Monday, December 24, 2012

Paris Bistro Cooking 6,200 Miles From France

There is a book called The Art Of Simple French Cookery by Alexander Watt, a notorious gourmet who spent much of his life lounging around in Gallic restaurants, which perfectly captures the essence of the Parisian bistro in the 1950s.

No doubt beginning his day with pastis, moving on to red wine, and then finishing the night on brandy, Watt would gorge himself on bistro classics such as poularde Marie-Louise, boeuf en gelee, rognons a la moutarde, gibelotte de lapin, and always a plate of seasonal cheeses.

The accounts of his “gastronomic peregrinations” are a joy to read, as is his book, Paris Bistro Cookery, which adjoins the back of The Art Of Simple French Cookery like an upside down Siamese twin. As you flick through the pages, you can picture Watt swaying in the doorway of tiny Parisian kitchens, disrupting service as he scrawls into a grease-spattered notebook.

And something tells me he would have approved of La P’tite France, 6,200 miles away in Phnom Penh, and the cooking of its chef-owner Didier. I wasn’t lucky enough to go to his original, much smaller venue, just off the Riverside. But foodies fondly recall it as a typical bistro – friendly, cramped, tables pushed together, noise and tobacco smoke drifting over the cheeseboards. They recall with gluttonous, lip-smacking memories, the splendid simplicity of the dishes – always a severer test of a kitchen’s ability than the fancy stuff.

La P’tite France has since moved to a beautiful villa on Street 306, and people who know tell me the food is even better. But everything comes at a cost – in this case a less chirpy, more formal ambience, they say. So it was with these thoughts and the longing for Gallic classics like confit duck, terrines, and oysters flown in from France, as our tuk tuk arrived at the plush gates and garish pink sign of Didier’s new home.

For 8pm on a Saturday night, business was steady rather than busy, and we chose a table on the patio giving a glimpse of the Khmer chefs in their whites beavering away in the kitchen. Around us sat pudgy, well-dressed French men doing what they do best – discussing food while gorging themselves like foie gras geese to a chorus of ooh la las.

There were specials on the blackboard – including tripe and scallops – but sadly they’d sold out of oysters, which our waiter said arrive every Friday.

The service was smooth and brisk, and a little plate of amuse bouche quickly arrived – two slices of baguette topped with tomato, olive, and melted cheese that were a little ordinary, and certainly not needed considering the enormous portions that followed.

My $5.25 starter of marrow bone gratin with toast and a saucer of fleur de sel was exquisite. The gooey, oozing, fatty, beef shin marrow melted in your mouth and was a reminder – at half the price and far more generous – of the similar signature dish at St John restaurant in London, which food writer Anthony Bourdain claims is the best dish he’s eaten.

My friend’s starter of whelks with garlic mayonnaise ($6.25) was very good too – no trace of grit, and a wonderful, fresh, fossily taste of the sea. But if I were to be properly critical, the garlic should have been chopped much finer, and the aioli was lacking in the richness it should deliver in its perfect form.

Mon Dieu this man knows his onions though. And that view was confirmed by the main courses. Each part was a model of how it should be cooked, with such assurance, such taste, and such old-fashioned virtue.

My $11.50 braised pork shank with cep confit, sitting on a bed of choucroute, and winged by two turned potatoes, was enormous and fell apart as I dug in. It was an exceptional dish and showcased every part of Didier’s cooking skills.

My friend kept uttering appreciative noises as he ate his $12.50 braised lamb shank nestled on creamy flageolet beans, steeped in garlic. It came with a ramekin of fiery Tunisian harissa paste that brought the whole dish alive.

Our bellies bursting, and with the true taste of France dancing on our taste buds, we looked at the dessert menu, boasting dark chocolate mousse, poached pears, tarte tatin et al. But as any French cook will tell you, every good Gallic meal should end with cheese, so we shared a platter ($6.50) that came with a roof-of-the-mouth-etching Roquefort that would have made King Charles VI proud, and certainly the finest French bread – baked daily by Didier and his crew – I can remember having in Asia.

By golly it was an incredible meal. The cooking was sublime, and the only downside was the eagerness of the well-drilled, immaculately-turned-out Khmer waiters to snatch our plates at every opportunity. It’s certainly not a place for night owls or loiterers. By 10pm we were the last table to clear, and felt slightly hurried to vacate that beautiful, rare spot of leafy sanctuary in the steamy streets of Phnom Penh.

The frogmarching, if you will, aside, I’d heartily recommend it to food lovers, and anyone wanting a romantic notion of what it must have been like before French colonialists were finally booted out of Cambodia. A pocket of history, a pocket of gastronomic excellence. It may not have the informal, neighbourhood dive ambience of a true bistro, but I know Watt would have greeted the cooking with appreciate applause.

La P’tite France, #38, Street 306, Phnom Penh, 016 64 26 30. Meal for two, including drinks and service: $65

:: My bestselling food book Down And Out In Padstow And London is available in paperback and Kindle
To read an edited extract published in Caterer and Hotelkeeper Magazine click here...

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

KFC Chickens 'Fed So Many Illegal Hormones They Are Unable To Walk'

There is a view in Asia that famous fast food brands from the West are subjected to more rigorous food health standards than their Asian competitors. There is apparently a trust among consumers instilled by Colonel Sander’s and Ronald McDonald’s smiling faces, and the premium attached to such brands.

But this reputation has been damaged by Chinese state TV reports that chickens served at KFC and McDonald’s restaurants in China have been fed illegal, toxic drugs and kept under constant lights to make them grow faster, and thereby provide more profits for their unscrupulous producers.

China Central Television’s investigation, which it said was based on a year of undercover reporting, alleged that some of KFC's suppliers in Shandong had given at least 18 kinds of antibiotics to chickens to keep them healthy. The birds also had lights turned on around the clock to make them eat constantly, with a chicken growing from 30g to 3.5kg in just 40 days.

A farmer in Gaomi told CCTV he would also mix a hormone into the feed and the birds would become so fat that some were unable to walk. Another farmer said they had to change antibiotics periodically after chickens developed resistance to the drugs.

They said their chickens were bought by the Liuhe Group, which is based in Qingdao, and reportedly sells 40 tonnes of chicken a month to KFC's Chinese subsidiary. When the chickens were sent to be slaughtered, workers would fabricate records about how they were raised before they were shipped off to KFC’s parent company, Yum Brands, which also owns Pizza Hut.

KFC said it would co-operate with Chinese authorities in investigating the reports and would punish its suppliers harshly if they had fed antiviral drugs and growth hormones to its chickens.

"KFC attaches great importance to the contents of the media report and will actively co-operate with the relevant government departments' investigation," KFC said. "If (we) find out that our suppliers have conducted any illegal activity, (we) will handle it strictly.”

It was an about turn from last month, when a Yum Brands spokesman dismissed as "untrue" reports that some KFC chickens in China were being fed toxic additives.

McDonald's said its chicken and raw materials pass through independent, third-party laboratory tests. "Our chicken products comply with stringent food quality standards and comply with the relevant government standards. Please, everyone, don't worry about eating it," a spokesman for the Golden Arches pleaded.

China has struggled to rein in health violations in its vast food sector despite repeated pledges to deal with the problem. The country has been plagued by news reports of fake cooking oil, tainted milk - and even watermelons that explode from absorbing too much fertiliser.

:: My bestselling food book Down And Out In Padstow And London is available in eBook and paperback.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Cooking Snake In Mondulkiri

An article I wrote for Khmer 440...

I was sitting in a restaurant in Mondulkiri, listening to backpackers haggling over elephant rides – “That one’s a very bullshit operation for the elephants…Yeah, but we got offered two bucks cheaper from the other guy” – when Brendan finally called. “Hey, So Pheakj forgot to wake me again. Do you fancy going to the waterfall?”

He hired two moto drivers and we headed off through the windswept valleys surrounding the one-horse town of Sen Monorom. Children waved at us as we crawled past trying to avoid craters in the red dust roads. We climbed higher, the engine screaming, and arrived in a jungle clearing with an elephant tethered by one ear to a shack. Just out of reach were 100 green bananas, and the beast was eyeing them morosely while batting away flies with his ears.

Brendan looked at the waterfall jump. It was usually about 10 metres high, but he said the water level was much lower than last month, not just from the dry season but the dam up river. The Elephant Man threw a stone into the water indicating where he claimed it was deep enough to jump. But as he was not jumping himself, I was taking no chances.

We climbed down through the jungle and bathed in the pool. Something was nibbling away at my feet. I swam to the other side and foam thundered down around me. The sound was deafening and for a moment I forgot all about what the locals call “anacondas”. A little boy scampered across the rocks, picking up beer cans. We climbed back up and the Elephant Man took a photo of us and printed it out on a contraption hooked up to a car battery.

Chinese Food In Phnom Penh

An article I wrote for Khmer 440...

The worst service I ever had was in London’s Chinatown. There was a cloudburst and then heavy rain so I scurried into one of the restaurants. The place was packed, and I was looking round trying to spot a table, when a furious-looking waiter pounced on me.

“What you waaaannn?”

I noticed people had stopped eating and were looking at me.

“Table for one,” I said slightly pompously.

The waiter eyed me suspiciously.

“We gorr no table for one! You go down stair!”

Then he was off in his shiny black shoes, scuttling waiters.

I stood there for a moment, confused. I didn’t like crowded restaurants at the best of times. The sniggers from nearby tables faded, and I spotted a staircase leading down. At the bottom, I was met by another waiter.

“Hi there, how are you doing?” I said.

His hate-filled eyes bored into me. It felt like a scene from Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence.

“Wery busy!” he spat. “What you waaan?”

He was worse than the last one. People were listening intently, pretending not to notice.

“Table for one, please.”

“You got no frenn? You go upstair, he give you table!”

Why Cambodian Food Deserves A Better Press

An article I wrote for Khmer 440...

There has been a lot of talk over the years about the need to attract more foreign visitors to Cambodia. But there is something its people could bring a much-needed change to – and that is cooking.

It is often said, sometimes even by Khmers themselves, that Cambodian food is nothing to write home about. It is supposed to be not only cack-handed at best, but also poorly imitative of Chinese, Thai, Indian, and Vietnamese cuisines. And I have asked many expats what they think of the local food only to be greeted with “not much”.

Now that is a terrible disservice. As anyone who has travelled overseas much will know, there are a whole host of Khmer delicacies that are impossible to get abroad. So much so, that the state-owned postal service says 70% of all parcels sent from here are filled with specialities like prahok, smoked and dried fish for home-sick Khmers. No doubt the list could be added to, but here are some of the things that deserve much wider recognition.

First of all, prahok, a fermented fish paste used in dips, soups, stir-fries and stews that tastes of blue cheese and is the backbone of Cambodian cooking. Then there is Kampot pepper – the country’s first product to be granted Geographical Indication status – which makes a splendid dip with salt and lime for freshly-boiled crab.

Returning To Cambodia

An article I wrote for Khmer 440...

There was a documentary I saw about Spike Milligan and the depression that had blighted much of his life. He’d been brought up in India and moved to England when he was 15. It had a terrible effect on him. He missed the colours and richness of India and had to readjust to stark, grey Britain. The cold, the drabness, and the continual reminders of the exotic world he’d left behind. And that’s how I felt much of the time back in Blighty after spending 18 months in Cambodia.

“How can you live here now, after spending so much time in Asia,” someone asked as I arrived. She was right. I had to return, for better or worse, and sure enough four months later I was back in Phnom Penh.

Not the prettiest city in the world. But when you wander down by the Riverside and take in the breeze and see all segments of Cambodian life from mad-for-it grandmothers in pyjamas doing aerobics, to the monks with their alms pots, to the old men in freshly-ironed shirts and trousers squatting by their mopeds looking for the next ride, to the tuk tuk driver with ‘Lexus 570’ scrawled on his backboard, to the moon-faced official barely peering over the wheel of his supercharged Range Rover with its carte blanche Khmer flag and VIP sticker in the window.

One of only two countries in the world with a building on its flag, or so I was told by a slurring lawyer the other night. Afghanistan, if you’re asking. And that must say something. A reminder of the great empire that built Angkor Wat, and a hope that the good times might come once again. Just like Greece. It’s this naive hope, the continued smiles and bright outlook I love most. I escaped from the cold and the dreary faces of those who have plenty, but grumble about everything. I fled from the obsession with weather stories, and erosion of common sense and fun, to a country where most people have nothing but look pleased to have it.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Restaurant Apologises For Foul-Mouthed Twitter Rant At Customer

A Dublin restaurant is the latest eatery to find itself at the centre of a social media row after calling a disgruntled customer an “arsehole” on Twitter.

Cinnamon, an upmarket cafe and wine bar in Ranelagh, issued a grovelling apology and said it had disciplined the staff member who sent out the insulting tweets.

The unnamed worker saw red during a particularly busy Sunday service when blogger Sean Mongey sent out a message on Twitter, saying he had been waiting in the “pretentious crèche” for 40 minutes and his food still hadn’t arrived.

Cinnamon replied with a snooty: “We don’t have a problem that needs to be solved we are Dublin’s busiest restaurant on Sunday...Expect delays.”

When the customer threatened to take his business elsewhere, the family-friendly restaurant replied: “Please do. You’ll be one less person in the Q.”

The staff member then added for good measure: "Here's something else for you to re tweet. You're an arsehole. Why don't you come in and introduce yourself to us."

Six hours later, the restaurant deleted the offending tweets and issued an apology on its Facebook page, offering in a self-effacing style while also appearing to enjoy the attention, that it would be serving coffees for one euro for the next week to diners who mentioned “Twittergate” while ordering.

“We wish to formally apologise to the customer, who we accept had a legitimate complaint,” the statement said. "We are a very busy restaurant and this past weekend had 50% more customers than a normal weekend and were overwhelmed by this.

“Staff morale is very important to us and has been severely affected by this incident. We employ over 50 staff and would not wish to jeopardise their livelihood."

Seems a bit of a storm in a coffee cup, compared with the foul-mouthed Twitter rants an unknown blogger was subjected to last week by Claude Bosi and his celebrity chef chums after complaining about his crab starter at the French cook’s London restaurant Hibiscus.

Bosi, Tom Kerridge, and Sat Baines dubbed James Isherwood a “cunt”, with Kerridge adding: “Smash him in, chef Bosi.”

None of them have apologised, as far as I know, so you have to applaud Cinnamon restaurant for doing so over a much milder mauling. But the way the blogger has relentlessly milked the story over the past few days it makes you wonder whether they might have had a point.

Friday, November 09, 2012

Ferran Adria And Ridiculous Food Trend No. 137 - Digital Gastronomy

Reading Ferran Adria’s latest musings on the future of food, I’m left wondering whether he plans to invent the edible computer. Because I’ve read his BBC article about trying to “discover the genome of cuisine”, whatever that is, several times, and I’m still left wondering what the hell he is talking about.

The celebrity chef, who closed El Bulli, widely regarded as the best restaurant in the world, last year, says his next recipe involves a sprinkling of algorithms, a pinch of digital technology, an emulsion of raw data, and a few generous glugs of innovation to create La Bullipedia (catchy name) - an online, curated database that, he claims, “will one day contain every piece of gastronomic knowledge” and change the way people think about food forever.

Or at least that’s what I think he is saying, because when you actually cut through the jargon and nerd speak it all reads like a badly-written press release, typed by someone in the PR office who should have left half an hour ago.

“Cooking shares many characteristics with the internet - both are the sum of many parts and both enjoy the rare gift of limitless potential. Digital technology, when combined with innovation, plays a key role to unlocking this potential,” he writes.

“I firmly believe that as a chef if you only speak to other cooks you'll get bored. Bullipedia uses cooking as a language...” etc etc.

But hang on, haven’t we got this already? Isn’t every bit of culinary knowledge you are ever likely to never need already just a few clicks away on the internet? No, apparently, according to the Spanish chef.

“The internet on its own is limited because information can be found without the need to actually acquire knowledge. We want people to acquire knowledge through the navigation of information,” he says.

So by navigating for information, people will automatically understand it? Is that what he’s saying? Even James Martin?

He goes on: “We are taking fundamental aspects of digital technology such as algorithms and data and applying it to food. We are putting the combined knowledge of El Bulli online where people can adapt and modify it, and draw inspiration from some of the most innovative recipes ever created.

“Technology is now helping to provide future generations of creatives with the tools that they need to be innovative. It is acting as an enabler, connector and collaborator. I believe that it will now sit at the heart of gastronomy and be a fundamental driver of innovation in the industry.

“We have journeyed part of the way to discovering the genome of cuisine. Digital technology will allow us to take the final step.”

Blimey, I’m confused already. Can’t wait for the bandwagon jumping from celebrity chefs and other culinary media whores if Bullshitpedia does become a success. Gregg Wallace leering at MasterChef contestants while tapping his Rolex: “Now, how you doing your nanobytes?”

We’ve had local, seasonal, molecular gastronomy, small plates, big plates, sharing plates, heritage meats, foam, ingredient reversals, deconstruction, sous vide, freshly-foraged weeds, cup cakes, and now this - digital gastronomy.

Hasn’t cooking suffered enough already? Perhaps Adria should stick to advertising Pepsi? That’s an organisation that breeds innovation through collaboration and creative auditing by tracking the developments and inventions of other companies.

Monday, October 29, 2012

The Perfect Dirty Kebab: A Recipe Created On Twitter

This is a dish I came up with over the summer in the UK, before I flew back to Cambodia. Well to be fair, Twitter created it. You see I’d got bored of cookbooks, even the ones all boxed up in the attic and lovingly revisited one afternoon before I had to say goodbye to the house again.

And I was pretty flat out of ideas, what with the culture shock of being back in Blighty and all. It had become much more fun looking in the fridge to see what needed using up, and then asking people on Twitter for recipe ideas. That night, it was the mince that was going green at the back of the fridge.

“I have a pound in both weight and price of lamb mince, and zero inspiration. Any recommendations of what to do with it gratefully received,” I wrote.

Unless you’re Egg Wallace with his big, brass bed, throwing requests into the Twitter pond is a bit like fishing, in my experience - mostly you hardly get anything. But I had a good response that night.

Chef Dave Ahern (@CorkGourmetGuy) - who I’d met the day before when he did a cooking demo at Maltby Street Market, near London Bridge, where I was flogging my book  - suggested lamb chilli. Dino J (@Gastro1) recommended keema mutter or lamb kofte. Mikey Davies (@tucksontour) went for koftes with pitta and tzatziki, or lamb burgers, as did Linda Galloway (@daffodilsoup). And Judy Olsen (@judycopywriter) recommended Greek meatballs with lemon sauce, which she remembered making in the 1980s.

There were more calls for kofte, and then pub landlord and kebab aficionado Oisin Rogers (@Mcmoop) suggested an adana kebab, and sent a link to a recipe from New York restaurant Turkuaz. Everything from the onion to the parsley to the red pepper to the garlic was ‘minced’, except the mince which was ‘ground’. Oh, how I love American English.

Mix, squeeze on to skewers, and hope it stays together. But I didn’t like the idea of a tablespoon of coriander seeds, whether lightly crushed or not - the nearest kebab van was miles away, and I was craving something truer to the simple lamb and onion notes of a true, dirty kebab. Oisin wrote back, saying: “I had one made by a mate in Antalya that ONLY used ground pepper and salt. Sumac on the salad, garlic yog and chilli sauce. A*”

I liked the sound of that. I put the pound of lamb mince in a bowl, and added one small grated onion, two finely chopped garlic cloves, salt, pepper, and then trudged out into the dark to pick a handful of fresh coriander, which I chopped up and threw in to disguise the colour of the mince.

I mixed the meaty dough with my hands until it was well blended and then rolled it on a board into a sausage shape. I know some chefs who scoff at the idea, but I’d always been told to roll minced kebabs in flour to help them stay together, so I threw some flour on the board and rolled them out until they looked like saucissons you see hanging from the ceiling of French delis.

I poured a glug of vegetable oil into a frying pan and fried the babs over a fairly gentle heat for 15 minutes or so, rolling them around to ensure they were evenly browned. They looked so good, I got a bit carried away at that point.

I pilfered half a bottle of blended Scotch, with ‘medicine’ written on the bottle, that was hidden at the back of the cupboard, threw some in and flamed it. I’m not quite sure why, it didn’t do anything for its Turkish authenticity. But if you’ve got a well-stocked booze cupboard, then you might flame a few glugs of raki or arak, or perhaps not bother at all.

While the kebabs were frying, I got on with the rest of the meal. I found an old pitta bread that was crumbling slightly in the freezer, and then headed back out into the dark, taking fright again at the will-o-wisp glint of the CDs hanging in the cherry trees to scare away pigeons, and snagged a cabbage from next door’s garden. They’d probably just think the rabbit had escaped again.

I soon had my sliced cabbage, onion, cucumber and tomato together. I had my bottle of delicious African Volcano peri peri sauce from Maltby Street Market at the ready, and then just as it was all going so well, I moved on to the garlic sauce and found the only yoghurt I had was fucking probiotic peach and mango flavour.

So I thought bollocks to the wellingtons, and just covered my kebab with the fiery sauce, just like they used to make them at the legendary Sphinx kebab shop in Brighton. It was a splendid late-night, home-made kebab, and didn’t cry out for the toasted cumin and coriander seeds that many of the tweeted recipes asked for. In fact, it was a lot better without them. But then, that’s the beauty of Twitter.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Heston Blumenthal Finally Jumps The Shark

Heston Blumenthal has been touring the UK for his latest TV programmes, taking part in increasingly ridiculous stunts in the chase for ratings, and ultimately more exposure for his brand, which now stretches to everything from airline grub to supermarket meals to hawking spectacles for Vision Express.

But the celebrity chef’s latest culinary trick of sucking on tampons seems a tad on the ludicrously trite side even by his own standards. Clearly revelling in his nerdy image, he comes across as a hot-breathed schoolboy who’s found his way into the women’s’ changing rooms, as he talks excitedly about how stuffing his mouth with a tampon to remove saliva helps improve the taste of food.

"If you drain the moisture in your mouth you experience richness, creaminess and sweetness more intensely," he told The Guardian. "If you have a spoonful of ice-cream then put a tampon on the tongue for a couple of minutes, when you eat the ice-cream again the taste will be richer."

He says he was put on to the idea in a Dutch food lab by oral physiologist Don Prince. Before long the pair were "playing around with different tampons".

Why he finds tampon munching a useful experiment is anyone’s guess because tampons won’t be featuring at any of his eateries he never cooks at. You won’t see diners at Dinner or the Fat Duck with pieces of string dangling from their mouths, like mouse-eating lizard people from V, iPod headphones clamped to their ears as they listen to the sound of toilets flushing.

Back at his lab above his prep room at the Fat Duck, he’s already been tinkering with yoghurt and tampons for an “interactive presentation”. He glosses over why he uses tampons rather than any other equally absorbent material, or one of those mini vacuum cleaners dentists use to suck saliva from your mouth. But then that’s because tampons are far more of a gimmick, and there wouldn’t be nearly as much publicity if he just used a wad of kitchen roll.

He’s been described as either one of the world’s most talented, innovative chefs or one of the biggest confidence tricksters of his generation - with some who have eaten the Fat Duck tasting menu left wondering whether the joke is really on the customer. But the way his gastronomic stunts have been going of late, he’s beginning to resemble one of those creepy TV magicians.

What will he do for his next trick? Starve himself for a month in a glass box, suspended over the Thames, to see how nice a doner kebab tastes at the end of it? As for the tampons, as an Aussie friend pointed out on Twitter: “How on earth is Waitrose going to market this one...” Heston from Waitrose tampon palate cleansers? What’s next a bin bag, and an amyl nitrate-filled hidden orange pudding in his mouth?

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Cambodia: ‘King’s Face Appears On The Moon’

I got back to Cambodia a few days after King Sihanouk’s death. The country was holding seven days of mourning to celebrate his life. It was easy to be cynical at a time like this. Much of the media have portrayed him as a Khmer Rouge puppet who stood by when his people were murdered in one of the bloodiest genocides the world has ever seen.

He certainly moved with the political tide from peacefully obtaining independence from France to assisting Pol Pot’s rise to power, and has his own place in the Guinness World Records as having a greater variety of offices than any other politician. But the people were genuinely moved by his death, and there were shrines to him everywhere and flags at half-mast across Phnom Penh.

The taxi driver taking me from the airport to the Central Market sighed as the traffic came to another stand-still. “Everyone come to celebrate the King,” he said. “He was a good man. The people are sad. His son not so popular.”

I’d been warned the bars had been closed for seven days but it didn’t seem to have stretched to the neon bars on Street 51 or anywhere else I could see. The only sign of enforcement was the absence of music.  

As I walked further on, I kept seeing huddles of people gazing upwards, pointing and chattering. I looked up at a building, half expecting someone to be up there preparing to jump. But there was nothing. Just a sickle moon with a faint yellow halo round it.

I carried on walking. More people were gazing upwards. I asked what they were looking at but they just pointed and looked slightly embarrassed. The only ones not looking were the gang of tuk tuk drivers on the corner.

“Hey! Hey sir! Hello, motorbike?” they shouted. I’d forgotten about the relentless hisses and calls from the taxi drivers. It didn’t matter if you walked past six of them, politely declining each time, the seventh would still ask anyway. They had mouths to feed. I was determined to keep my cool this time in Asia. I was determined to remember how it all worked.

The next morning, I found out what all the staring had been about. The Cambodian social media was full of it, but opinion was heavily divided. Was it really the face of the King or just the crescent-shaped moon staring down at them? From the photos it looked unlikely, but I knew from staring at the moon, and its cracks and shadows, or cloud patterns, after a while you can see anything you want.

And for ordinary Cambodians, what they wanted in their time of grief was to stare once more at their former King and hope it was a sign of better times to come. Rather than the increased power of the politicians they’d been left with.

I walked down to the Royal Palace, where the King’s body would be kept for the next three months, embalmed for all to see. Thousands had gathered outside, praying and buying lotus flowers, as the street kids mingled between them begging for hand-outs.

The air was thick with incense smoke. They had given up burning the joss sticks individually and had set fire to bundles, pouring water on from time to time to control the flames. Tears were streaming down the mourners’ faces as the perfumed smoke billowed towards them, filling the dimming light with a spectral haze.

I returned to my hotel as the heavens opened and waited for the monsoon to stop. Then I waded across the road, two feet deep in water. The stench of the sewers was overpowering. The tuk tuks were holding up a computer print-out of a photo one of them claimed to have taken. One of them held a 10,000 riel note next to it, showing King Sihanouk’s face. They kept pointing excitedly and were still going on about it five minutes later when I returned with my iPhone to take a picture.

They might have been half hysterical, they might have been on the pipes, they might have doctored the photo, but as they held the note closer, there was a resemblance. I pointed to the eye shadows on the note, and nodded my head with the rest of them, and then pointed at the corresponding shadows on the moon. It was the King - the man on the moon. I even half believed them.

I waded across the road back to the hotel. The girl on reception was walking up the stairs. “Did you see the moon?” I asked her. She stopped and shrugged. “I tried...I looked for five minutes, but I couldn’t see the King.”

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Bangkok: Water Spinach And War

When I land in Bangkok on my way to Cambodia, the first thing that hits me is the stifling heat and the smell of fish sauce as I emerge from my airport taxi into the warrens of Thailand’s biggest city. I sit down at a street stall on a Saturday afternoon, an hour before sunset, and order one of my favourite Asian meals of chicken noodle soup, but they haven’t got it.

“Pork!” snaps the noodle cook, jabbing a finger at her spidery-scrawled sign. She doesn’t do anything else, and nor does her husband, who’s crouched at the back, busy prepping a grimy tub of water spinach.

I perch on a stool by the roadside, my knees up to my ears. My bowl arrives in seconds. There are a few slices of pork, tandoori red around the edges, a scattering of sliced spring onion greens, a few slivers of crisped garlic, golden brown in colour, angel hair noodles, and beansprouts. The nod to vitamins is the single piece of kale that somehow found its way into my bowl on the back of a spoon.

Four pots of garnishes are thrust at me - pounded dried chillies with what looks disconcertingly like a pube sticking out, an explosive chilli vinegar, sugar, and crushed peanuts. A bottle of fish sauce, toothpicks, and a plastic drum of napkins complete the street food decor.

Except I was wrong about the lack of greenery. As I delve deeper into the last loop of noodles, a piece of water spinach appears in the bowl. For some reason, I think of a story I heard about the Vietnam War, or American War if you live in Vietnam. About how the Americans were literally hoist with their own petards when they bombed the vastly underequipped but ruthlessly cunning Viet Cong making their way from north to south through the mountain passes of the Ho Chi Minh trail.

The passes were marked and American bombers flew over blowing holes in the mountainside. The men with their shoes made from old truck tyres were slowed but still they came, clearing the rubble and finding other trails. And as the monsoon rains started, the bomb craters became pools.

Messages were passed and the next group of Viet Cong brought live fish with them and stocked the pools, and the fish slowly multiplied in their new mountain home. Then they planted water spinach cuttings, which quickly spread - long, hollow stalks with a few leaves at the top, delicious when fried with garlic and fish sauce. As each unit of National Liberation Front militia arrived, they found pools full of fish and swamp cabbage to feed them.

I bite into the tube and imagine those fighters sitting around a pot, sleeping off their evening feast provided by the bombs that were meant to kill them. I sip away at my ice-cold Singh beer as the last of the light fades, the car lights come on, and Bangkok puts on its neon clothes and waits for the hustle and shrieks of night.

The noodle cook sends her young son to fetch more beer from a nearby store. Outside it is a newspaper stand packed full of today’s editions of German and British tabloids - they know their tourist market in Bangkok. At the bottom is The Sun. “Pleb And Buried” is the headline. “Cop slur minister quits at last.” London seems a long way away.

Tuesday, October 09, 2012

Cheesed Off: Complaint Letter To A London Cheese Shop

Letter to La Cave a Fromage - a "wonderful cheese retailer" in London...

Dear Sir/Madam,

I am writing to say how disappointed I am with a cheese I bought from your stall at the Thame Food Festival. It was particularly annoying because I’d read somewhere that you were decent cheesemongers and only sold the finest cheeses, and I’d gone there especially to sample your wares and restock my cheese selection for a supper I was hosting that night.

This certainly wasn't the case with the slab of Somerset Blue I had the misfortune to purchase. In short, it tasted and smelled of pear-flavoured ammonia, giving it a disconcerting whiff somewhere between nail varnish and a skate that’s been left in a plastic bag at the back of a broken fridge for two years. Even the wonderful crackers I'd purchased for the occasion couldn't cut the foul flavour.

Let me give you the background. When I examined the cheeses on display at your stall, a very chipper chap quickly directed me to your Somerset Blue - which he described, quite wrongly, as a “luvva-ly stilton we make ourselves”. It certainly looked mature, but I had no idea how much until I was unfortunate enough to try a mouthful. I should have been suspicious because I wasn't offered a sample to try, but at the reassuringly expensive prices foodie outfits like yours confidently charge these days, there is usually an assumed trust between purchaser and fleecer.

Instead, your cheese chap quickly got down to business and no sooner had his back been turned for a second to weigh a slab (was it a switch?), he said: "I tell you what mate, as it's the end of the day, you can have the whole piece for £6." He said it in such a cheery, and as I know now underhand way, that it seemed like he was doing me a favour.

How he wrapped it so tightly that the putrid smell of ammonia didn't seep out into the car, or poison ducks in passing villages, I have no idea. But as soon as I unwrapped it at home, the house was filled with an unearthly stench that reminded me of prahok, a fermented fish paste made in Cambodia, that had been soaked in tramps’ urine for a few days.

Words are useless for occasions like these, and I really can’t do justice to how repulsive it was. In fact, the unpleasantness of the smell was only matched by the revoltingness of the taste I had the misfortune to experience before I promptly spat the offending cracker out. When I checked with a cheese expert friend, a curd nerd if you will, he said it was obvious the cheese hadn't been stored properly, and the best place for it was the bin. Or perhaps an underground nuclear bunker designed for storing such biological abominations?

It is quite obvious that your cheese chap knew quite well how revolting the Somerset Blue was in the invidious tactics he used in disposing of his repulsive produce. But I would expect more from a supplier that immodestly, and unattributably, hails itself as a "wonderful cheese retailer".

On your website, you add: "Cheese is simple, it is mainly made of milk, but, at the same time complex..." Perhaps you mean toxic? Having re-read it a couple of times, you then really do go on to say: "Cheese is totally integrated in nature and based on secular savoir faire and human skills. We simply want to keep up with traditions and bring them into our modern world."

Well, you have certainly done the latter, and created something so contemporaneously hazardous, it warrants its own page in any good modern warfare manual. As for secular savoir faire, I imagine if Saddam Hussein was still around, it’s the sort of thing he’d use to terrorise the Kurds. Or perhaps even he wouldn’t have gone that far?

Yours sincerely,

Alex Watts