Friday, March 16, 2012

Fermented Fish And A Tour Of The Market With One Of Cambodia's Top Chefs

This is the second part of an interview with Cambodian food expert Joannès Rivière, head chef-owner of Cuisine Wat Damnak, in Siem Reap. To read the first part, CLICK HERE...

I meet Rivière at 7.45am at the cafe next to the old market in Siem Reap as planned. But he’s not there. He’s already begun shopping for that night’s ingredients. He appears from the sweaty cauldron after a few minutes, shouting my name from across the street. You can see the stress in his eyes - he’s got to come up with six new seasonal dishes in the next nine hours.

“I had to crack on,” he explains.

I look at my Rolex and tap it a few times. I knew I should have bought the one for $15. We neck a napalm-strength espresso, and then head into the sauna-like covered market. I’m hit in the face by the smell of freshly-slaughtered pig and gasping fish. The place smells like a blood-filled swamp.

Rivière points at the different stalls as we press on. Everyone knows him. A chef from a luxury hotel walks past with a group of Asian tourists wearing masks as we’re picking through hyacinth plants for that night’s garnishes. The cooks meet like two old boxers, slapping each other on the back.

“He does tours round the market every morning for the guests. He hates it!” Rivière (pic below) laughs afterwards.

As we head to each stall, he banters away with the women in their hats and pyjamas. What impresses me most, even more than his knowledge of the local ingredients, is his Khmer. He cracks a few jokes with the women at the next stall, and then the next, and I’m left carrying the bags.

He shows me the freshwater fish and shellfish from the nearby Tonle Sap lake, pointing out the ones that are perfectly in season. There’s a splendid display of catfish, snakehead fish, Mekong langoustine (pic below), chlung, clams, and croaker fish. He describes the latter as tasting like sea bream, and says he’s putting it on that night’s menu.

“What defines Cambodian food for me is freshwater fish and the products that are used to keep them - the smoked fish, the dried fish, the fish paste,” he says.

We pass more stalls and he talks about the wide range of preserved fish Cambodia has to offer, from smoked minnows to prahok to maam to sun-dried fillets to the most pungent of all, a thick, black paste made from tiny fish and shrimps. I point to a bowl of minced, raw fish (pic below) sweating in the river-fed furnace.

“They don’t quite have the same hygiene - and with the heat!” he throws his hands up into the air. “That will probably be there all day - I wouldn’t recommend that for anyone.”

He chats away about the need to pickle, spice or brine fish and meat to stop it turning putrid in a country as hot as this. I think about how labourers building Cambodia’s 12th century holy site of Angkor Wat would have sat among the sun-baked stones, seasoning their vegetables and rice with the rich, salty, delicious taste of rotten fish.

It reminds me of the Romans, another great civilisation that had thrived on a similar fermented fish sauce to flavour each meal - and for some reason think about Keith Floyd, when he was filming at Hadrian's Wall, recreating a traditional Centurion recipe while cooking in a gale and berating the crew and assembled historians sheltering under a tarpaulin behind the camera.

Floyd is making pork stew flavoured with carrot, onion, garlic, red wine, parsley, cumin, ginger, marjoram, thyme, and dill. And then the crucial ingredient comes - an addition that plunges it back 2,000 years to when the Romans finally tired of the dreadful weather in Britain - a few glugs of Floyd’s “Centurion’s Worcestershire sauce”. It had taken him three weeks to make, he says proudly, waving the bottle at the camera. Anchovies, sprats, marjoram, red wine, and salt are boiled up and left to ferment before being strained and bottled.

The Cambodians generally just use salt and freshwater fish to make prahok, mashed under foot like the French crush grapes for wine. They leave the bloody mush to go off in the sun for a day, giving it the roof-of-the-mouth-etching taste of blue cheese, then bung in more salt and leave it to ferment for months, depending on the desired taste.

Just as the Khmers add sugar to cut the taste of prahok, the Romans added honey (they didn’t have sugar in those days). It reminded me of the first time I ordered my favourite Cambodian dish, prahok ling. It was so sweet I could hardly eat it. When I asked them to skip the sugar the next time I went in, I threw the restaurant into chaos. Even the owner emerged from her hammock near the kitchen to quiz me.

“No sugar? But it very salt!” she said.

I told her no sugar, and she cracked a joke in Khmer to the policemen playing cards in the corner. It was probably along the lines of: “What the hell does he know?”

WE BUY some pork, and then head to the chicken woman and buy a bag of wings for staff food. Then we stop at the frog woman. She digs through blooded plastic bags in the bottom of her ice box. It’s a messy task. Rivière sniffs the frogs before taking them.

“They sometimes don’t smell too good,” he whispers to me, “then I don’t buy them...”

We sit down and eat a traditional breakfast of grilled pork, rice, and pickles at a stall in the middle of the market, and he downs two iced coffees. He picks up a small bowl of sweet chilli sauce and pours it over his meal.

“When I first came to Cambodia nine years ago, I didn’t eat anything with MSG. Now I realise you can’t get away from it. Sometimes I now think I can’t taste anything without it,” he laughs. He points to an old woman drinking coffee. “She’s the best cook in Siem Reap, believe me!” he says.

I write down the name of her restaurant - Bopha Leak Khluon, tucked down an unmade road 200 yards or so from Hotel de la Paix - and go there later that day. The walls are made from green Heineken bottles. One of her specialities is prahok ling, translated on the menu as “fried rotten fish with egg and pork”. It’s the best I’ve tasted so far in Cambodia - and I’ve eaten a lot of prahok ling.

As Rivière sips away at his third iced coffee, we talk about Cambodian food again. He tells me how important it is to differentiate between traditional, ethnic Khmer dishes and Cambodian cuisine, with its heavy influences from Indian, Thai, Vietnamese, and perhaps most of all, Chinese cooking.

“People will tell you Khmer cuisine disappeared during the Khmer Rouge, but it’s actually not true. Phnom Penh cuisine from the 60s may have disappeared, but Khmer food from the countryside has always existed.

“You can still find those dishes - but people just cook them in their homes. When I was working at Hotel de la Paix people would come in and say: ‘Oh you’re rediscovering Cambodian food.’ But that’s bullshit, it’s always been here - you just have to find it and rip it off, and use it for you and claim it,” he chuckles.

We talk about the balance of salty, sour, spicy and sweet shared dishes making a whole rather than mixing the flavours in one dish - a practice popular in every cuisine that hasn’t been refined, he points out.

I ask him what he thinks every time he reads how Cambodian food is touted to be the next big thing. He agrees that it’s “definitely on the up” - but has a long way to go.

“To make a food famous is quite complicated, because people have to be familiar with it. Laos food is virtually impossible to find in France, for instance. I know one Laotian restaurant in Paris, which is excellent.

“But Laos food is very unknown, and is actually quite similar to Cambodian. People will tend to talk about it if they know about it. I’m sure it wasn’t easy for David Thompson when he started with Thai food in the 80s...”

He met the Michelin-starred chef a couple of years back, when he first visited Cambodia, and gave him a tour of the local Cambodian restaurants and street food stalls in Siem Reap.

“It was very interesting to see Cambodian cuisine with a very objective eye, not ‘I’m coming from Thailand, I’m going to compare it with Thai food’ - but more ‘is there any similarity?’”
Thompson told him that Cambodian cooking was almost the same as Thai food 20 or 30 years ago, before it became more refined, and far sweeter and spicier.

He says the biggest obstacle facing Cambodian cuisine is the lack of confidence the locals have in promoting their food, and how “some restaurants are doing a very poor job of it”.

I quiz him about Cambodia’s unofficial national dish amok, and say I still haven’t had a good one. I just hope he hasn’t got amok on that night’s menu. I’m relieved when he agrees.

“I’m still trying to figure out why amok. I think the first guy who wrote Lonely Planet must have put it in. I have no idea why it’s amok because amok is done exactly the same as it is Thailand - and it’s called the same!”

I ask him what dishes really sum up Cambodian cuisine. He thinks for a while, and then says khor trey swey kchey (pic above) - river fish braised in a mildly-spiced palm sugar sauce with grated green mango on top. I’ve had the dish a few times and it’s wonderful.

“What’s interesting about Cambodia food is it’s still quite rustic. It’s a matter of contrast - it’s not a matter of how balanced it is. You have the very sweet fish and then the very sour green mango on top with the herbs.”

I ask him for others, but he takes even longer to answer - khor trey, he adds again, prahok, maam, eels “if they’re well done”, and nom ban chok (rice noodle soup, often served with bean sprouts, sliced banana flower, herbs, and a mild, coconut curry sauce).

I mention Cambodia’s famous duck and salted lime soup traditionally served at weddings out here. The duck is deep-fried and then cooked in water flavoured with kaffir lime leaves, galangal, lemon grass, garlic, fish sauce, and its most crucial ingredient, ngam ngov (salted limes). But he says it isn’t Cambodian at all - it’s Chinese.

“Chinese-Cambodian food is as interesting as Khmer food,” he adds, “It’s the only big influence in Cambodian cuisine, if you forget the original Indian influence. You have dishes in Cambodian food that are actually very Chinese, but people will just assume they are Khmer...”

I want to question him further, but there’s no time and we’re off to the next stall. I’m handed bags of fish and meat, and a crate of eggs which are then haphazardly stacked on a waiting moped to be delivered to the restaurant.

I remind him about working in his kitchen, and he looks thoughtful for a second, and then tells me it would be better if I work there the following afternoon, given all the new dishes he’s got to create. I can see he’s going off the idea.

I walk home with my shirt stuck to my back, thinking about the 14-hour day Rivière’s got ahead of him. Cheffing is hard enough anyway, but working in this heat is unbearable.

MORE: Prahok - My Secret Addiction To Cambodia's Infamous Fermented Fish 'Cheese'

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Asher said...

Hi Alex. I friggin love your blog! I am an Aussie but my parents are from Cambodia, I had my first ever trip there in November '11 and it was a huge eye-opener. So many dishes that are well-known to Khmers living in Australia, France and the US do not exist in Cambodia. I am talking about yaohon, that banquet-style spicy noodle hot pot of greens, beef and seafood seasoned with chopped peanuts, shrimp paste and bottled sate sauce and served DIY-style! I am also talking about grilled whole lamb on a spit, basted with soy, lime, palm sugar, black Kampot pepper - and countless other dishes that almost all overseas Khmers know, but are virtually unknown or nonexistent in Cambodia today!

I am currently in the process of compiling as many family recipes as I can by my relatives in Cambodia, France, the US and here in Australia. It will be interesting to see how Cambodian food has changed over time and in various locations.

I also wanted to also make one (nerdy) point: the difference between Khmer cuisine, and Chinese-Khmer cuisine is fluid and arbitrary: various waves of Chinese migrants have streamed into the country since the 13th century, beginning with the Hokkien, and then in the 16th century with the Cantonese. By the start of the French colonial period in 1863, the Cantonese and Hokkien each made up about half of the total Chinese population in Cambodia, with the Hokkien comprising the majority of the rural Chinese population.

However the French accelerated the immigration of more Chinese (along with Vietnamese, French colons, and even Burmese - known as the Kola today) into the country: by the end of the colonial period in 1953, the Teochew would outnumber all other Chinese groups in the country. The Hainanese arrived in their biggest numbers in the 1890s, while the Hakka (the most recent Chinese settlers) only arrived only in the 1930s, grinding to a halt at the onset of WWII in 1941.

So the Chinese are and have been for a long while huge players in the development of Khmer and or Cambodian-Chinese cuisine (categories don't exist in a fluid environment). Look at pho. It is undoubtedly influenced by both the Chinese (noodles, broth) as well as by the French. You could even argue that southern-style pho with its abundance of extra garnishes and chopped up bits of offal are Khmer influences, Phnom Penh is only 200km upstream from Saigon). Are we to conclude that pho is not Vietnamese, but Sino-Franco-Vietnamese fusion?

My point is just that Chinese in Cambodia have a long history, they have been our doctors, fortune tellers, dentists, farmers and merchants for time immemorial: many Khmers actually have Chinese ancestry without even realising it. My mum has a Chinese surname and even looks pretty Chinese, but when i asked her about her background she replied with: I am 100% Khmer, Cambodia is my land.

Sorry to be so long-winded! Keep up the awesome work, can't wait for the book!

Some Chilean Woman said...

Holy crap! Where have I been?! Certainly not where you have been. Time to catch up.

Congrats to you!

Cheap Flights to Ho Chi Minh City said...

I am not the same having seen the moon shine on the other side of the world.