Thursday, December 29, 2011
Khmer Food: In Praise Of Salt And Pepper
My love affair with salt and pepper began when I was a toddler. The dripping on toast my grandfather used to make with meat jelly and fat from the Sunday roast would have been nothing without the liberal amounts of salt and pepper he sprinkled on top.
And then there were the salt and pepper sandwiches my father got me into - thickly-buttered, white spongy slices from a sandwich loaf fresh from the bakers, filled with nothing more than a generous sprinkling of salt and freshly-ground black pepper. To me, it was a meal fit for a king as we sat in front of a roaring fire and drank cups of strong, brown tea during cold, wintry evenings.
Just as good were the boiled eggs and soldiers we’d have in the mornings, with a small mound of salt and pepper on the plate. We’d plunge the soldiers into the runny, golden goodness, and then into the two condiments - a simple, but delightful, dip that would leap me forward to eating Khmer food more than three decades later.
Over here, that magical combination is even better because of the abundance of Kampot pepper - the finest pepper in the world, and the country’s first product to get Geographical Indicator status. And if they are generous enough to give you the far superior and costly red pepper, as they do in one or two of the seafront restaurants in Kep’s famous crab market, then it’s out of this world.
But in Cambodia, they add something to the salt and pepper dip that makes it even more splendid - lime juice. It might not have been what I’d wanted with my soldiers in the morning all those years back. But I remember the flavour was always there in the dripping whenever we roasted a chicken because of the lemon quarters stuffed inside, which do incredible things to the succulence and flavour of the meat.
In restaurants here, they usually serve a mix of two thirds freshly-ground black pepper to one third salt, then carefully squeeze in two or three lime quarters and mix it in front of you. It might seem a laughably simple procedure that would scarcely trouble even the most cack-handed cook. But they take it as seriously as a chef de rang would the preparation of crepe suzette, pressed duck, or table-carved rib of beef, squeezing in the ‘correct’ amount of lime juice until there is the right moistness to the sauce.
The dip - called ‘tik marij’ in Khmer - works perfectly with a plate of selected cuts from a whole barbecued calf (ko dut), and even better with freshly-boiled seafood, particularly blue swimmer crabs, which although contain little brown head meat, and virtually no morsels in the claws, more than make up for it with the generously fleshy chine.
It always reminds me of seaside towns in Blighty, where a visit isn’t complete without a tub of whelks, liberally sprinkled with salt, white pepper, and malt vinegar, and eaten during a few bracing turns on the seafront. Over here, the lime juice takes the place of the vinegar. It’s fresher tasting, less acerbic, and far more complimentary to seafood. But I still miss those whelks...
It really is wonderful dipping crab meat into the tik marij and washing it down with ice cold beer. And what a way to spend an afternoon sitting in the crab market, gazing out to sea, and watching those women in their brightly-coloured hats checking their pots just 20 yards or so from the restaurant steps.
The crack of claws and chine, and that sweet meat magnified a hundred times by the pepper grown in the plantations behind the national park, sea salt from the neighbouring salt beds, and limes from the orchards. It’s an oasis where the land meets the sea and offers the very best the pair have in a tryst of gastronomic delight. In Singapore or Thailand, the crab might be smothered in chilli, in Vietnam it could take on an overriding taste of caramel, and in China it would most likely be in an MSG-laden sauce, thickened with cornflour.
But there is something delightfully, and deceptively, simple about Cambodian food - which is why it’s a shame it’s so overlooked. It’s the understanding of balance, simplicity, and the knowledge that fresh, local ingredients have a natural symmetry. And that’s why I love it. Simplicity in food is often dismissed as a lack of sophistication or technique, often engendering a lack of confidence in a country’s cuisine. But it couldn’t be further from the truth, and you’ve only got to look at the food in Italy to see it done to perfection.
Beef Lok Lak
The dish in Cambodia you’ll usually first encounter tik marij is beef lok lak (probably the country’s second most famous meal after its vastly over-rated fish amok). Many recipes call for the beef to be marinated in the sauce ingredients for an hour or two, but in my experience it’s unnecessary given the strength of the flavours, and the fact the salt does little for the tenderness of Khmer steak. Here’s how a friend of mine in a restaurant in Sihanoukville makes hers - simplicity in the extreme, and definitely worth making at home.
She starts by dicing a piece of steak (sirloin, rib-eye or rump work well) into smallish cubes, and then chops up two cloves of garlic. She heats a tiny amount of oil in a pan, and then fries the garlic until it begins to colour, and then throws in the meat to singe slightly.
She adds a sprinkling of sugar and salt to help the caramelisation process, and then cooks the meat for another minute or so. She then pours in a little water, and when it is bubbling, adds a glug of tomato ketchup and a couple of heaped teaspoons of oyster sauce.
She continues stirring, producing a velvety red and brown sauce. She cooks the meat until it is still quite bloody in the middle (about medium-rare) and then takes it off the heat to rest for a couple of minutes.
Meanwhile, she garnishes each plate with lettuce and three thick slices of tomato and onion, and then fries an egg. She mixes salt and pepper in a dish and squeezes in lime juice, and then serves.
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