Thursday, September 29, 2011

Restaurants & Dealing With Awkward Diners

I've been running the kitchen at a friend's restaurant in Cambodia for the past couple of weeks. It's the wet season, so there aren't many customers about. But it's been good fun getting back into the kitchen, and teaching the Khmer cooks how to make Western dishes, and learning a few Khmer staff meals from them.

But although it started well, I’d forgotten just how irritatingly tight-fisted some customers can be, especially the sort of drinkers and loners that wash up on Cambodia’s beaches. I know it’s a third world country, but it’s astounding how many expats want something for nothing out here. And it’s not just thrill-seeking pensioners stretching out their money each month - the worst ones are the ones with money.

There’s one extremely wealthy Austrian man, for instance, who’s been known to buy a draft beer from one bar for $0.75 (less than 50p), and then wander over the road to drink it in another bar, where it’s $1 a glass. He eats in our restaurant some nights, but always brings his own bottle of wine and asks for a glass.

When the previous owner got fed up with it, and said he was going to start charging him a $1 corkage fee, the pensioner got quite upset. One night he complained that the lasagne was too big.

“Next time, I think I’ll just ask for half,” he said.

“Well, you’re still paying $5!” the owner snapped.

Message aimed at drunken foreigners in Phnom Penh...

But the worst of the lot is a railway contractor called Steve, who regularly boasts about how he’s getting $200,000 a year in a country where the average annual income is $650, and shells out just $5 a night for our delicious, slaved-over food – and picks fault with everything.

Every night he comes in with a new request. It started off with cauliflower. He said he wanted a few florets with his next meal, and then it was pumpkin, and then he started dictating orders into the kitchen.

“Can you prick the sausages before you cook them,” he asked.

“I can do more than that,” I muttered.

The next night, Steve ordered the spaghetti bolognese I’d put on the specials board and I nearly exploded. I counted to ten in my head and bit my lip, but still the bile was rising.

I knew how to make bolognese. I’d spent 15 months of my life I’ll never get back making bucket load after bucket load of the stuff and wheelbarrows of lasagne in a kitchen supplying very demanding Italian clients who would scream down the phone if there was ever the slightest deviation.

The recipe – which had apparently been handed down by the chef-owner’s grandmother and mentor - was perfect. There’d even been an oil painting of the old crone glaring down at us as we chopped the precise amounts of garlic, pancetta and plum tomatoes to make “Grandma’s Bolognese”.

I hadn’t skimped on anything, and it took me three trawls of the local markets just to find celery. There was so much red wine in it, we were barely making a dollar on the dish.

I’d even cured the pancetta myself with salt, sugar, and the local delicious Kampot pepper (the trouble is I can’t get any saltpetre here, which although isn't essential, helps keep the bacon pink, and stops it going grey when cooked. The closest I got was a packet of “powder for fermenting pork” from Thailand, which contained sodium nitrite, and worked fairly well to keep it pink).

But it was all lost on Steve. And it didn’t help knowing that he’d earned far more that day than I would in a whole month cooking bespoke meals for him.

“I don’t like it when the meat is runny, you know what I mean?” he said. “Can you cut up the spaghetti into small pieces and then mix it with the sauce – you know how Heinz does it?”

I fought the urge to ask whether he wanted me to fetch him a little bib to eat it in. The next day he ordered a pizza and threw the Khmer staff into chaos when he asked for “the crust to be turned inwards to keep the cheese in”. Then he asked if we could make him rissoles the next night.

“But they’ve got to have onion in. Chopped up small and everything, know what I mean?”

Later, I was showing the Khmer staff how to cook a half-pound steak burger, made from fillet steak I’d aged in the fridge for 10 days and then minced. Khmer beef is so cheap - you can buy a whole fillet for $9 a kilo down at the market. The ‘normal’ stuff is $8 a kilo. They don't really understand cuts here, as I’d learn. Meat is just meat, although head and offal are cheaper.

When I went down to the market with one of the Khmer cooks to buy three kilos of tenderloin, and they charged us $27 instead of the normal $24 for chuck and shin, she began screaming at the butcher because she thought he was trying to rip us off.

I’d made a sauce from mayonnaise, mustard, and a little ketchup, chilli sauce and finely chopped gherkins, and had given the Khmer girl down the road some sesame seeds to bake me some buns, and it was all going well until Steve stuck his head into the kitchen.

“Yeah, that’s it. Nice and crispy on the outside like that,” he said.

He honestly thought we were practising his rissoles. He’d been in Asia for far too long.

“This is a burger,” I told him, but he wasn’t listening.

“Oh good, you’ve got the onions in already...can’t make rissoles without them.”

THEN THERE was the Sunday roast. I did roast chicken with all the trimmings - stuffing, cauliflower cheese, bread sauce, steamed veg, pigs in blankets (using my own bacon), roast spuds etc. I’d made stock from the off-cuts I’d got from trimming the eye fillets, and the gravy was pretty good. It must have been, because the only complaint I got was from a miserable old American hippy, who moaned that it wasn’t as thick as the lumpy, gravy granules version he had with his pies.

He was the one who’d complained about my Cornish pasties the day before. The Khmer cooks had been putting gravy in the pasties until I stopped them. I got them to make them the proper way, using raw beef, onion, potato and a type of sweet potato you get out here that tastes a bit like swede, but doesn’t stay firm like swede when cooked.

The old hippy ordered a pasty for lunch every day, as I was to find out, and was pretty much the only person who ate them. When the next one arrived at his room, he cut it open, complained it was too dry because there was no gravy inside, and threw it back at the delivery boy. He didn’t even try it.

THE ROAST must have gone down quite well though because we were the busiest restaurant on the street, and we even got a few of the more sniffy French customers eager to find fault with a 'rosbif’ cook. But there was still the usual list of bizarre requests.

A party of English publicans phoned up to say they wouldn't come over unless there was Yorkshire pudding, which I had to hurriedly knock out because they are relatively big spenders, and some idiot asked whether we had any mint sauce for the chicken.

The plates came back empty. But there was little praise or appreciation. No understanding of all the hard work and expense that had gone into their meals. Just a cold, clinical evaluation of whether it was worth $5, and what else that could have bought in Cambodia.

The only feedback I got was from one regular, who said the meal was so big he could barely finish it, and suggested we give people the option of buying a smaller one for $4 next time.

After another week, I’d had enough and walked out. I realised that the only way to cook out here was to run my own place, then I could serve the customers I liked, and be able to tell Steve exactly what he could do with the pumpkin he’d requested for next week’s roast.

So instead of spending the next Sunday in a cramped sauna, I spent the day lazing on the beach at a restaurant shack, talking to the owner. I was doing a bit of homework because the hut next to him was for rent for $350 a month – and I was toying with the ridiculous notion of turning it into a seafood shack, building up the business, and then selling it on.

Alright, I knew I wasn’t going to make any money running a restaurant in Cambodia, but that wasn’t the point. I gazed out to sea and the peaceful, soon-to-be-developed, mist-shrouded islands. Where else in the world could you own a lease on a restaurant on a white sand beach just 20 yards from the sea?

Later that night, I was sat at a bar when Steve walked past.

“They missed you in the kitchen with the Sunday roast today,” he said.

I put my head in my hands briefly, and waited for it.

“Why, what was wrong with it this time?” I said.

“Well...there wasn’t one...they said they couldn’t remember how to cook roast potatoes.”

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Venison Shank With Dumplings & Venison Empanadas

Guest post by Dom Bailey

There are farm shops and there are farm shops. My closest sells ice cream. Nice ice cream, from the milk of the cows that fertilise the field at the end of my road that serves as a short cut to the pub.

Now ice cream and chutneys might have a certain appeal on the odd lazy Sunday afternoon, but they don't help with the general business of food shopping and feeding the family.

The second closest never seems to be open, and is less like a farm shop and more like a big shed near a motorway junction. They do have goats though. But there is a third and favourite farm shop tucked away near a pub and a children's petting farm.

There are cows in sheds, rickety collies, muddy ducks - everything you'd expect down to the Polish workers. There is fresh chicken, duck, geese and, sometimes, quails’ eggs (10p each!) and the meat of their older brothers and sisters in the fridges. And a whole lot more.

I think I've mentioned the special "never know what you're going to get" element in previous entries. And that is why it is my favourite. You can stock up on the Saturday bacon, the Sunday roast, the kids' sausages and sandwich ham, then grab half a pig's face or veal liver for your culinary experiments.

If you're game, they might just have it. If you actually are game, then you're probably wrapped in cellophane in the fridge. This week's extras were a green-tinged venison shank for £2.96, and some venison mince for £3.60. So what to make?

THE DAYS are getting shorter, the nights are drawing in, and the wood burner is starting to wink at me as jeans replace shorts. The kale and root vegetables are doing nicely in the garden. Damsons are picked, elderflower champagne has been drunk, and the elderberry cordial needs drinking as I keep getting a little disk of mould on the top (any suggestions?)

So it's comfort food time - and shanks fit the bill nicely. As they are a slow cooker, and there's oven space and heat going spare, why not try a little reminder of the summer with a few pasties as well? Well, not actually recreate the noble Cornish pasty, but completely bastardise it for your own amusement.

I'd never make it on to Masterchef. "So what are you cooking for us today?" "Well, that depends what you've got in the cupboards...Oh..." Slow ominous music, a raised eyebrow, the glint of pate, tears etc etc.

I'm more of a Ready Steady Cook man. Tip the bag out, what we gonna cook? Recipes are great and I love cookbooks, but unless it’s a really special occasion, I will go shopping, see what takes my fancy, and then if necessary look up how someone has cooked it and realise I have variants instead of ingredients.

I’ve cooked venison many ways before, but I love the fall-apart unctuousness of a rich venison stew. You can use red wine, port, stout, the imported strong Guinness is a good one. I wanted an autumnal fruitiness too, so here goes...

Marinade the shank:

Half a chopped onion, some garlic, a few juniper berries, a bay leaf, thyme, a couple of cardamom pods, a splash of balsamic vinegar, and a good few glugs of elderberry cordial. But blackcurrant cordial could work. Or plum juice. Or a spoon of quince, medlar, or crab apple jelly. The sweetness and fruitiness is to balance the Guinness that's added later.

Put the meat in a sealable bag with the marinade and into the fridge. If your shank is farm shop bought, there may be shards of bone which pierce the bag, causing the marinade to drip into the hummus and onto a poorly covered blackberry and apple pie on the shelf below. So check first.

After the meat's had a soak, put some chopped celery, onion and carrots with a knob of butter in a casserole dish to soften. Take the shank out, dry it, and brown it in a separate pan before adding it to the veg. Pour the marinade into the casserole then add three-quarters of a can of Guinness. Use the rest to deglaze the browning pan and tip the juices into the dish.

A few mushrooms and a handful of stoned damsons then go in. Put in the oven to slow cook. Check occasionally - tasting the sauce and sweetening with cordial if it is too bitter for your liking. And that's it for a few hours.

So on to the pasties. First brown the mince, surely? Half an onion and some cubed butternut squash. And while that's browning, find a pastry recipe.

It's got to be short crust. There are abominations being sold not far from the Atlantic Highway calling themselves pasties but they are made with puff pastry. I say again, puff pastry. And that's just wrong.

Chuck that down to a hungry miner, and it will have flaked into a tickertape parade down the mineshaft before you can say Oggy Oggy Oggy. I've been caught out a few times. I'm not a pasty fundamentalist. I do quite like the non-traditional fillings - steak and stilton, bacon and leek (Ok, they're the traditional, non-traditional ones) but if you stray further than that - like smoked haddock - then things start to get flaky.

I did have the nerve to mention it once in Padstow - where I had fallen foul of pasty crimes in the past - and got an icy: "We only serve short crust here."

So, short crust pastry. Flour, equal amounts of butter and lard (I used veg fat - no lard to be found in a one-mile radius despite four corner shops), bicarb, salt, egg yolk. Then in cling film and in the fridge.

The internet can be a cruel mistress (don't for heaven's sake Google 'cruel mistress'), I just mean that scrolling around I'm hit with pasty recipe after pasty recipe...and what's the difference between a pasty and an empanada..?

Good question now you mention it internet. Not so good if you're aiming for a pasty and have the meat browning on the hob. Apparently you never cook the ingredients before you put it in the pastry. If you do, it gets all Latin and becomes an empanada.

So these are venison and black kale empanadas...

While the mince is cooking through, having added a spoon of mango chutney, I put some butter and a splash of water and an anchovy in a pan, let things dissolve, and then add the black kale for a few minutes and turn off the heat.

Roll the pastry out to about 5mm thick - or however thick you like your crust. Use an upturned bowl to cut a circle then place some of the mince and kale in the middle.

Pasty making, sorry empanada making, is as individual as it is global. You can fold over and crimp. Pull the sides up to the middle and crimp. Do little folds or plaits down the side, or just replace the pastry with pizza dough and get a calzone. But however you do it, brush egg yolk wash round the edge to help seal the pastry, then stick the two sides together. Then on to a greased and floured baking tray and egg wash for a nice shine.

Then into the over for about half an hour - less than it would have been for a pasty as the middle is already cooked. About half an hour before you want to get the shank out of the oven, you can whip up a few dumplings.

Dumplings sometimes provoke the same reaction as the mention of semolina - memories of suetty, semi-cooked doughy balls from the school canteen lurking amidst a fatty mutton stew.

A nicer version – by His Essexness, Sir Jamie of Oliver – is 250g self-raising flour, 125g butter, seasoning and water. Mix the flour and butter to crumbs (I added some mixed spice, salt and pepper, and a bit of rosemary) before adding a splash of water to bring it to a dough.

Roll into balls, then drop them into the casserole - they will soak up some of the liquid but not be like anything you remember from school. Back in the oven for about half an hour.

The dumplings have puffed up a bit, the venison is dark, rich and falling off the bone, and in a silky, fruity sauce that says autumn.

You may as well taste your other wares while you’re at it - and the pasties, sorry empanadas, have a nice crispy crust and meaty middle with a "Oooh, what's this?" extra of black kale, or cavolo nero as it's called in Padstein. Might go nicely with some chutney and ice cream. And that would mean a stroll to the pub...

:: Dom Bailey is a writer and singer-songwriter. His songs are here at

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Cambodia: An Explosion Of Sour Flavours

For me, the defining characteristic of Khmer cuisine has to be its sourness. Cambodian food embraces tart flavours like no other country I’ve seen before.

Diners screw up their mouths and smart their faces in a gesture that in most countries would be seen as a look of utter disgust, a confirmation that the dish was truly awful, and a look so solidly damning in appraisal it would no doubt test the breaking point of even the thickest-skinned chef.

But in Cambodia, it’s a sign of sheer gastronomic pleasure. As lip-puckeringly unripe as possible, as citrus as you can make it, as zesty as it comes. The tartness is as much treasured as the buttery softness of freshly-boiled lobster or the earthy richness of truffle in more glamorous cuisines.

There’s no call for cream sauces. And certainly no meatball in veloute sauce soups, followed by a kilo of specially flown-in caviar sandwiched between sour cream-strewn, warm potatoes, as one extremely rich Belgian man likes to make for his dinner parties out here.

It really is a land of pickles and green fruit. Lemon, lime, tamarind, vinegar, unripe fruit, mysteriously bitter herbs and leaves foraged from the hedgerows and rice paddies (it’s hard to find a direct English translation for some of them), and the unmistakable, blue cheese acidity of prahok fermented fish paste are used to bring sour notes to food.

Another is preserved lemon (top pic), integral to Cambodia’s famous ngam nguv soup, but rarely found anywhere else in Asia. The lemons are dried in the sun, and then soaked in brine, and a few quarters poached in a soup or stew give a citrus tang immediately evocative of Moroccan cooking.

The best ngam nguv I’ve tasted so far on my travels was in a Khmer-owned ‘happy pizza’ joint that pepped up the dish with ‘half a finger’ (as the sous chef demonstrated) of the local oregano. Or at least they used to until the payments to the police got too big.

He made it for me with chicken, but said Cambodia’s “number one” version is made with duck, and is traditionally served at weddings. A whole duck is chopped up with a machete, and the bones are sucked from the lemony broth to toast the happy couple, he explained.

It’s about as truly Cambodian a dish as you can get (pic above) – bearing all the fragrant, fresh, fast, fat-free hallmarks of Khmer cooking. The smallest globules of oil glint away on the surface. There’s none in the broth itself: it’s from the browned, nutty, fried garlic – a garnish used widely in Cambodian cooking, especially in rice soups.

But it’s not just the absence of fat that makes it distinctly Khmer. Nor is it just the ubiquitous culantro - called chee bon la, or chee barang (“foreign coriander” in Khmer) – a strong, coriander-tasting herb as important to Cambodian food as it is to the many sofrito recipes of the Caribbean, from where it originates.

It’s the way it glorifies zesty flavours – first, fragrant lime leaves infusing the ‘stock’ in the same way that European cooks would use a bay leaf, and then the all-powerful addition of salty, bitter lemon.

But just when it gets too much, there is a different zesty hit from the lime leaves, and a tickle of warmth from the chilli, and then a strong blast of coriander from the culantro, and then finally a deep, wonderfully nutty taste of fried garlic. It’s easy to see why it is considered the king of Cambodia’s many sour soups.

THE OLD woman poured a small bottle of drinking water into a wok, lit the hob, and then threw in three kaffir lime leaves and waited for the liquid to boil. Her sous chef diced half a small chicken breast, and then chopped up a preserved lemon, pips and all.

Another man, who was no doubt the owner because he asked me twice if I was going to pay for the meal, bashed three garlic cloves with the end of a rolling pin to remove the skins, and then chopped them.

The old woman, who was clearly in charge and wouldn’t let anyone near the stove, added the chicken breast to the bubbling water.

She then added the lemon, a few diagonal slivers of red chilli, and a sprinkle of salt, sugar, and half a tablespoon or so of fish sauce.

She let the soup bubble away for a few minutes, topping up with a splash of water from time to time, as she made the garnish.

She heated a smear of oil in a frying pan, and added the chopped garlic.

She fried it until it was brown, but not burnt, and then tilted the pan to let the oil drain off.

She let the soup boil for another minute.

It was then ladled into a bowl, the top garnished with nutty garlic and chopped culantro. A soup made from scratch in five minutes – the perfect healthy fast food.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Cambodian Cooking: 'Frying' With Water

The other great meal at that Khmer greasy-spoon I told you about a couple of blogs back was chicken, pork or beef fried with lemon grass, holy basil and chilli.

The dish is delicious – and is easily one of my favourite Cambodian recipes. It shares similarities with other dishes in SE Asia, but still has a taste of its own – and sums up the ‘fast, fresh and fragrant’ hallmarks of Cambodian cooking.

It also uses Cambodia’s beloved cooking technique of 'frying' with water. Because little fat is used in cooking over here, small splashes of water are added to give a fast bubble to meat, fish or vegetables ‘frying’ in a wok. It means you don’t get the same singed, caramelised flavour to the meat, but it does make it tender.

Vegetables cooked this way are far better. In every restaurant kitchen garnish section I’ve worked on, the spinach was always fried in clarified butter in a very hot pan, almost as though that was the only way to cook it, and anything else was “wrong”.

But fry it the same way, substituting the fat for the same amount of water, and it’s fresher-tasting and far less greasy. Purple sprouting broccoli cooked that way is especially good.

(Pic: Beef with lemon grass, holy basil and chilli)

The clove-like taste of the holy basil works well with the three different chilli flavourings, and gives it a deep, spicy flavour, which is lightened by the zesty, perfumed taste of lemon grass – the signature ingredient of Khmer cuisine.

It also helps destroy the popular myth that Cambodian food isn't spicy. I’ve tasted the dish in many restaurants, and it’s always eye-watering - just like the green mango, papaya, and Khmer beef salads they serve, particularly in the Battambang region.

While it’s true that with the vast majority of Cambodian recipes, little or no chilli is used in the cooking, and when heat is needed, cooks are more likely to turn to fresh, green Kampot peppercorns or ground black or red pepper.

It doesn't mean Cambodians don't like their chilli. They just serve it separately – usually sliced chilli in a saucer, pickled bird eye chillies in a jar, or a fiery relish of sliced red chillies and garlic, so people can put as much on as they want.

That dish – simply called “hot of pork” in that wonderful cafe in Cambodia’s culinary capital of Siem Reap – was a meal aimed squarely at chilli aficionados, and is one of the best I’ve tasted so far on my travels through Cambodia.

It needs no accompaniment, other than a soup, a bowl of sticky rice, and a kettle of cold tea poured into a mug of ice and drunk through a straw.

THE COOK finely sliced some pork fillet, and then bruised and finely chopped a small lemon grass stalk. He heated a wok and poured in half a tablespoon of oil, smeared it round the sides, and then spooned the rest of the oil back into an old paint tin.

He fried the lemon grass for 20 seconds, and then tossed in the pork, stirred it for a second, and then added a splash of water, and stirred again.

He “fried” the pork and lemon grass in water for a minute, always topping up with another splash as the liquid evaporated. He then added half a tablespoon of fish sauce, the same of soya sauce, and a sprinkle of sugar and salt. He was about to reach for the MSG, but this time I was ahead of him, and said I’d have it without.

He cooked the meat for another minute, topping up with a little more water all the time, but not too much to lose the fast bubble. He then threw in two handfuls of holy basil leaves and a finely chopped red bird eye chilli. The leaves quickly began to wilt, and for a moment the kitchen was filled with the acrid fumes of singed chilli seeds.

But he didn’t stop there – he added a splash of bottled chilli sauce (the fairly hot, orange-coloured, chilli and garlic variety you get on restaurant tables in Asia), and a teaspoon of fried chilli paste (finely chopped large, dried, red chillies fried in oil for a few minutes until slightly singed and then stored in a jar).

By now, the holy basil had wilted to a tenth of its size, and had a furry, spinach-like texture. The cook added a little more water, to get the right gloop to the sauce, and then served it up.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Jenson Button Accused Of 'Copying' Fast Food Chain Leon

(pic: Harrogate News)

Healthy fast food chain Leon is seeking legal advice after accusing Jenson Button’s new restaurant of copying its menu and branding.

Leon co-founder and chef Henry Dimbleby claims Victus in Harrogate, North Yorkshire, is a “copycat” of his 11-strong restaurant chain in London, and has duplicated “lots” of his dishes.

He posted a picture of the F1 driver’s offending menu on Twitter, adding: “They have ripped off all of our design too! Schumbags (sic).”

He then wrote a message to Button saying: “Imitation and flattery and all that. But it’s a bit barmy, no...”

In another tweet, he said he had just spoken to Robot Food, the brand agency that had designed Button’s menu, who denied copying Leon and apparently claimed that "all coffee shops have menus like that”.

He then began discussing the possibility of legal action, and said he might consult an IP lawyer to look into the case.

A blogger, introduced by a friend as a ‘design infringement specialist’, told Dimbleby: “In my opinion there are similarities, use of particular images, the general feel of the site. Victus is more basic.

“You could also see if there are menu similarities to back up the inspiration taken from your design.”

“They have copied lots of our menu too,” replied Dimbleby.

The cook then began trying to drum up press coverage, telling one magazine: “I’ll give you a juicy quote if you run a story on it. Outrageous, no?”

He later added: "Eeek! Victus have told me their lawyers will be in touch. But I'm making grouse stock tonight."

Button opened Victus last week. The restaurant serves "grazing dishes" like falafel, crayfish noodle salad, meatball sliders, and the spicy pulled pork chilli "hot meal box".

The McLaren driver apparently got the inspiration for the menu from his interest in foreign cuisines formed while globetrotting on the F1 circuit. He said it combines "all my favourite elements of dining out with friends - tasty food, great atmosphere and friendly staff" and hopes to roll it out into a national chain.

Neither Victus or Robot Food were immediately available for comment.

What do you think? Any similarities in the two menus below....?

Leon's lunch menu - served from 11am...

Victus' lunch menu - served from 11am...

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Rockpools & Epiphany Moments In Cooking

Guest post by Dom Bailey

It's a proud moment. The biggest prawn-like creatures we've caught rockpooling, and my five year old son wants to eat them. We spent hours rockpooling. Hours. There probably isn't a wriggling, skulking, pinching piece of marine life along the north coast of Cornwall that hasn't been traumatised by the poke, net, and bucket experience that results from us visiting a beach.

But so far, we we’re only doing it for fun - for the 'look what we found' or the 'do captive crabs fight?' factor or the 'I wonder what a marine biologist would earn in 20 years time - and how long do they have to study for?' (the adult role in rockpooling is generally life guard, crab grabber and stone turner, so there is a lot of time for reflection).

But eating our catch had never been part of the equation. Even the Spanish wouldn't go for the tiddlers we scooped out.

Until the day of the prawn.

There are lots of prawny, shrimp-like things in the rockpools, but the biggest we'd seen had been not much more than two or three centimetres long - too small to bother cooking and peeling.

Prawns always seemed to be more exotic - "responsibly farmed in Thailand" or suchlike, not "caught near St Merryn with a £1 net from an RNLI charity shop".

But at the end of a long day of exploring and stone turning we sat on a rock half-heartedly dipping the net into "definitely the last pool or mummy is going to be really annoyed" as the tide started to ease its way back in.

I saw something of reasonable size, for a rockpool, dart under the overhanging seaweed. Being dad allows for commandeering of the net in the event of a potentially large catch. That's just how it is, it's the rules, ask your mother.

Anyway, a deft dip, scoop and twist motion (there is a technique...) and I see two things flapping in the net. Flapping. Not flitting or twitching as the little shrimplets had earlier in the day. Flapping. Two definitely-not-shrimp-sized prawns, a thumb in length.

I'm not sure who was more excited. "Wow let me have a go!"

‘Not likely’ thoughts give way to "of course, here you go." Grit teeth, scan seabed.

Frustration gets me the net back in no time, and I find that scooping along the gravelly bottom returns a few more finger-size prawns.

The incoming tide seems to have brought a bigger bounty. We'd found the rockpool equivalent of a kids’ playground after dark where teenagers hang out trying to look cool on roundabouts and bouncy tortoises.

Then came the "can we eat them?"

Every parent wants the best for their child. The best toys, the best schools, the best holidays. Inspiring the best memories is no mean feat.

And every foodie knows that chefs and food lovers everywhere have their own tale of a gastronomic epiphany. For Anthony Bourdain, it is raw oysters from the gnarled hands of a French fisherman on a family holiday. For a food blogger close to our hearts there is the story of his five year old self finding a scallop shell on a beach in France and asking a local family to cook it for him.

I'm not sure I've got one. There's the reassuring smell of a Sunday roast cooking as the pressure cooker whistles to Pick Of The Pops on the radio. Or the spag bol hurled up the wall by a frustrated parent after my sister and I wouldn't stop bickering. Or just my gran's lemon curd tarts.

What if this was my son's food moment? Having recognised the life changing potential, I was almost duty bound to forego the usual, 'let's put them back now' before tipping sun-boiled marine life back into pools where they would probably prefer to be snapped up by the last crab in Cornwall rather than scooped up by the covetous family of rockpoolers lingering close behind.

"Are you sure you will eat them? Otherwise, it's cruel. Yes?"
Good boy.

Potential recipes instantly come to mind. Fried with garlic. Was that sea beet back near the car park? Clarified butter a la Morecombe potted shrimp variety.

But you can get carried away, apparently, and the water was getting a little too deep between us and the shore.

So, seven in the bucket, and we headed back in.

There is a tendency for fishermen, even rockpoolers, to exaggerate. But the contents of our bucket did attract some admiring and envious comments - from all ages - as we were packing up for home.

I was most reassured by the "bit of garlic and they'll be lovely" - even before I'd revealed our murderous intent.

Parents among them were no doubt thinking "I've put in the same hours and had no more than a morsel".

Homeward bound and I wasn’t too keen on the idea of a bucket of salty water sloshing around the back seat along Cornish country lanes. Or the prospect of finding an escapee in a few months time rotting down the side of the child car seat.

Top tip: prawns slot nicely into a small bottle of Buxton’s water (fresh water replaced by the bucket sea water.)

Back at the caravan it's shower and PJs time before tea (not for me, obviously).

I've given the prawns a quick anaesthetic dip in the fridge freezer compartment just in case - this is a first for both of us remember. I’ve cooked live lobster and river-poached crayfish before but still wasn’t sure whether these English prawn shrimp-like things were going to squeal, jump or just explode and spoil the moment.

Keeping it simple, bit of butter in a pan then in with the dozed prawns.

"What colour do you think they'll go?"

"Pink. Are they dead?" No-one likes a smart ass son.

For the faint-hearted there was a little wriggle by one, but that soon stopped and they settled down to the business of turning a tasty crispy pink colour. Flip over for a few more seconds and, they're done.

I popped one straight into my mouth (distraction is a key parental skill, as is being liberal with the truth - "yes, we only caught six"), crunch and chew, and it was the freshest prawn I'd tasted. A meaty, crunchy morsel, with a splash of the sea bursting out.

Being a responsible parent, I peeled my son's first home caught and cooked prawn and handed it to him.

"What do you think?"

I stood back.

My notebook was in reach, just waiting for the flash of inspiration - the ‘out of the mouths of babes’ universal truth that would lodge itself in our family folklore, that he'd Google in years to come, and chuckle as he recalled how that prawn had set him on course for three Michelin stars.

He chewed and swallowed.


"It's like a prawn. Can we eat the eyes?"

It's a start I suppose...

:: Dom Bailey is a writer and musician. His songs are here on

Friday, September 09, 2011

Cambodian Cooking: The Khmer Love Affair With MSG

I’d been told about the dingy, sticky-tabled cafe by an ex-pat New Zealand chef called Dave, who said it was one of only three restaurants in Siem Reap that excelled in traditional, home-made Khmer food.

I found the place, and its sister restaurant a few yards away, opposite KFC. In the same 100 yards of road, you have the two extremes of Cambodian cooking.

A Khmer tasting menu at the luxurious Hotel De La Paix, boasting dishes like pan-fried broma fish with feroniella sauce, stir-fried frog with fresh ginger, and coconut heart and prawn salad. And the Khmer greasy-spoon offering equally delicious meals like ‘fried dry fish with watermelon’, ‘English beef steak’ (below - which turned out to be loc lac with a fried egg perched on top), and the brilliantly-named ‘farmer sour soup’ for a fraction of the price.

“It’s a bloody great place,” said Dave. “It’s just a shame they use MSG – but then try finding a place that doesn’t use the stuff here. The Khmers swear they don’t use it, but they all do! Go into any home, and you’ll find a bag of the stuff next to the cooker, I bet you. They even put the bloody stuff on the fruit!”

He had a thing about MSG. Like most expats he rarely listened, and was an expert on everything. He could talk at length about how the Khmers had taken to flavouring enhancers like bears to a honey vault after the country opened up to the outside world after the civil war, and how the stuff absolutely ruined food, and was the complete antithesis to a cuisine based on fresh, seasonal ingredients.

He was right though, even if he did take hours to say it. Monosodium glutamate somehow rewires your taste-buds so that everything tastes the same. The fresh vegetables and meat and carefully selected herbs so typical of traditional Cambodian food get lost in the mix, and instead you get an unwavering band of monotonous taste. When you try the same traditional dishes without MSG, they’re so much better and more defined.

Fried snakes flavoured with MSG at a bus stop near Phnom Penh...

Dave liked to tell me how he once worked at a Cambodian cooking school, where the Khmer cooks would drum it into the tourists how important it was to put MSG in everything.

“What the hell are you telling them to use that bloody stuff for?” Dave asked on his first morning.

They just pointed at the packet.

“It Unilever – it good one,” they said.

He said Khmers held all imported foods with the same reverence – particularly the dreadful bottled sauces fast making traditional Cambodian cooking a lost art.

Dave’s evidence seemed to be largely based on the fact that he once gave his housekeeper money to buy mushrooms from the market, but he gave her far too much, so instead of buying fresh ones, she spent the money on a small tin of mushrooms in brine.

“Why have you bought those bloody things?” Dave asked her.

She pointed at the label. “They from China,” she said proudly.

I TRIED most of the dishes at the cafe over a few days, and they were all good, apart from the smoked fish and green mango salad. But the two that really stood out were ‘Siem Reap sour soup’ (above), and pork fried with hot basil, lemon grass and chillies (simply called ‘hot of pork’ on the menu).

The soup – one of about 15 they did - really was an explosion of tart flavours. It’s usually served with one salty, one sweet, and one spicy shared dish to balance the meal, helped down with the always-present bowl of sticky rice and pickles.

The sourness of the tamarind and green tomatoes, together with the mild spices and careful use of fish sauce, makes it uniquely Cambodian in character. The only spice comes from the rather docile kroeung curry paste, used as the base for Khmer curries. The kroeung – heavy in lemon grass, galangal, garlic and turmeric, but not chilli – helps thicken the soup, and leaves a pleasing, golden rim on the bowl.

Like many Cambodian dishes, the soup is incongruously delicate and fresh, and yet ferociously sour at the same time. Most Cambodian food is incredibly quick to make, and most restaurant dishes are made from scratch – even soups. Because of the speed of the cooking, there is no lost amalgamation of flavours. Each ingredient stands out, and adds its own character to the dish.

The addition of holy basil leaves – called hot basil in Cambodia – a minute or so before the soup is finished gives it a refreshing, minty taste that hums of cloves. It is a clever addition because it keeps refreshing your palate so that you keep tasting the sourness of the soup again.

Like the Thais, the Cambodians love hot basil – a sacred herb used to treat an endless list of illnesses from malaria to manic depression. It is different to sweet or Thai basil because it doesn’t have the same aniseed taste, and its spicy, clove-like flavour intensifies with cooking.

The Cambodians also cook like the Thais when it comes to soups, prepping everything in bowls first, and controlling the cooking with regular splashes of water to kill the heat – but not too much to lose the fast bubble.

It’s amazing how little oil Khmers use compared to other countries – even in stir-fried dishes. They pour about half a tablespoon in a wok, tilt it around so it smears the sides, and then spoon the rest out. They are so sparing, you rarely see an oily glint to a dish – which is why experts say Cambodian cooking, with its heavy use of fruit and vegetables, and dairy-free recipes, is one of the healthiest foods in the world.

Cambodians also have their own peculiarities when it comes to meat. In most of the Khmer restaurant kitchens I’ve been into, the chefs keep the meat in the freezer, so when an order comes in, they chop the frozen chicken, pork or beef into cubes or thin slices, and it quickly begins to defrost in the horrendous heat (easily the worst thing about cooking in a fan-less kitchen in Cambodia).

Most of the defrosting is done in the wok, which despite being an obvious health hazard, also negates the other health hazards of meat sitting around in hot kitchens or warm, crammed fridges.

THE COOK cut half a frozen chicken breast into cubes, and then sliced some onion, green pepper, green tomato and fresh pineapple, and put them in a bowl with the chicken.

She heated a wok, poured in a little oil, smeared the sides, and spooned the rest back into an old paint tin. When the oil was beginning to smoke, she added two teaspoons of kroeung curry paste, and stir-fried it for 30 seconds.

She then added the rapidly defrosting chicken, and fried it for a minute until it was sealed but not browned.

She poured in a little water, let it bubble for a moment, and then tossed in the green tomato, green pepper, onion and pineapple, and continued to stir.

She fried it for another minute, and then added 250ml of water, and boiled the soup rapidly for three to four minutes before adding a splash of tamarind juice (below - made by pouring hot water on to tamarind fruit and soaking overnight) and a dessert spoon of fish sauce.

She then added a little salt and sugar, and a liberal sprinkling of MSG before I could stop her.

She let it boil for a couple of minutes, always topping up with a little more water, and then tossed in a huge handful of hot basil leaves and cooked the soup for another minute or so, adding more water as the broth evaporated.

The old woman stepped back suddenly as a man in his 20s appeared at the stove. The head cook dipped a spoon in and sipped.

He looked thoughtful for a second, and then nodded his head, and turned to the table of condiments and sauces behind him, and reached for the MSG.