pork pie was all about a celebration of the pig, and involved pork done three ways - baking the fat-laden pastry, boiling the pork stock, and steaming the peppery filling.

I waffled on about how the filling – flavoured with salt, pepper, thyme, sage, nutmeg, and perhaps mace or allspice but probably no anchovy - is a tribute to cured and uncured pork, and its fattiness and texture, from the knife-chopped pork shoulder, to the coarsely minced pork belly, to the finely minced back bacon.

The succulent jelly (or gravy, as it is called in some areas) – with carrot, onion, bay leaf, thyme, pepper, and sea salt – is a nod to the satisfying gloop that pork bones and trotters bring to a stock. And the pastry is a celebration of how pig fat can produce rich, crisp, and yet moist pie crusts. In essence, I politely told him that the fat he’d get from his dodgy beef would be no good, and that we needed pig fat.

“Oh, pig fat! You didn’t say it had to be from pigs! Pig fat, no problem. Lard, no. Pig fat yes! We can get shit loads of pig fat. Leave that to me.”

By now, he’d shown me round his kitchen (above) and I was quickly going off the idea. It was tiny. It made the Fat Duck’s kitchen look like a cricket pitch. And the heat! It was 37C in the shade, but with no extraction unit and the oven on making pizzas, it was like an inferno in there.

There was a fan in the corner, but if you turned it on, it blew out the gas rings. But worst of all, there were two Cambodian cooks sharing a surface space (the most crucial dimension in any kitchen if you want to retain at least some sanity) scarcely more than 3ft wide. There was no room to roll out the pizzas they were making, let alone pie pastry as well. And the Cambodian oven! It definitely wasn’t the sort of kitchen to launch a pork pie empire.

There were a few more colourful characters sitting round the bar the next night. They’d all heard about the pork pie business. I was surprised how fast gossip travels in expat circles – it’s even faster than kitchens.

One of them, a retired boxer from Manchester, said he was hooked on TV cookery programmes. Then the rest were at it. They were all experts, and started swapping recipe tips and talking about the food they missed from home, and what celebrity chefs they did and didn’t like.

“I loved Keith Floyd!” mused the barman, wrinkling his Keith Richards face.

“Yeah he’s fucking ace,” said the boxer. “He’s one of the top, top chefs. Haven’t seen much of him on telly like...what’s he doing now?”

“He’s dead,” I said, holding up a sang som in Floyd’s memory. “He passed away almost two years ago.”

“No! Get on! Really?” said the boxer. “That’s the thing, you miss out on all that living out here...”

Josh turned up. He still hadn’t been able to get his hands on pig fat, much to my relief. I talked about how we could buy a whole pig from the market and render it down, and I could see he was going off the idea. Then I asked if you could get mace here.

“Mace, no. Nutmeg, yes. We can get shit loads of nutmeg, as much nutmeg as you fucking want, but no mace. No way! Why, do we need it?”

I told him the best pork pies had mace in them, and that we might as well do it properly.

“Well, you’ll have to get on with it! I’m going home in nine days,” said an old Aussie. “Why don’t you make a curry tomorrow night instead?”

It was brilliant. Everyone was in agreement. Curry! What could be even more British than a good old pork pie than curry! The fear and nerves vanished. A curry! If there was one thing I could make it was curry. I’d eaten at the only Indian restaurant in our side of town, and it’d been awful. I could corner the curry market. Become Mr Curry of Sihanoukville (small acorns). I had no qualms about curry – even in Josh’s tiny kitchen. Then it turned out the boxer was an expert on curries too.

“I haven’t had a good curry for years,” he said. “I lived on the Curry Mile in the Wilmslow Road, the best fucking curries in the world, man...”

Then they were all discussing good curries they'd had, and the nerves started to test again.

“Hey chef, what meat makes the best curry?” the boxer shouted over at me.

“That’s it! Fucking lamb,” he replied, smacking the back of his hand. “It’s alright, he does know his stuff...”

Josh said lamb was hideously expensive in Cambodia. He’d bought a 4kg leg for this weekend’s Sunday roast for $54 (£35). I told him I could get a massaged leg from Fortnum & Mason for that, and he pointed out that Fortnum & Mason wasn't round the corner. He said the cheapest meats were pork and chicken, so I decided on my trusty old, tried-and-tested chicken Madras-style curry recipe.

“Yeah, but what about spices? What about all your cardamoms and that?” said the boxer.

“There’s an Indian restaurant round the corner!” I said slightly irritably.

“Yeah, but your fenugreeks and curry'll want them...I don’t know, you’re not in the right country for it...”

I became more drunk as the night wore on, and at some point told them I was going to make “the best bloody curry they’d ever had”. It was a bold statement. Very bold. They looked the sort that got Christmas cards from their local Indian take-away.

I walked back to my guesthouse in the small hours, hoping I’d remember to turn my alarm on and be round at the restaurant at 8.30am to be down the market for nine.

Friday, April 08, 2011

Cambodian Police Chief Brands Rescued Drunk Tourists 'Long Noses'

I know Cambodia is a country not particularly known for its political correctness, but a police quote in the Phnom Penh Post today caught my eye. It was about Cambodian fishermen rescuing 87 tourists whose boat capsized off Sihanoukville beach.

Tak Vantha, the provincial police chief, said drunken passengers started dancing and made the boat sink. He added: “It was caused by our long nose (foreigners), who were too happy.”

I guess if you want to know what Cambodians really call foreigners behind their back, ask a police chief.

Thursday, April 07, 2011

Is Panang Curry Really A Lithuanian Dish?

The mighty, lip-smacking chicken panang curry is one of the top 10 dishes in the world, for my money. If there is any doubt it might fail to get into the top nine, there is definitely none that it is Thailand’s greatest dish.

If you escape the arguments about whether it is really Lithuanian or whether it’s Thai, or whether it’s Angolan and Thailand just has its own version of it, and look at the meal itself, it really is a wonderful creation. It’s not that I’m not interested in its tangled history and the ingredients that strictly make it up, or any Illuminati-doctrinated engraved template for the dish that might one day be unearthed on a Malaysian island, I’ve just had too much Sang Som to get into all that now.

I ate a lot of different meals in the months I was in Thailand, but I kept coming back to the chicken panang in the same way I often order chicken vindaloo. There’s something comforting in the way certain curries are made that just gives you a feeling of well-being, and some sort of fleeting peace of mind.

Everyone has a comfort meal they keep coming back to – whether it’s shepherd’s pie with a splodge of ketchup, or a bowl of heartening lentil soup, or a plate of expensive English bangers with a pot of yellow mustard (and I mean canary yellow, not the beige-yellow French stuff, and definitely not the revolting brown). For the past two months for me, it’s been the mighty chicken panang. If I was back in the UK, it would be pork pies, but that’s another story I’ll cover in the next blog...

There is something about the nutty taste of the singed peanuts, the heat of the chilli, and most importantly for me, the thick rich gravy. A proper curry should be eaten with a fork, not a spoon. It doesn’t have the deep spiciness of Indian food – an assimilating cuisine that I still think boasts the best curries in the world - but what it loses in the absence of tomatoes and the heavy use of onion and dried spices, it more than makes up for in its fire and lip-smacking richness.

I know I haven’t been in Thailand for a while, and therefore have been having pangs for my scrumptious panangs, but I haven’t been going completely cold turkey as it were. I’ve been carrying around a jar of panang paste that I made in Bangkok, and frying it in restaurant kitchens.

With the dearth of refrigeration in Cambodia, as I think I might have made passing reference to in a few recent blog updates, I’ve been a bit worried about it going off, but it seems fine. I think it’s the amount of red chillies in it. I don’t think bacteria would last too long in my trusty tub. It’s like pocket dynamite.

Most restaurants in Cambodia seem to stay open all day, and many are usually deserted in the late afternoon, and it has given me a chance to chat with the chef, tip him a few dollars to destroy his kitchen, and try out my chicken panangs.

I realised the success of the dish would be down to the paste, and I’ve experimented a lot with that. I’ve watched a lot of Thai chefs make their versions, and I’ve tried them out, but I still think the best is from a Thai cooking school I went to years ago near Keith Floyd’s old restaurant on Patong Beach in Phuket.

The recipe below can be easily tweaked. For a traditional green curry paste, you follow the recipe but leave out the chilli oil, peanuts, cumin and coriander, replace the red chillies with green ones, and add a handful of Thai basil leaves and 2 tbsps of vegetable oil. For a traditional red curry paste, you just miss out the peanuts, cumin and coriander.

Panang Curry Paste

20 red bird eye chillies
1 Tb finely diced galangal
3 Tb finely sliced lemon grass
3 kaffir leaves, thinly sliced
2 Tb minced garlic
3 Tb minced shallot
3 ts salt
2 ts cumin seeds
2 ts coriander seeds
2 Tb chilli oil
3 Tb ground peanuts

Bearing in mind this pot will go a long way, it’s worth taking some time to make it – and doing it the traditional way. And even if you do skimp on the bashing time, or just blitz it all up in a food processor, it still tastes better than any of the shop-bought pastes I’ve had.

Pound the ingredients in a pestle and mortar for a good 20 minutes, yes 20, slowly adding the chilli oil as you go along, and waiting for each dribble to be absorbed before adding the next one. View it as a ritual, and an essential part of the sorcery. Thais say a good cook never rushes the pounding – they flavour it with their sweat. Store the paste in a jar in the fridge, or on top of the air conditioning unit if you’re staying in a dodgy Cambodian hotel like me.

Chicken Panang Curry

My recipe uses shrimp paste rather than the usual fish sauce. I think shrimp paste has a finer flavour and blends in better with the other ingredients. The fish sauce should be served in a small side bowl with a pinch of palm sugar, a good squeeze of lime or lemon, and finely chopped chillies floating about in it (nam pla prik). You can add a handful of chopped green beans and/or peas to the curry five minutes before the end.

2 Tb panang curry paste (above)
1 Tb vegetable oil
500g chicken thighs, boned, skinned and diced
2 tins of thick coconut milk
1 cup of chicken stock (or water)
1 Tb finely shredded lime leaves
3 or 4 red chillies, cut in half lengthways
1 Tb roughly chopped fresh coriander
1 Tb shrimp paste
1 Tb palm sugar
2 Tb roughly chopped peanuts
Salt and black pepper to taste

The best way to get thick coconut cream on tap, as it were, is to leave a few tins of coconut milk in your fridge (oh, how I miss having a fridge in the room - this guesthouse is minimalist even by Cambodian standards...) And then whenever you fancy a Thai curry or something, open a couple of tins and scoop out the fatty solids that have separated from the liquid. You need about one tin of cream for this recipe, and usually two tins of coconut milk will provide this, depending on the brand.

Fry the paste and oil over a medium heat in a wok for one minute. Add the chicken and fry for another two minutes until the meat is well coloured, then remove and set aside on a plate. Add half the coconut cream to the wok and cook down until it is almost evaporated, and the coconut oil has separated. Return the paste and chicken to the wok, turn up the heat, and fry for two minutes, stirring all the time.

Then add the rest of the coconut cream, ground peanuts, shrimp paste, sugar, lime leaves and chillies. Stir for another 15 to 20 minutes until the chicken is cooked but still moist. Add some water or stock if it becomes too dry. The sauce should be fairly thick, but should easily cover the meat, and there should be enough to soak up some rice. Add the chopped coriander at the end, and garnish the dish with a few splashes of coconut cream.

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

A Little Piece Of Italy In Cambodia

I’ve been staying at this guesthouse in Sihanoukville run by an Italian chef called Marco, who serves the best grub I’ve eaten in Cambodia.

I know it’s Italian food, and therefore has a distinct advantage over the rather characterless, ill-defined, easily overlooked local Khmer cuisine (in fact, it’s about as fair a pairing as AC Milan playing a Sunday league football team that stop for a fag and a can at half-time) but the tagliere misto he served me the other night was out of this world – even by Tuscan standards.

The slices of Parma ham and Mortadella, and cubes of, as I know now, Fontina and Provolone cheeses were fantastic, but the thick slices of fresh salami were incredible (below). He’d brought the salami back in a box from his home in Bergamo, Lombardy, where it had been freshly made by his neighbour.

I’d never had one that “green”. It tasted like a very ripe camembert and danced on the roof of my mouth, crackling with savoury bubbles on my tongue and gums, and then left an incredibly deep flavour of moist tartare meat.

As I tucked in, Marco chatted away about Khmer food, and how it was impossible to get flavours like that in Cambodia - a country where they have no idea what to do with pork, and just eat it fresh, missing out on all those magical cuts you get with the simple addition of salt, spices, air and time. I think he may have been on to something when he said it was down to Cambodia’s poverty-induced ‘eat for today, forget tomorrow’ mentality (that and decent cold-storage facilities anyway).

“That’s why they eat mangoes when they’re green! And pick the grapes before they’re ready! They eat food when they see food.”

I thought it best not to mention how some Italian families had eaten cats during food shortages in the Second World War.

After the meal, Marco showed me the pizza oven (above) he had finished building in his outside kitchen about three months ago. It was still in the testing stage. He was having trouble maintaining a strong heat flow.

“Anyone can throw a pizza in an oven, but the oven has to be right. The pizza must be cooked in three minutes.”

He said he gets the fire going with dried vines and bristles from an old brush, and then puts big logs on and lets it burn down for two hours. Then he sweeps the embers to the far side of the oven and places the pizzas straight on to the fire bricks near the opening.

Marco said the dome was made of fire bricks that he had laid without cement. When the special mix of imported cement, sand and lime – again an old, secret Italian recipe – is sculpted on the outside it holds the structure together. He showed me the sloping chimney mechanism and how it is designed so the wood smoke sits 6 inches above the pizza.

The next day he organised a boat trip for his guests. There were four others there – an old Italian man who looked like Picasso, a strange, little Italian hippy who kept giggling to himself all day, a Canadian who’d gone travelling after losing his job as a financial consultant, and a French woman backpacking her way around SE Asia.

The weather looked good for the boat ride, and the early sun shone on our faces as the skipper (below) navigated the pristine mangrove forests and unspoilt islands dotting the waters off Sihanoukville.

And then the Canadian sat next to me. He wouldn’t stop talking. I couldn’t believe my beautiful view and the quiet lapping of the mill pond sea were being ruined by someone blabbing on about earnings per share and P/E ratios.

Luckily, I got a break from the fiscal tedium when we stopped to fish. The trouble was getting your hook down before the hordes of small fish near the surface stripped it clean. But when I did get the prawn bait to the bottom, I got a bite each time, and pulled in a blue-toothed grouper and some kind of parrot fish, and two smaller specimens that I threw back.

The grouper had enormous bite. It felt like the line was caught on the bottom. But when I finally snagged it from its hole, it was easy to pull in, even with a fishing line wound round an old plastic water bottle. The skipper threw my fish into the bowels of his boat. That was obviously his supper sorted out, I thought.

We got to Koh Ta Kiev (above), a gorgeous island with a blissfully empty beach. It looked deserted apart from four fishermen holding a net in the water. At one point, a soldier appeared from the jungle and stood a few feet from our camp.

Our skipper had disappeared, and Marco said the soldier wanted his “parking fee” for the boat. Apparently we couldn’t just hand him the dollar because there was some sort of paper work required. He stood there for 30 minutes, and then questioned Marco about what we had with us.

“Just some food, some drink to make barbecue,” he said.

The soldier was back again an hour later. Marco lit the barbecue and made some bruschetta with diced tomato, olive oil and balsamic vinegar.

He cooked some mullet-like fish and served them with dressed salad and cold rice. And then the Canadian guy, who’d been going on about my fish in the hull for the past hour, saying he felt sorry for them, asked why I didn’t barbecue them as well.

I had a bad feeling about it for some reason. I don’t know what was wrong with me. But I just couldn’t bring myself to kill them. They were too pretty. Alright, it was the sharp blue teeth and vicious spines that put me off as well. But mostly it was that although I hadn’t let anyone else think otherwise, I couldn’t really swear what types of fish they were. And with their bright yellow spots and aquamarine iridescence, they looked too exotic, and too potentially poisonous.

After ten minutes, the Canadian was still going on about the fish despite my protestations that I was going to give them to the skipper. Then Marco said we should at least see what they tasted like, so I found myself back on the boat, trying to recatch the fish from under the stern with a plastic container that had been cut into a dustpan shape. It wasn’t easy.

The fish had landed in puddles of sea water in the hull and were very much still alive. I knew very well what getting pricked by a sea bass spine can do to you, so I was taking no chances.

Every time I put my hand near the grouper, if it was a grouper, he was at me with his vicious jaws. In the end I scooped them into a plastic bag and bashed them to death in the shadows of the hull. Or at least I thought I had. The grouper, and it probably was a grouper, just wouldn’t die. Normally you only have to hit a pollack or a cod once.

But this thing was like the Rasputin of the marine world. Every time I thought I had the measure of him, he was suddenly back lunging at me with his frightening blue teeth. I was about to gut him with a knife that was as blunt as a spoon, when he came alive again in a flurry of horrible-looking spikes.

I was getting quite embarrassed by my cack-handed killing skills and wasn’t being helped by the Canadian leering over me giving me advice. I tell you if he was on Mastermind, his specialised subject would be everything. He continued to poke his nose in as I scaled them in the sea.

“You don’t need to do that, you don’t need to scale them,” he kept saying.

What the hell did he know, even if he had picked me up on my lack of knowledge about, as I know now, Fontina and Provolone cheeses the night before? He was only saying it because Marco hadn’t bothered to scale his fish, and although they were delicious, I like the taste of crunchy, charred skin, not a mouthful of fish armour.

I sprinkled the two fish with salt, olive oil and black pepper and grilled them over hot coals. They were soon crispy black around the gills and spines, and then the Canadian reappeared.

“That’s definitely cooked,” he said, prodding the grouper, and it definitely was a grouper.

I was really beginning to regret telling him how I’d just finished writing a book about my failure to make it as a professional chef. He was continually trying to pick me up on holes in my cooking knowledge.

Then Picasso came and stood by the barbecue. “Do you know fugu?” he asked the Canadian. There was a discussion about puffer fish and the dangers of eating them, and the inference that only highly-trained chefs were trusted to serve them. He pointed at the exotic fish I was turning.

“Are you sure not same?” he chuckled.

It wasn’t just the sun that made me sore that day as I basted in the heat of that supposedly unspoilt island, it was the fact they hardly ate any of my fish (see above). Was it the blue bones? I’d experienced the same in Cornwall when I made what I thought was a magnificent meal of garfish. The customers had been put off by the green bones. But I wasn’t in Padstow, I was among Italians. Surely they bathed in carnality and gastronomic adventure?

It soon became a scene out of Lord of the Flies. Not, unfortunately, with me nicking the Canadian’s glasses to make fire and forming my own tribe on one half of the island, but in a feast of flies. We packed up, buried the charcoal embers in the sand and took the fish back for Marco’s menagerie of cats and kittens at the guesthouse.

They soon got stuck in, and for five minutes there was no mewing as they chomped away, concentrating on their food. One of the kittens was trying to gulp down a huge tail end of grouper. It was like a human being eating a 3ft-wide salami. I sat there listening to the crunch of bones and the licking of fur. I was glad someone liked my fish.

Sunday, April 03, 2011

Sihanoukville: Fishiest Of All Fishy Places?

I started having doubts about Cambodian food when I arrived in Sihanoukville. The deep-water port – said to be the country’s finest and certainly most famous beach resort – is known for its seafood and Khmer cooking, among other pleasures. But sadly I’ve found few examples of good local dishes.

It’s because Costa del Cambodia is so geared towards tourists, with every menu offering cottage pie, fish and chips, spag bol, schnitzel, and of course, burgers and pizza (some are of the ‘happy’ kind (below), where they lace the top with a sprinkling of the local oregano) that the chefs have either forgotten how to cook Khmer food, or they’ve just eaten too much of the pizza. Or quite possibly both.

In an apparent afterthought, tucked away in an almost ashamed manner in the tiny Khmer section at the back of each menu, you can sometimes get what are probably the country’s two most famous dishes – amok (fish cooked in a coconut curry sauce) and beef lok lak (a highly overrated dish for my money, where beef slices are stir-fried in a soy sauce, fish sauce, vinegar, cornflour-thickened gravy).

Often these Cambodian dishes are poor at best, and are nowhere near a match for the best offerings in the capital Phnom Penh. And that’s what I mean about Sihanoukville’s chefs being too fond of their oregano, because no-one seems to know how to make either of these dishes. There is no consistency.

For instance, anything seems to be chucked into a lok lak - or is it a lac lot? - from tomato ketchup to oyster sauce to sweet chilli sauce to tinned pilchards. And it rarely comes with the traditional lime, salt and cracked pepper dip, and the beef generally varies in tenderness from the thickness of boiled leather to the tenderness of biltong soaked in water for two-and-a-half seconds.

But what Snooky lacks in food, it certainly makes up for in its laid-back beach atmosphere and thumping nightlife. It’s like Amsterdam by the sea. I do know Amsterdam is by the sea. But I mean BY THE SEA, and just the best bits. Not some filthy port filled with icy winds and cappuccinos for 28 euros a cup, but a white-sand paradise with lovely clear seas, incredibly undeveloped tropical islands a short boat ride away, and blisteringly hot weather. And there’s no shmoked eelsh or an overpriced Oranjeboom in sight.

It’s a great place, and has been compared by many to Pattaya 20 years ago, so there’s still a long time to visit before it gets completely ruined and turned into Earth’s social dustbin.

Anyway I digress. I have had some good meals here, and rather than dwell on the bad ones, and the rather unchanging face of Cambodian cuisine, I thought I’d concentrate on the good ones. My best meals have been eating with the locals. It’s such a friendly place that within days I found myself loitering in kitchens chatting to cooks and chefs, and eating what they eat rather than the stuff they knock out for the tourists.

One evening I had a splendid meal of tiny barbecued river fish with pickled cabbage (above). It was fantastic. The fish had been cooked for so long over wood, they had that delicious magical combination of wood smoke and salt. They reminded me of smoked anchovies they were so strong in flavour.

But the cabbage was the star. It was splendidly sour and sweet and the perfect accompaniment for the salty fish and ubiquitous bowl of sticky rice. My new chums were worried about me eating too much cabbage, saying my stomach wasn’t used to it.

I don’t know what they were talking about, but they kept pointing at my paunch and saying “bad”. I was starting to get quite embarrassed, and even made a mental note to make a final decision (at least consultation stage) about going back on Gary Oldman’s vodka, fish and melon diet.

Then when they started pointing back at the cabbage juice, I realised they were probably talking about the vinegar. They clearly thought the only time vinegar is used in British cooking is when a few drops of malt are sprinkled over chips, but then that was no surprise given the dishes on the menu.

There was also a pork noodle soup that was divine (above). It was filled with beautifully soft slices of belly, deep-fried tofu, and banana flowers. The pork stock had been boiling all day, with the addition of chicken feet for extra gloop. It was rich and meaty like a good Vietnamese pho.

But it was the condiments (above) that really made it – shrimp paste, tamarind fruit in water, sliced red chillies and sugar. I’d really recommend the four next time you make a noodle soup. For me, the tamarind is a better sour addition than lime, and shrimp paste (or the deliciously pungent, creamy Roquefort taste of prahoc if you’re lucky enough to be able to get it) is a richer, less harsh flavouring than fish sauce.

And then there was the amok (below) – an absolute cracker of a meal when done right. Forget all the nonsense about steaming and serving it in banana leaves, the best cooks just seem to simmer it in a pot over a charcoal burner and serve it in bowls like a conventional curry. It’s a very moreish dish, and definitely grows on you. It’s the subtleties of the flavour combinations rather than the smack-in-the-face quality you’d get in a similar dish in neighbouring Thailand or Vietnam.

It’s also quite chameleon-like. It initially has a whiff of stew about it with its flavour-soaked carrots and potatoes, but then drifts towards a creamy korma, and then you get a hint of lime leaf, like a massaman curry, but less spicy. And then it changes again, and you get the taste of the egg yolk and coconut cream that have been mixed in at the end.

Its final notes are the warmth of cracked black pepper and the buttery taste of prawns and white fish, and it suddenly changes again – this time into a chowder.

For some reason, it made me think of Moby Dick when Ishmael and Queequeg feast at the Try Pots, a rough inn famed for its chowder “plentifully seasoned with pepper and salt”.

And leaning back a moment, it started bethinking me of the fishiest of all fishy places I'd found myself in. I don’t know if it was the intensity and freshness of the fish, the sea air, or the decidedly colourful characters that live in the hazy bars on Victory Hill. But I’ve never sat down at a table before and been the only person who hasn’t been to prison.