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.