Friday, April 13, 2012
A Umami-Packed Dish That Makes Marmite Taste Like Boiled Lettuce
The smell of fermented fish and chillies is wafting from the kitchen. Prahok ling - one of the best meals I’ve come across on my journey to learn about Cambodian food, and a dish so filled with umami it makes Marmite taste like boiled lettuce - is about to be served.
I can’t say I’ve tried every meal the Kingdom has to offer, far from it, but I’ve given it my best shot. I’d always been told how I’d only find the real Cambodian dishes and the secrets of this exotic cuisine in people’s homes, or in street food stalls, and the odd restaurant, and they were right.
I ate incredible dishes like ‘sour soup cooked outside the pot’ where vegetables, bitter herbs, and chopped hard-boiled eggs are formed into balls in each soup bowl and a broth flavoured with dried fish (a stock reminiscent of Japan’s dashi) is poured over the top. A delicious bar snack of steamed ants that tasted of wild honey. A Cambodian bouillabaisse made with hundreds of tiny shrimps and fresh anchovies, and an incredibly fiery dish of chicken livers fried with morning glory.
Then there were the ones best forgotten like stewed pork intestines with pickled cabbage that reminded me of German food for some reason. Boiled duck foetuses scooped from the shell. And that wedding banquet of rat and snake meat that almost coldly furnished forth my funeral the next day.
But the dishes I like most are flavoured with prahok (pic above) - a fermented fish paste that is one of the key ingredients of traditional Cambodian cuisine. Cambodian omelette made with fried onions, prahok, and sometimes dried or smoked fish is incredible, as are the chicken, beef and fish soups it’s sometimes used in, or the dips that go with hunks of spit-roast calf, which are sadly no longer a sight on the streets of Cambodia after the government banned them, claiming the sight incited violence and offended Buddhist sensibilities.
If you can’t get hold of prahok, the recipe works pretty well with two tins of anchovies and a tin of sardines (both are rich in umami like prahok, but don’t have the cheesy flavour and notorious odour that comes from its long fermentation process). To make up for this, chop up the fish, put in a bowl, and then stir in one tablespoon of Vietnamese or Thai fish sauce, the whisky-coloured liquor drained from salted and fermented anchovies, prawns or squid. Then add one tablespoon of mashed stilton and one tablespoon of grated parmesan.
It should be an incredibly savoury and salty dish, eaten in small amounts with crudités - cucumber, onion, aubergine, snake beans, and Cambodia’s wonderful white cabbage, with lime quarters to cut the chilli and salt.
The dish is normally made by frying prahok with beaten egg, shallots, chillies, garlic, minced pork, and sometimes tamarind to make a thick dip, which I’ve also seen pressed into a terrine and served in slices. Sometimes pea aubergines are added. But they’re more common in prahok ktis, a similar fried prahok dip made with coconut.
But the version I had the other day was so unusual, containing 20 chillies and a good glug of chilli oil, that I thought I’d share it with you.
Alin, who owns a small restaurant on a near-deserted, white sand paradise that will soon have an ugly five-star resort dropped on top of it, was taught the recipe by her mother before the family moved down from their floating village near Siem Reap.
She was so proud of the prahok she still had from her last visit there, saying it was made from snakehead fish from the Tonle Sap. There she was surrounded by beautiful barracuda, red snapper and some of the best shellfish it’s possible to eat, and all she could think about was the freshwater fish from her childhood. But it’s the same with most Cambodians. They much prefer the taste of freshwater fish, and pay much higher prices for them. And after trying that dish, I don’t blame them.
She started by washing the prahok in several changes of water to remove some of the salt. She chopped it for five minutes until it was a grey paste and then put it in a bowl. Next to it were 10 large, dried red chillies she’d soaked for 20 minutes to soften them up. They were there more for the smoky flavour they’d bring to the meal rather than heat. She chopped them up until they were a vibrant red mush. Then she added 10 incendiary bird eye chillies and continued chopping.
“Very spicy,” she said proudly.
She diced four garlic cloves, two red shallots, and poured three tablespoons of vegetable oil into a frying pan. Generally Cambodians just use a smear of oil, and then keep topping up with splashes of water when ‘frying’ food. But this was an emulsified, deeply-rich dip to be eaten sparingly with raw vegetables. As rich as tapenade or brandade de morue, but completely different in taste.
She worked slowly and said little as she chopped. It was wonderful to be in the company of someone so in love with what they’re doing. She tapped away on her board. Then she poured about 50g of peanuts into a pestle and mortar and pounded them for a couple of minutes.
Then she added the garlic to the pan and it quickly became brown and nutty.
She turned down the heat, added the prahok and the chopped shallots, and stirred again. It soon became a thick, greyish sauce. She added the chopped dry and fresh chillies, stirred again, and added a teaspoon of sugar.
The kitchen was soon filled with chilli fumes. It was so bad, her husband came in with a krama wrapped round his face. Then she added the peanuts and fried them for another two minutes before adding a tablespoon of chilli oil, and two more teaspoons of sugar.
She cooked it for a few more minutes, and then told me to go and sit in the restaurant while she chopped up the crudités.
The Austrian was there. He talked more than any man I’d ever met. His victim this time was a chubby Russian. They were chatting about places they’d been, and I mentioned I was thinking of heading to Sri Lanka.
“Oh, Sri Lanka!” said the Russian. “The food is incredible, absolutely incredible!”
From the size of him, he looked like he knew what he was talking about. He left soon after saying he was off for an hour in the hammock, leaving me with the rabbiting Austrian. Even when my prahok ling arrived he wouldn’t stop. It was too good a meal to waste, so I turned my back to him and kept nodding.
MORE: Fermented Fish And A Tour Of The Market With One Of Cambodia's Top Chefs
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