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.