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.