Friday, September 02, 2011
In Defence Of Cambodian Cooking
I’ve grown to love Cambodian cooking – even though at first I gave it the thumbs down. It’s just a shame how hard it is to find in Cambodia. The proper stuff is hidden away from tourist spots like some fabled Angkor treasure, in people’s homes in the countryside, and occasionally in the restaurants and food stalls the locals recommend.
These are the traditional dishes passed down by memory rather than cookery books, most of which were burned during the Khmer Rouge’s 1975-1979 reign. The natural, primary tastes of salt, sweet, spicy and sour from the foraged herbs, unripe and ripe fruit, fresh vegetables, pickles, and fermented fish that characterise Cambodian cuisine.
But even then, it isn’t easy. One restaurant or stall does a very good rice chicken soup (above), but little else. Another serves a decent loc lac, but a terrible Khmer curry. One does a decent amok – something that is difficult to find even in Cambodia’s culinary capital, Siem Reap. But it is rare to find a real all-rounder.
So it takes a long time to get a sense of how varied and wonderful Cambodian cuisine can be. And why Cambodian food experts like chef and author Joannes Riviere describe it as one of the most balanced, healthy and fascinating foods in the world.
Like its people during the horrors of Pol Pot’s murderous regime, which saw nearly a quarter of the population worked, starved or tortured to death, Cambodia’s food has largely been ignored by the outside world.
It is mostly dismissed as “Thai food without the chillies”, and sometimes “a bit like Vietnamese food but not as good”. But that is a disservice, as although it is definitely a magpie cuisine and shares a huge number of dishes with other countries, particularly China, Vietnam and Thailand, it has its own character and legacy.
The Khmer empire stretched across Vietnam and Thailand for hundreds of years, and gave their respective foods as much as it stole.
Before that, it was heavily influenced by Indian traders, who brought tamarind to the country (an essential ingredient in Cambodia’s many sour dishes), and inspired cooks to blend spice pastes, which became kroeung (Khmer curry paste), with the addition of pounded lemongrass, lime leaves, and galangal.
Later, Chinese, Cham Muslim, Thai and Vietnamese immigrants and conquerors brought their influences, which you can see today in the diversity of cooking styles and flavourings from soya and oyster sauce-based stir-fries to crispy duck to steamed, herb-packed spring rolls (above) to fried rice dishes to beansprout and shrimp-filled pancakes.
And then the food changed again under French rule – this time with the introduction of baguettes and thick beef stews (below), just like in neighbouring Vietnam.
So what is traditional Cambodian cooking? The two words that probably best sum it up are freshness and seasonality. Cooks use what’s around them, whether it’s ripe or unripe, and forage in the hedgerows and rice paddies for mysteriously sour herbs and leaves that do magical things to a simple piece of meat or fish.
It’s amazing how green and crunchy everything is. Most dishes contain herbs – varieties of mint, coriander, basil, and sawleaf - sometimes cooked but mostly raw, and come with trays of crisp vegetables like banana blossom, long beans, cucumber and cabbage.
There are no reduced sauces, dairy goods, or pretty much any use of fat as you’d find in more glamorous cuisines, and yet the dishes are delicious, and what they lack in refinement and technique they make up for in freshness, colour, and taste.
The flavour that really defines Cambodia is prahok – freshwater fish fermented in barrels of brine for so long they acquire the powerful, roof-of-the-mouth-etching taste of blue cheese.
It sounds awful, but is curiously addictive. The milky, grey liquid left behind is used as a sauce, and the meat is pressed into a paste (top pic). The sauce – sometimes with the addition of chillies, chopped herbs and peanuts - is served as a condiment with barbecued meat and fish, whereas the paste is best fried with beaten eggs, chopped pork, and finely chopped vegetables to make Cambodia’s deliciously savoury omelette.
Fish sauces are used across the world, of course, from Roman-inspired thick anchovy essences to the whisky-coloured liquids of Vietnam and Thailand. But none of them have the peculiar, cheesy-salt taste of prahok.
Another ‘unique’ flavouring is preserved lemon (below), used in Cambodia’s renowned ngam nguv chicken 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 give a citrus tang immediately evocative of Moroccan cooking.
But there are other, less defining, characteristics too. Khmer noodles (nom banchok) are made from just rice, water and salt, and so lack the richer, eggy flavour of Chinese noodles and pasta. Its dumplings are made from cassava (and sometimes with yams or sweet potatoes) rather than flour – and are often filled with fresh vegetables. The ones containing chopped kale are so delicately seasoned they taste like bubble and squeak.
For a cuisine so overlooked, it’s surprising how great – and varied - some of its dishes are. Why amok (above) became its best known meal is anyone’s guess.
It really is quite average compared with, say, its incredible fried aubergine with minced pork dish, which combines the grandest tastes of Mediterranean cooking with the sticky sweetness of The Orient.
Soup is integral to Khmer cuisine, and is served with every meal, where each of the shared dishes brings sour, sweet, spice or salt to the always present bowl of sticky rice. But so are salads, and you'll usually find a dozen of each on most menus.
When you find a good place, Khmer beef salads can be as good as any carpaccio, escabeche or ceviche-style dish I’ve ever tasted. The sirloin is thinly sliced and marinated in lime juice and spices for a couple of hours.
The soused meat and juice are then tossed in a vibrant salad of onion, carrot, green tomatoes, green pepper, white cabbage, toasted peanuts, green beans, chillies, purple shallots, garlic, lemon grass and basil sprigs. They make the dish in the north-east of the country with goat meat, which melts in your mouth and has a far gamier taste.
But its most famous salad has to be smoked fish and green mango. The fish (above) are barbecued on a wooden grate over smouldering coals, sometimes for as long as eight hours, which gives them a strong, smoky taste and a chewy, dried texture.
Half of a small fish is broken into pieces and pounded in a pestle and mortar with chillies and garlic, and then tossed into strips of green mango, charred peanuts and herbs (below). The salty smokiness of the fish cuts through the sharpness of the fruit, and makes a truly great dish - and, in the culinary pragmatism of all peasant dishes, especially Cambodian ones, makes a little bit of protein go a long way.
Cambodia’s gravlax-like phork (cured fish with fermented black rice) is another winner as are its pickled vegetables that are often served in saucers with a main dish. The veg is cut into julienne strips and packed in jars in a pickling mixture of salt, brown sugar, galangal, kaffir lime leaves, lemon grass, and water that rice has been washed in to give it a sour taste.
They don’t go in for desserts much. Usually it’s just a plate of tropical fruits, sometimes in a coconut sauce. But who can blame them given the quality of the fruit? The country is famous for its foul-smelling durian, the most highly-prized being from the Kampot area, which also supplies its incredible pepper – the first food in the country to be given Geographical Indicator (GI) status.
But just as good are its leathery-skinned mien, which have a sugary, marshmallow taste, green oranges from Battambang, and amazingly sweet dwarf bananas.
If you ever come here, throw away the guidebook, avoid all Westernised restaurants showcasing Khmer food, with their trendy, orange sofas and cocktail bucket-quaffing tourists, where the food tastes like it’s been cooked at TGI Friday’s, and eat what the locals really eat - in their homes, and at stalls with the biggest queues - and you can still find proper Cambodian food, and it really is, or at least can be, wonderful.
Sadly, it is a cuisine fast disappearing, but more on that next time.
:: The above is based on personal experiences, research, and interviews with dozens of Khmer and Western chefs and restaurant/stall owners in Cambodia. If you disagree with any of it, or think I have missed something, and/or would like to add thoughts of your own, please leave a comment below.