Friday, October 28, 2011

Ten Days In Cambodia: Street Food, Spit Roasts And Freshly Boiled Crabs

Words and pics by Dom Bailey

Khmer food has never really been on my gastro radar. I've never reached for the phone book thinking "ooh I could murder a Cambodian".

Even after reading the recent posts on Chef Sandwich, I have to admit I was a little sceptical about the attraction of Cambodian food. The descriptions of dishes such as prahok mostly left me intrigued, but not salivating. Was it something I was desperate to try? I wasn't convinced.

My own experience of Asian food is the average British experience of Chinese takeaways, Thai restaurants/pubs, Nepalese and Indian curries, and the odd festival flirt with Tibetan cuisine. I often use Asian ingredients in stir fries, curries, soups, marinades etc but don't think I can say I've nailed a specific Asian dish.

But given the opportunity to visit my old friend Lennie Nash (below), I arrived in Cambodia with an open mind, hesitant palate, and high-strength stomach tablets.

THE CAMBODIAN capital, Phnom Penh, is a manic, vibrant and beautiful city.

Painted pagodas sit serene as life bustles past. The streets are alive with the endless drone of mopeds loaded to the hilt with anything from whole families, monks, sacks of rice (wife on top), bushels of grass, and even other motorbikes. Among them weave the tuk tuks, whose drivers relentlessly plague Westerners in hope of a fare.

Giant Land Cruisers and Hummers cruise the main drags, a reminder that there is a growing, privileged elite in Cambodia who are not struggling to get by on $2 a day. Besides the traffic chaos, the ubiquitous sight amid the palaces and pagodas, lady bars, mobile phone shops, and motorbike repair dens is food.

They say the Khmers graze - small meals throughout the day as and when - and there is certainly plenty to choose from. Food is everywhere - restaurants, market stalls, and street hawkers balancing crockery and cooking pots on either end of a shoulder-supported pole like giant weighing scales.

Toddlers selling boiled quails' eggs, juice sellers with giant mangles to crush sugar cane into a sweetly refreshing drink (the last crush always includes a segment of green orange for a deliciously zesty hit), and the street food heroes with their tarpaulin-covered mobile kitchens - the ultimate in fast food joints.

Street food around the world often captures the essence of the country - its aspirations, its roots, and its everyday fuel for life. And from Bogota to Benin to Bangkok, it is sold under a blue tarp with a dubiously attached light bulb, glass box showcasing the cooked wares, and some sort of cooking or reheating device.

In Cambodia, food hawkers offer everything from fried pork or Chinese-style roast duck, endless soups and noodles, beef stews, and grilled fish, to trays of fertilised duck eggs, pate-filled baguettes, green mango salads, fish fritters and dim sum.

These dishes are the real taste of the country. Restaurant chains may have their place - you know what you're getting, and there may be slightly stricter health and safety procedures - but street food has character and is what makes the everyday people tick.

YOU’VE MADE the effort to get there, and you never know, it may make you tick too...

Okay, it's rice three times a day - chicken rice soup or grilled pork, rice and pickles for breakfast, hot, herby noodle soup, or tom yam broth, at lunchtime in the tropical heat, with a side plate of rice, and fried or barbecued meat or fish with rice in the evening. Boiled rice, fried rice, sweet fermented rice, sticky rice you can heap on to chopsticks, rice to soak up the meat juices, mop up the soup, but always rice.

There's always a dipping sauce too - the salt, pepper and lime combination, or a chilli dip or soy sauce - basically, here's some rice and a little protein to fill you up, how spicy, sour, sweet, or salty you like it is up to you. The food is nearly always freshly cooked, you're eating outside, and there's no rush to clear your table for the next sitting.

One of the best meals I had wasn't in fact from the roadside freelancers, but it was along the same principles. Outside an open-fronted restaurant, with its plastic chairs and tables, packed with beer tower-glugging locals, was the star of the show - a whole spit-roast cow.

Okay, no head, but all the rest, unceremoniously skewered from end to end - nature obviously had this treatment in mind - and slowly spit-roasted over hot coals until the meat is perfectly pink. It's sliced off, grilled a bit more on the BBQ, and soon there is not a scrap left. Get to the restaurant too late and there’s often just a sorry-looking leg attached to the spit.

We stumbled across the start of the process during a bike ride along the Mekong one morning. A boy was washing down and preparing a calf’s carcass for that night's service. After carefully cleaning the skin, he poured a mixture of lime juice and spices into the stomach cavity, then a huge handful of herbs, before sewing up the gap with wire and transferring the meat to the spit. Hog roasters would look on with envy.

We returned a few hours later, and the meat was slowly cooking, but being tended to all the time. It was a mouth-watering smell and that evening we headed straight for our nearest BBQ cow (koo dut) joint.

Served with the chunks of succulent steak and ribs was rice, of course, with the salt-pepper-lime combo, which is perfect with spit-roasted beef and, I noted, the infamous prahok fermented fish cheese - "freshwater fish fermented in barrels of brine for so long they acquire the powerful, roof-of-the-mouth-etching taste of blue cheese."

It doesn't sound that appealing really, does it? But mixing some of the greyish sauce with a spoonful of trustworthy sticky rice, I was won over straight away. I really couldn't stop eating it. Dipping meat into it, or chunks of crisp vegetables resting on ice, or just spooning it over rice. Fantastic.

Sadly, not something that you could recreate back home without a whole lot of mess and fuss from neighbours and local cats. But maybe that is the secret - real Khmer food, you'll only find in Cambodia.

Heading south from the capital we hit the coast. Fried langoustine-type shellfish from beach sellers as you lounge by the sea, beautiful tropical fish - caught by bamboo rod and line (with these very hands) - and barbecued with a chilli, sugar, salt and lime rub by the crew.

Freshly-boiled blue swimming crabs crunched and cracked as the high tide lapped the edge of the restaurant shack in Kep. If you thought picking a crab from a tank is fresh, we watched as the waitress disappeared out of the front of the restaurant to reappear with the crab ladies on the rocks behind us. A crab lady then waded out to her reed-woven pots, pulled one ashore, picked out a few meaty crabs from the tiddlers, and handed them to the waitress, who tottered back to the kitchen.

Eating crabs is a slow, messy business, but even the smallest were packed with fleshy white chine meat and creamy, brown head meat. Taking your time cracking and slurping through the shells as the breeze blows in off the sea, is one of those holiday moments.

And then there was squid with fresh, green peppercorns, which were the discovery of the trip for me. Again, like prahok, it was a wow, that's a fresh new taste.

The little green corns, clinging tightly to the stalk, are stir-fried with squid or crab for no time at all. Fresh, peppery, slightly soapy (but not in a bad way) explosions as you crunch through the whole lot, stalks and all. And they are seasonal, so you can only really get them at their best between September and February, when the harvest moves on to the black and red corns for drying.

I did find some on my return to the UK in a Thai supermarket, but having travelled they were starting to go black and the stalks were tougher. Still, it was enough of a green pepper pop to bring memories of Kep’s famous crab market flooding back.

Ten days in Cambodia is only really enough to get the briefest of introductions to Khmer cooking - especially if the squid and green peppercorns is so good you have it a few nights running ("I really should try something else on the menu, but they've got squid and green peppercorns...”)

But it’s enough to get a real taste for the clear, zingy broths, simply cooked meat and fish with accompanying dips, fragrant herbs and, funnily enough, boiled rice.

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

Thursday, October 06, 2011

Diners Collapse In 'World's Hottest Curry' Contest

A competition to eat the “world’s hottest curry” has come under fire after all 10 contestants collapsed and had to be treated by paramedics.

Restaurant owner Abdul Ali said he may have underestimated the strength of his ‘Kismot Killer’ – which he described as a “top secret nuclear strength recipe using some of the world's hottest chillies” and made diners sign a legal disclaimer before eating.

Emergency services were called to Kismot Restaurant in Edinburgh, Scotland, when competitors started writhing on the floor in agony and fainting. Two had to be taken to hospital for further treatment.

Curie Kim, who came second in the contest, was taken to hospital twice within five hours after suffering severe stomach pains.

The Korean student, 21, told BBC Scotland: "It was very painful and felt like I was being chainsawed in the stomach with hot sauce on the chainsaw.

"I have learned my lesson and will never do it again and, in fact, I will be cutting down on my spice intake full stop."

There were three rounds to the annual challenge, with competitors having to finish increasingly lethal curries until they got to the Kismot Killer, laced with incendiary Dorset naga and Jolokia ghost naga chillies.

The ambulance service criticised the restaurant and told it to make sure paramedics are not needed at future competitions.

Local councillor Gordon Mackenzie called the event a "shambles" and said: "The owners owe a debt to the ambulance service, and I hope they'll find some way of making it up to them."

Ali admitted he would have to "tone down" the contest, but said it had raised more than £1,000 for Scottish children's charity CHAS.

He said half of the 20 challengers who took part had quickly dropped out after witnessing the first 10 diners vomiting, collapsing and fainting.

Only three of the 100 or so people who have tried the dish have managed to finish it, he added.

The disclaimer the contestants had to sign stated: “You are totally aware that you are having probably the world’s hottest curry. Kismot Restaurant will take no responsibilities for the bodily functions after you eat the curry.

“If you die whilst eating or as a direct result of eating the curry, members of the table with share the cost of your Kismot Killer.”

It added: “The Kismot Killer curry is free if you completely finish eating it by yourself. If you complete the Kismot Killer curry you will receive a certificate of completion and we will take a photograph of you to put on our Hall of Fame section of our website. If you fail our Hall of Shame awaits!”

Unfortunately, at the time of writing, such was the publicity that the restaurant’s website had crashed, meaning the photos couldn’t be seen.

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

End Of The Line For Cambodia’s Quirky Bamboo Train

I went back to cooking at the restaurant for a few days to help my friend Josh out. He was in a sorry state. He was heading up to a province near Phnom Penh with his Cambodian wife to see how badly his house had been hit by the country’s worst floods for 10 years (the stilts were leaning but just about holding).

The day before he left, a dodgy-looking Khmer man called Too Jee appeared. It turned out he was some sort of relative of Josh's wife, could speak no English, and wanted to move south (and stay in Josh’s house for free like the rest of the growing family) while he found a job.

In fact, it didn’t take him any time at all. He had a job the moment Josh left town. Too Jee’s cousin, Wee – who also works at the restaurant – had obviously decided an extra member of staff was needed to make the rainy season staff-to-customer ratio look even more ridiculous.

I went in the next day, and saw him skulking near the cash till. Wee pointed at me as soon as I walked in, and muttered something to her cousin, or nephew or husband, or whatever he really was. I don’t know what she said, but it was nothing good. From the dead fish look in his eyes, I wouldn’t have even wanted him drinking in the restaurant, let alone working there.

I decided enough was enough, and spent the next few days looking at restaurants to buy. Josh phoned a few days later and insisted Too Jee would no longer be working there, but I could tell he’d long lost control of the business to the family. It was obvious they were trying to take over. And I’d just been seen as a thorn in their side, or worse. And in a country where you can remove problems for as little as $150 - probably even less in the rainy season, I was taking no chances.

THE NEXT week there was a knock at my hotel door. It was Josh – he’d returned from Phnom Penh. He walked straight in and lit a cigarette, and then another one off the butt. He was so angry he could hardly get the words out.

"I'm so angry...I'm so angry," he kept saying.

It turned out that Too Jee was hooked on ice, and had stolen Josh’s motorbike, all his antiques, jewellery and cash and had disappeared to Vietnam.

Josh asked me to come back, but I was dead set against it. Then I remembered that it was his birthday at the weekend and I’d promised to do the barbecue. Before I knew it, I’d somehow agreed to do the Sunday lunch as well.

I BUTCHERED half a small pig into ribs and chops and then got the Khmer cooks to help me prep some chicken kebabs and wings. We bought six kilos of fillet steak and made 60 or so burgers, and then we knocked up potato salad, coleslaw, and a few plates of nibbles.

The place was soon packed, but it was hardly surprising given the mean-fisted expats that live here. They were probably just disappointed that the drinks weren’t free as well. Trays of grilled meats went round, and then Steve (the railway contractor I mentioned in the last blog) appeared and sat on a stall nearest to the barbecue, and stuck his nose into everything.

“You want to get some burgers on there,” he said.

The grill was covered in ribs and wings. There wasn’t an inch of free grill space – that’s why the burgers were being cooked in the kitchen. But still he knew best.

“Hot enough for you?” he chuckled as I continued to ignore him. He could see the streams of sweat flowing down my front as I charged between the kitchen and the BBQ, but still he thought I had time for conversation with a man sporting the personality of a stuffed frog.

I was desperate to move him away from the subject of cooking – and on to something he might actually know something about. Railways, for instance. But I wasn’t too hopeful. He’d somehow invited himself on to our quiz team the night before, and had hardly said a word. The only time he did was to describe to the waiter in painstaking detail how he wanted his pizza cooked – this time he wanted “a thick base, but thin round the edges”.

He hadn’t known a single one of the 50 questions. When the only railway-related question came up, we all turned to him expectantly, but he just started drawing maps in the air and mumbling names of US states, and it was obvious he hadn’t got a clue, especially when the answer turned out to be Reykjavik.

When he asked about the next day’s Sunday roast, and whether we were doing cauliflower cheese, and whether I’d be pre-boiling the roast spuds, and how I was going to cook the pumpkin he’d requested, I started asking him about Cambodia’s new $142m railway system he was working on, and when it would be finished.

He stopped for a moment, and in an apparent attempt at humour, dipped his head slightly and looked out at the night sky. “Jeez! Christ knows,” he said. “Have you got a crystal ball?” I don’t know what he was looking for. There was nothing but a monsoon out there.

Steve was working on the new southern line, which will carry freight between Phnom Penh and the coast. But I was more interested in the northern line, and how it will sadly spell the end of Battambang’s famous bamboo trains – wooden beds resting on two sets of wheels that shoot along battered, broken rails at speeds of up to 25mph (40km/h).

I’d been up there last month, and even though I’m normally sceptical about any “must see” attractions in guide books, it really had been a brilliant, quirky – and bone-shaking - experience.

The locals that scratch a living from running the trains (or “norries” as they call them) said they had been warned they only had a year left at most – and then the wooden contraptions would have to be taken off the tracks to make way for fast trains linking Pursat with Phnom Penh.

I asked Steve how long they had left, but he just looked confused.

“They’ve already kicked them off haven’t they?” he said matter-of-factly.

I took a swig of beer and started flicking through the Battambang photos I’d taken on my iPhone as they began arguing over the quiz score.

I couldn’t blame Steve directly for its impending derailment, however much I’d have like to have done. And I know Cambodia badly needs infrastructure as it slowly emerges from the aftermath of the Khmer Rouge’s brutal, agrarian-based regime, but the trouble with this country is it’s always the poor that lose out.

The brilliantly-efficient norries they’ve been using to carry people, livestock, timber and rice between impoverished villages for the past three decades will make way for shiny locomotives run by Toll Royal Railway, an Australian-Cambodian joint venture, funded by AusAID and the Asian Development Bank, that they won’t be able to afford to use.

The 50mph trains won’t stop at their little village shacks selling cold drinks and scarves – they’re in far too much of a hurry to deliver goods to and from the capital. And the farm boys who drive the norries will no longer get their $1 per trip (the villagers say the rest of the $10 tourist ticket goes to the station owner – which is why there is so much pressure for tips).

But far worse is what’s happening in other parts of the country, where residents are being booted out of their homes to make way for the new railway, and a long list of other foreign money-backed land grabs. Locals living along one disused section of track near Phnom Penh say they’ve been offered a few hundred dollars compensation to move – and have been threatened with having their homes destroyed if they refuse.

"They asked me to accept it by giving a thumb print. If I don't they will bulldoze my house," one old woman told reporters back in May. "They will hire the drug user to burn my house."

IT HAD taken ages to find the place. I’d set off on my bicycle in the wrong direction from Battambang. But eventually I cut through a trail running alongside a river, where JCBs were carving huge chunks of earth from the jungle, and found a rusty, broken track. I waited for 30 minutes, and eventually a bamboo train appeared with waving passengers.

I cycled along the track, and found a small ramshackle station that served as a pool hall. As I chatted away to the well-fed-looking Tourist Police, who were there to explain and oversee the non-negotiable fare of $5 a passenger, or $10 a norrie, whichever was greater - dozens of holidaymakers arrived in tuk tuks to take the 12km train trip to O’Sralau village and back.

I got on, and soon we were off on our white-knuckle journey – well, it would have been if there was anything to hold on to. It wasn’t that fast, of course, but the incredible noise and the fact you’re only a couple of inches off the ground, and only occasionally in full contact with the buckled rails, makes the train seem as hairy as a souped-up go-kart.

Sometimes, you’ll meet a bamboo train coming in the other direction (the protocol is the lighter-laden norrie gives way) and then the platform, axles and heavy Kawasaki engine are lifted off the track to let the train pass.

We stopped at O’Sralau, and I sat with a local family drinking cold beers under a tamarind tree. They were eating the green fruit straight from the lower branches, dipping the pods in a bag of green chilli, salt and sugar.

They were surprisingly delicious – and reminded me again of the Cambodian love affair with sour food. Then they showed me around the old rice mill next to the track.

I wondered how many more mills would be left standing idle with the hundreds of thousands of hectares of rice paddies that have been hit by the flooding, driving up rice prices, and making the Khmer staple diet less and less of a staple. The last thing they needed was for the tiny trickle of revenue they got from passing tourists to disappear as well.