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.

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