Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Cambodian Food: Top 11 National Dishes

I’ve just booked my ticket home to the UK after more than a year in Cambodia, and I still think I know less about the food than when I first got here. In truth, I’ve barely even scratched the surface of Cambodian cooking. I’ve not eaten every dish this beautiful country has to offer, far from it, and sometimes when I go to a new province I’ll find a dish that I’ve never even heard of.

My research hasn’t been helped by the fact that there are only a handful of books on Cambodian food, and only a couple of blogs worth reading. But I wanted to give you a list of dishes you should try if you do come here - the ones that really made an impact on me.

I began this blog scribbling in a roadside cafe in Phnom Penh, and tried to draw up a list of my top 10 Cambodian dishes. It wasn’t easy. I don’t mean finding ten, I mean whittling it down from the 20 or so I’d scrawled into my Moleskin notebook.

Which ones would I leave out? Would I shove in a couple of desserts for balance, or just the ones I liked best? In the end I settled for 11 dishes - I couldn’t see a way of cutting it down to 10 and I still had to leave out some excellent ones like squid with green Kampot pepper (pic above). So here goes...

1. Cambodian Beef Soup

This is a great dish and one of the best communal meals I’ve ever had. Cambodians love eating - they graze all day - and are very passionate about food. And I love the arguments that develop about whether, or when, the noodles should go in, whether the thinly-sliced raw beef fillet should be mixed with beaten egg first. And how long should it poach for? Forty seconds? There are few finer things in life than friends sitting around a table squabbling about food while topping themselves up with endless jugs of beer.

It begins as a bubbling bowl of beef stock containing chunks of tougher cuts that have been cooked until they dissolve in your mouth in a pleasing squelch of fat and gristle. The bowl is put on a gas burner on the table and so many side plates appear that there is hardly room for the beer jugs.

There are plates of vegetables, fresh herbs like mint, holy basil, and culantro (saw-toothed coriander), a couple of raw eggs, beef fillet, yellow balls of egg noodles, white balls of rice noodles, chillies, prahok, lemongrass, salt and always Kampot pepper. So many in fact that you could probably order the dish 100 times and never have it the same way twice - depending on who’s doing the cooking that is.

2. Prahok Ling

This is an incredibly powerful dish, flavoured with Cambodia’s notoriously foul-smelling fermented fish paste, prahok. The paste is fried with hand-chopped pork, onion, garlic, egg, and chilli.

And it’s so strong there are strict Government laws in place to ensure you only get a small saucer of the stuff, which you eat with boiled jasmine rice and chunks of raw aubergine, cucumber, green tomato, and white cabbage to take the edge off the extremely pungent taste. 

I’ve always been into bold, salty flavours, and for me it’s absolutely delicious, but it wouldn’t suit everyone. Recipe here...

3. Spit-Roast Calf (Koo Dut)

When I first got here, you used to see whole calves being slowly cooked in the street, and what a lovely sight it was too. But a couple of months ago, the Cambodian government, in its wisdom, decided to ban restaurants and stalls from spit-roasting cows in public – over claims they incite violence and are bad for the image of Cambodia.

Now you won't see a spit-roast calf on display anywhere in Cambodia (they're being cooked in kitchens and yards at the back). But although the theatre has gone, and Phnom Penh’s stretch of koo dut restaurants are noticeably quieter as a result, it’s still a dish worth trying.

The hunks of grilled veal are always served the same way, with a tray of crudités, salt, pepper and lime dip (tuk meric), and prahok sauce. The cooks get to work early in the day by butchering and washing the carcass, and then filling the belly with lemon grass, lime leaves and rice paddy herbs before sewing up the cavity. The beast then slowly spit-roasts for hours over charcoal and wood.

4. Salt, Pepper And Lime Dip (Tuk Meric)

Tuk meric is an incredibly simple dip made from salt, Cambodia’s wonderful Kampot pepper, and lime juice. But my God it works. You’ll get it with everything from hunks of barbecued calf to Cambodia’s horrendous beef lok lak, a version of Vietnam’s far better dish of the same name. 

But it goes best 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.

In restaurants, 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.

You’ll have few better days than sitting at a restaurant in Kep’s famous crab market, looking out to sea, while supping cold beer and dipping freshly-boiled crab into this incredible dip.

5. Khor Trey Swey Kchey

This is freshwater 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.

It sums up the rustic nature of Cambodian food - the contrast of the different flavours in the dish rather than how balanced it is - a common feature in cuisines that haven’t been refined. 

There’s a delicious combination between the sweetness of the fish, and its sticky, slightly caramelised sauce, and the very sour green mango on top with the herbs, and then the crunch of raw vegetables like green tomato and cucumber.

6. Chicken And Salted Lime Soup

This is traditionally served at weddings out here, but is actually of Chinese origin - a country that has probably had the biggest influence on Cambodian food.

Ngam ngov (salted limes) were brought to Cambodia by Chinese immigrants more than 700 years ago. The limes are dried in the sun and then stored in brine, so they soften and take on an incredibly sour, slightly soapy flavour.

The duck or chicken is deep-fried and then cooked in water flavoured with kaffir lime leaves, galangal, lemon grass, garlic, fish sauce, and the salted limes. Generally, the limes are used in soup, but you sometimes find them chopped up in Chinese-style stir-fry dishes, usually with strips of chicken and herbs. Recipe here

 7. Chicken Porridge Soup

Cambodia is truly the land of soups. I don’t think you’ll find a country with such a high proportion of soups on restaurant menus, and there is nearly always a broth at every family meal. But of all the great broths in Cambodia, and there are plenty, chicken porridge soup (bo bor sachmoan) is my favourite.

It’s traditionally eaten at breakfast and topped with nutty, browned, but not burnt garlic, and the herby fragrance of chopped culantro. As you dig in, there is the occasional limp crunch of bean sprouts poached in the heat of the broth, and the pleasing discovery of a little piece of chicken or bone to suck on.

Then there is the chicken stock, hinting of lime leaf and lemon grass, and julienne strips of fresh ginger that are, like the bean sprouts, stirred in at the end moments before service so they take on an increasingly cooked texture as you finish the soup.

Then there’s the soapy richness of the cubes of blood pudding, made from pork and chicken blood, and the yolks taken from the hens' ovaries, which glint like amber pearls. I could go on...

8. Fried Pork With Chilli, Lemon Grass And Holy Basil

Generally, Cambodians don’t use too many chillies in their food, the same way as say Thais do. Instead, they serve it separately – usually sliced chilli in a saucer, pickled tiny chillies in a jar, and a fiery relish of sliced red chillies and garlic, so people can put as much on as they want.

But this brilliant dish helps destroy the popular myth that Cambodian food is never spicy. I’ve tasted the dish in many restaurants and homes, and it’s always eye-wateringly hot - just like the green mango, papaya, and Khmer beef salads they serve, particularly in the Battambang region.

A huge handful of holy basil is thrown in, and cooks down like spinach. Its clove-like taste works well with the chopped fresh and dried chilli, and gives the dish a deep, spicy flavour, which is lightened by the zesty, perfumed taste of lemon grass - an integral ingredient to Khmer cuisine.

It needs no accompaniment, other than a soup, a bowl of sticky rice, and a kettle of cold tea poured into a mug of ice and drunk through a straw.

9. Cambodian Dried Fish Omelette

The best version I had was made with smoked fish that had been soaked in brine, and then grilled over smouldering wood for eight hours until they were hard and chewy. But mostly salted, dried fish are used.

The fish is broken up into small pieces and then added to a pan with chopped onion and garlic and fried for a couple of minutes. A couple of beaten eggs and black pepper are added, and the omelette is served very thin and dry with a plate of raw vegetables and rice. It makes a very savoury, rich breakfast.

10. Samlor Ktis

This is one of the many sour soups you’ll find in Cambodia, and is incredibly easy and quick to make. But like most good dishes, its strength lies in its simplicity.

It’s usually made from fish or chicken and flavoured with chunks of fresh pineapple, Cambodia’s mild kroeung curry paste, and coconut water - an almost colourless liquid found in young, green coconuts. It’s amazing the fresh, clean flavour achieved from just a handful of ingredients. Recipe here...

11. Grilled Pork With Rice And Pickles

This has become one of my favourite breakfasts. There’s something incredible in the way the pickled vegetables, chewy slices of grilled pork, and the pork and chicken broth work together with pickled chillies from the condiment trays to make something amazing.

The pork is marinated for hours and then slowly grilled. It has such a deliciously salty flavour and intense red colour that I can’t get enough of it. You pour spoonfuls of the clear broth over the rice and pork and then dig in.

The pickle is usually made from carrot, cucumber and daikon. They are cut on a mandolin into julienne strips and then salted. The water produced is drained off and then they are soused in a pickling mixture of water, white vinegar, sugar, salt and spices. Think kimchi without all the PR. 

MORE: Cambodian Food: The Chef Hailed As A Genius By Raymond Blanc

:: My new book 'Down And Out In Padstow And London' about my disastrous attempt to train as a chef, including stints at Heston Blumenthal's Fat Duck, Rick Stein's and other restaurants, is available as a paperback and eBook on Amazon CLICK HERE


Antonia said...

Really interesting article, thanks, but I have to ask:
"yolks taken from the hens' ovaries, which glint like amber pearls"
Sorry... what?
Does this mean they're extracting unlaid eggs when they slaughter the hens, and using them as ingredients?
I must be fairly ignorant about the finer workings of the chicken's reproductive tract, as it never even occurred to me that you could do that.

Elaine said...

Hi! From a young Khmer woman living in America. I really enjoyed your blog post, and appreciate the love you have for my people and culture. Some of those dishes are definitely my favorites as well. The prahok is one of my all time faves! It's got some explosive flavor. I can recommend some great resources for Khmer food and recipes if you're still searching!

Cheryl said...

yummy Khmer food!

Food Lover said...

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