Monday, April 30, 2012

What’s Really In Your Lamb Doner Kebab?

Doner kebabs may originate from a predominantly Muslim country - but Muslims who eat them in Britain may be unwittingly eating pork, a report has warned.

Undercover trading standards officers who carried out investigations into 20 restaurants and take-aways found that none of the lamb kebabs tested contained just lamb as stated - and that four of the lamb curries didn’t contain any lamb at all.

They found that suppliers were bulking out the Turkish dish with cheaper meats like pork, chicken, and beef in a bid to increase profits while customers were told they were getting 100% lamb with their pitta, salad, and chilli sauce. Some even claimed to be Halal.

Of the 19 lamb curries tested at kebab shops picked at random in Stratford upon Avon, Leamington Spa, Nuneaton and Rugby, only three contained just lamb. Most contained a mixture of lamb padded out with pork, beef or poultry.

Officers from Warwickshire County Council trading standards also found that 70% of the lamb kebabs contained high levels of artificial colouring - which can cause health problems. One kebab contained 18 times the safe level of colouring, and another was 13 times higher. 

As well as revealing how kebab shops were ripping off customers, officers said the findings would cause concern for people who don’t eat certain meats for religious or health reasons.

Warwickshire County councillor Richard Hobbs, who after checking does actually have the bizarre title 'portfolio holder for community safety', said: “Consumers rely on accurate food descriptions. Some foods are not permitted to be eaten by some religions and cultures, whilst some people may wish to avoid some foods because of allergy concerns.

“Consumers should also have the confidence that if they are buying an expensive product such as lamb, that they are not getting chicken instead, a meat that is half the price.”

It follows a nationwide study into doner kebabs by food standard officers two years ago which found "shocking" levels of saturated fat and salt, false labelling of meat and, on average, nearly 1,000 calories per doner - or half a woman's recommended daily intake.

Six of the kebabs tested contained pork. Two of these even claimed to be Halal. More than a third contained a different animal from that on the label. In 15% of the samples, undeclared beef was found, and in 12% undeclared chicken. 

:: 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

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Why Is There So Much Lazy, Self-Indulgent, Pompous Drivel In Food Writing?

I was having a chat with a friend the other day about why there’s so much tedious drivel in food writing these days. Apart from wine columns, I can’t think of any other form of scribbling that is so self-indulgent, pompous, flowery, and lacking in thought and originality.

You only have to look at some of the chest-puffing scribes in the better known newspapers to see what I’m talking about. But it’s the cooks turned food writers like lovable, rosy-cheeked Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall who really take the biscuit. I liked his first couple of TV programmes and accompanying books, but for the past few years it’s just regurgitated, cynical, unsustainable codswallop most of it. He clearly ran out of ideas back in 1998.

A look at his latest column in The Guardian seems to suggest he’s just paid to write lists of adjectives and state the bleeding obvious these days. A few months ago, I gave up reading articles penned by celebrity chefs like Gordon Ramsay, or their long-suffering, down-trodden representatives, because even the thought of wading through the first few hundred words before they got to whatever they’d been commissioned to write about made me want to stab myself in the eye with a blunt pencil.

But HFW’s column caught my (pencil-free) eye because it was about a subject I’d half-written a blog on: cabbage - or cauliflower without a college education, as someone once put it. I re-read my unfinished post based on a staff meal of fried cabbage I’d had while cooking at a friend’s restaurant in Cambodia, and sat down to read Hugh’s insightful piece that no doubt would be about the loveliness of brassicas, and the stirring Britishness of a young, firm quill of cavolo nero, or black kale outside of overcooked food articles. 

No doubt he’d mention childhood memories of boiled cabbage stinking of sulphur in school banqueting halls, when dinner ladies would force open boarders’ mouths as if they were chubby foie gras geese, and shovel repulsive greens smelling of grannies’ farts down their throats.

I was right. It was in the first line, and again a few paragraphs later. Not about the dinner ladies, but about how he hadn’t always enjoyed cabbage and how it had been a while since he needed any “encouragement or threat” to eat his greens. He didn’t go into it any further for legal reasons I imagine. Those dark incidents at Eton were obviously still too fresh. But it gave him a handy hook to tell us that had all now changed and he adores cabbage, kale and leafy brassicas more than life itself.

He talked about “crisp, intricately-wrinkled” savoy cabbages and how the last of the Brussels sprouts were still offering up their “extraordinarily delicious” leaves. I know a few people who love Brussels sprouts, but even they’d be pushed to describe them as extraordinarily delicious.

What follows is then 450 words of hyperbole, waffle, hammered-in adjectives, and downright drivel. There’s the “deep, wine-coloured, curly frizz” of ‘Red Bor’ kale, and the “elegant, deep-green, upstanding quills of tender, gentle” cavolo nero - a vegetable apparently “bursting with character”.

I’ve grown a lot of kale in my time, and I’ve prepped more boxes of the stuff than I care to remember, but I can’t say I’ve ever really noticed it bursting with character. Or having any character at all for that matter. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever come across a vegetable with any character. One or two ducks, yes, and one particularly eccentric sheep that was addicted to Trebor mints, but vegetables no - which presumably is why it’s used to describe someone in an unresponsive state.

He then talks about how he likes to cook kale in chicken broth “in the aftermath of a spring roast chicken” - which is about one of the most unfortunate, pretentious phrases I’ve come across for a long time. Then he’s on about “cabbagey characters” again and how he likes to keep his greens simple - by removing the tough ribs of the brassicas and shredding them cross-wise into strips “no more than 5cm thick and as fine as 4-5mm”.

It leaves me with the image of armies of River Cottage lovers standing at the chopping board, ruler in hand, keeping it simple. Then we’re back to warnings about how overcooking produces that “sulphurous, school-dinner pong that gives cabbage a bad name”.

Eventually, he gets to three recipes for dealing with these cabbagey characters. None of which actually make the vegetables a centrepiece themselves, but just to seem to have them thrown in as an afterthought.

The first is a Chinese-style dish of beef with cashew nuts, with a bit of kale tossed in. The next is a salad of puy lentils, avocadoes, bacon, oh, and savoy cabbage. And lastly there’s a panade of onion, cabbage, and “robust” stale bread. Any stale bread is pretty robust, but Hugh helpfully points out that stale sourdough works well just in case you haven’t got any robust stuff lying around.

He says it was “inspired” by a recipe from San Francisco’s Zuni Cafe, which is a phrase used by food writers when they actually mean stolen. As in: “Antony Worrall Thompson was inspired by a bag of reduced cheese and coleslaw at Tesco.”

The panade uses “very humble” ingredients, says Hugh cheerfully, checking the word count for the third time. Very humble ingredients like half a bottle of olive oil and a block of expensive gruyere cheese.

Extremely humble to huggable Hugh with his book deals, TV shows, newspaper columns, River Cottage merchandising hubs, and celebrity-endorsed badger-gassing video game. But not so humble to the families now living off hand-outs at the dozens of food banks fast springing up across recession-hit Britain.

And that’s what apparently passes for stellar food writing these days. And I don’t know any other form of paid scribbling where you’d be able to get away with that amount of horseshit without having your head impaled on a sub’s spike.

The recipe is clear enough - take half a pound of nonsense, sprinkle liberally with unnecessary adjectives, cover with piping hot clichés, and bake until golden brown and bubbling. Then bring to the newspaper and serve. Even the subs clearly lost the will to live, calling it “Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall’s Cabbage And Kale Recipes” - which as headlines go is about as characterful as, err, cabbage.

So here goes...If you are eating from food banks, and gruyere cheese, olive oil, and River Cottage organic elderberry snifters aren’t on your shopping list this week, then you might like this wonderfully unctuous dish I had the other day when I was working at a friend’s restaurant.

The brilliantly hard-working and ever-smiling Khmer cooks and waitresses took it in turns to make staff supper and set themselves a budget of just 2,000 riel (30p) a day to feed four or five people, depending on how many were off sick that day. They made full use of whatever was going off in the larder, of course, but it was extraordinarily impressive what they could do with a few lightly-fried vegetables, fluffy rice, and the odd packet of free-range noodles. The permutations and heady aromas were endless.

But the most delicious meal of the lot was a splendid feast of stir-fried cabbage with a devilishly-fiery, incendiary even, chilli dipping sauce, helped down with the ever present bowl of fluffy, oh shit I’ve used that one, steamed rice. They’d spoon over tiny amounts of the delectable sauce, and then sup the air furiously at the chilli burn.

With the sour fish sauce and sweet sugar, it had tangs of the spicy, pickled cabbage dishes they serve as bar food in the many fantastic Khmer beer gardens out here, where they are ferried from table to table with bowls of sugared and salted freshly-fried peanuts, ice buckets, and jugs of foaming beer.

They’d chop up one of Cambodia’s excellent, crunchy, and slightly peppery white cabbages, core and all, into chunks of between 8mm and 4cm, and then boil it in a saucepan of lightly-salted, briny water for a couple of minutes, and then drain it - knowing full well how overcooking cabbage into a soggy slop would remind them of the school dinners none of them had ever received.

Meanwhile, they’d fry a little vegetable oil in a pan and throw in some very finely chopped garlic and a tiny spoonful of kroeung spice paste, made from pounding gingery galangal, citrusy lemon grass stalks, golden yellow turmeric, and leathery kaffir lime leaves.

Once the garlic had browned slightly and taken on a splendid, caramelised, nutty taste, they added the drained cabbage and stir-fried it for another minute or so, until it was flecked with the lovely, warm, amber-coloured curry paste. Then they’d make the chilli dipping sauce by pouring fermented fish sauce and sloshing in an equal splash of fresh tap water in a bowl, stirring in some sugar, and adding three or four roughly chopped fiery little chillies.

They served the stir-fried cabbage in a communal bowl and then dug in with chop sticks. It was simple but delicious, and made a small bit of an incredibly crisp, ivory-white, and tremendously robust vegetable go a long way. There was something homely and good, very humble even, about making something out of nothing - a sort of epitome to thrift in these belt-tightening times etc etc.

Oh well. At least I tried Goddamn it. Goodbye.

MORE: What's next for Gordon Ramsay? Monkey Tennis?

:: For more rants about celebrity chefs, my new book Down And Out In Padstow And London about training to be a chef at Heston Blumenthal's Fat Duck, Rick Stein's and other restaurants is available as a paperback and eBook on Amazon CLICK HERE

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

:: My new book Down And Out In Padstow And London is available as a paperback and eBook on Amazon CLICK HERE

Padstow Chef Scores Surprise Bestseller

A friend on holiday in Cornwall spotted this billboard poster about my book outside a newsagent in Porthcothan Bay...

Story in the Cornish Guardian - original article HERE...

Alex's Fabulous Failure

A WRITER has told of his surprise after his book about his failure to make it as a chef stormed to the top of the Amazon Kindle pro-cooking best-seller chart.

Alex Watts' book Down And Out In Padstow And London is a humorous account of the years he spent training to be a chef, including stints at Heston Blumenthal's famous Fat Duck restaurant and Rick Stein's kitchens in Padstow.

The eBook version was an overnight success, sparking dozens of good reviews on Twitter, and is in the Top 40 of the Kindle Store's food and drink bestseller chart, above the likes of Delia and Nigella.

It is also the best-selling eBook in Amazon's professional cooking chart. Alex, 41, a journalist and sometime cook from Burnham, Bucks, said: "I've been really pleased with the success, especially as it's self-published and I've just had to rely on word of mouth.

"But it is ironic that a book detailing my disastrous attempt to train as a professional chef is now top of the Kindle cooking chart. There's a section on my failed audition for Masterchef, which I think helped a lot because so many people watched the last show."

The paperback version came out on Amazon last month, but Alex hadn't even seen a copy until his father Brian, 73, flew out to Cambodia, where Alex is writing his second book based on a cook's tour of south east Asia.

The book describes what happens behind the scenes of Michelin-starred restaurants and lesser establishments – and the extraordinary characters who inhabit them. It begins with Alex's decision to give up his job as a journalist, and a fateful meeting with Cornwall's Rick Stein.


Story in the Maidenhead Advertiser - original story HERE...

Failed Chef's Book Tops The Charts

By Nicola Hine

A writer's account of his disastrous attempts to make it as a chef is proving to be a huge hit on Amazon's online book charts.

Journalist Alex Watts, of Lent Rise Road in Burnham, wrote Down And Out In Padstow And London as a humorous take on the years he spent training to be a professional cook.

Stints at Michelin-starred restaurants including Heston Blumenthal's Fat Duck in Bray followed before, unable to keep up with the younger chefs, he gave up the dream and returned to the office.

So it was all the more ironic when his tales stormed to the top of Amazon's Kindle books professional cooking chart, where he remains within the top five.

The 41-year-old said: "I've been really pleased with the success, especially as it's self-published and I've just had to rely on word of mouth."

The book describes Alex's various experiences in the world of cooking, from 16-hour shifts in a gastropub to a failed audition for Masterchef. Anecdotes from his Fat Duck days include the painstaking process of peeling grapefruit segments.

A former Slough and Windsor Express reporter, Alex quit his job at Sky News aged 36 and trained as a chef for two years after a fateful meeting with Rick Stein.

:: Down And Out In Padstow And London is available as a paperback and eBook on Amazon CLICK HERE

‘Sotheby’s Tried To Sell $3m Khmer Statue – And Knew It Was Stolen’

An article I wrote for Khmer 440...

The 1,000-year-old temple guardian was meant to “convey power over malicious demons, thereby offering comfort for devotees,” according to Sotheby’s sales blurb.

But it’s certainly not bringing any comfort to the world-famous auctioneers following allegations it put the statue up for sale despite knowing it had been stolen from a temple in the ancient Khmer capital of Koh Ker, some 120km north-east of Angkor Wat.

Yesterday, US federal agents announced they would seize the disputed artifact from Sotheby’s in New York and try to return it to its rightful home in Cambodia.

In their civil action, prosecutors say the sandstone sculpture, known as the Duryodhana, and valued at up to $3m, was looted “during periods of extreme unrest” in Cambodia in the 1960s or 1970s. They claim it was then illegally imported into Europe and then the US.

Continue reading...

:: Down And Out In Padstow And London is available as a paperback and eBook on Amazon CLICK HERE

Friday, April 06, 2012

Cambodia’s Big Role To Play In The South China Sea Conflict

A column I wrote for Khmer 440...

The last time a Chinese Head of State visited Cambodia was 12 years ago, so the timing of President Hu Jintao’s visit just four days before Cambodia chairs a major regional summit may be a coincidence.

But no doubt his arrival in Phnom Penh today will be viewed by some members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) as an example of China’s growing assertiveness in a region that it’s long had one foot in.

The economic bloc – made up of Cambodia, Brunei, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam – will discuss a range of issues like climate change, disaster management, workers’ rights, agriculture, tourism, human trafficking, as well as plans for a drug-free zone to be set up across SE Asia within the next three years.

But the elephant in the room – the decades old dispute over who owns the South China Sea, or East Sea if you live in Vietnam – is unlikely to get much table time, with Cambodia already saying the issue will be off the agenda, and Myanmar, Laos, and Thailand also reluctant to get involved.

China’s claim – as can be seen in the highlighted area of the top picture – is by far the largest, covering most of the sea’s 1.7 million sq km, including the potentially oil and gas rich Spratly and Paracel archipelagos.

Continue reading...

:: Down And Out In Padstow And London is available as a paperback and eBook on Amazon CLICK HERE
To buy the paperback from Amazon seller Wattzbooks at a discounted price, CLICK HERE

Wednesday, April 04, 2012

Down And Out In Padstow And London Becomes Cooking Best-Seller

Bit more press - story about my book in the Slough And Windsor Observer - original article HERE...(please note, there is a space between 'pen' and 'is' in the headline.)

Pen is mightier than the kitchen

A FORMER chef who gave up his frying pan to write about his cooking failure saw his first book rise to the top of a best-selling chart.

Alex Watts' book 'Down and Out in Padstow and London', an insight into the unsuccessful years he spent training to be a chef, hit the top of the Amazon Kindle professional cooking best-seller chart.

The 41-year-old, from Burnham, had stints at celebrity chef Heston Blumenthal's famous Fat Duck restaurant and Rick Stein's kitchens in Cornwall - but failed to make the grade.

"It's ironic that a book detailing my disastrous attempt to train as a professional chef is now top of the professional cooking chart!" Mr Watts said.

"There's a section on my failed audition for Masterchef, which I think helped a lot because so many people watched the last show.

"I've been really pleased with the success, especially as it's self-published and I've just had to rely on word of mouth."

The eBook version is also in the top 40 of the Kindle Store's food and drink best-seller chart - above the work of TV chefs Delia Smith and Nigella Lawson.

The paperback version of the book came out last month but Mr Watts didn't get his hands on a copy until father Brian, 73, flew out to Cambodia, where Mr Watts is penning his second book based on a cook's tour of South-East Asia.

He added: "When Dad arrived in Phnom Penh with a couple of copies, it was a very strange and proud moment to see it finally in print. I've been really pleased with the sales of the Kindle book, so hopefully the printed version may do as well.

"It's definitely a book aimed at armchair chefs and foodies who'd love to learn the trade first-hand from the professionals, braving the stress, 16-hour days, and low pay of kitchen life, but are far too sensible to do so."

MORE: Failed Chef's Book Becomes Kitchen Best-Seller

:: Down And Out In Padstow And London is available as a paperback and eBook on Amazon CLICK HERE
To buy the paperback from Amazon seller Wattzbooks at a discounted price, CLICK HERE

Monday, April 02, 2012

Samlor Ktis: A Cambodian Soup You’ve Got To Try

I got a message from a friend in England the other day who wanted me to get hold of a recipe for samlor ktis - a delicious Cambodian sour soup usually made from fish or chicken and flavoured with pineapple and coconut. A sort of soupy pina colada if you will. She had it when she visited Phnom Penh a few years ago, and missed the broth so much, she was desperate to make it at home.

It doesn’t appear on Khmer menus nearly as much as it should. But by chance they served it at the small cafe where I’ve been writing most days for the past few weeks. Considering the place is aimed squarely at expats, with its strange variations of fry-ups, horribly-sweet spag bols, schnitzels, cordon bleus, and mousakas, it was quite a coincidence they had something so traditionally Khmer on there.

The base is coconut water - an almost colourless liquid found in young, green coconuts. It’s vastly different to the thicker, richer coconut milk extracted from boiling coconut flesh in milk or water, that is widely used in Thai cooking.

If you can’t get hold of coconut water, then heat 500ml of water in a pan, and when it’s bubbling, add one tablespoon of coconut cream powder. Or you can use the same amount of grated creamed coconut (concentrated coconut cream sold in blocks). It should be a pale white liquid, and taste slightly of coconut.

Like many Asian soups, samlor ktis is very quick and easy to make - the sort of lunch you can knock up in ten minutes or so from scratch. It’s amazing the fresh, clean flavour achieved from just a handful of ingredients.

The main seasoning is kroeung (pic above) - a mild curry paste made by pounding lemon grass, turmeric, kaffir lime leaves, galangal, fingerroot (Chinese ginger), a little red chilli, and sometimes other herbs and spices. If you can’t find it in your local Asian store, you can use Thai yellow curry paste. But don’t go over the top - it’s supposed to be a very delicately flavoured soup rather than the usual fiery, coconut-heavy concoctions you find in Thailand.

If you want to make it yourself, then just peel and dice three thumb-sized pieces of galangal and put them in a pestle and mortar. Add three finely chopped lemon grass stalks, three finely sliced kaffir lime leaves, one piece of peeled and chopped fingerroot if you can get it, and one peeled and chopped thumb-sized piece of fresh turmeric, or two teaspoons of ground turmeric. I always add three chopped garlic cloves, three deseeded red chillies, and half a teaspoon of salt. You pound the mixture for five minutes until you’ve got a moist yellow paste, which freezes well and will keep in the fridge for a week or so.

Raksmei, the cook at the restaurant, started by hacking open a large, green coconut with a machete and pouring about 500ml of its juice into a saucepan. She then peeled and removed the eyes from a chunk of fresh pineapple, and cut it into thin chips. She then diced a small piece of barracuda fillet.

When the coconut water was bubbling, she added two level teaspoons of kroeung paste and stirred the broth for a minute until the paste was dissolved.

She then added the fish, stirred again, and added a pinch of salt and a teaspoon of sugar.

She turned the gas down and simmered it for a minute and then added the pineapple, before simmering it for another two minutes.

When the soup was ready, she checked the seasoning and added a couple more pinches of salt and sugar. It was a delicious, delicate soup. The slight oily sweetness from the fish was cut by the sharp flavour from the pineapple, which still had a good crunch when I bit into it. There was a gentle hint of spice from the curry paste, and its tiny flecks of red chilli left little more than a tingle on the tongue.

I’ve seen it made with tomato as well, which takes it closer to the many Vietnamese-style soups you get in Cambodia. They get their sourness from tamarind juice, tomato and pineapple, and are normally flavoured with fish sauce, pepper, shallots, lemon grass blades, and red chilli peppers, and are often topped with chopped mint leaves and spring onion greens.

Raksmei served the soup with a little bowl of rice. She said her barang customers usually eat it with a baguette, but she’d run out of bread. It was a lovely way to eat barracuda, and would work well with any meaty sea fish like pollack or coley.

It made me feel light and healthy afterwards. It even took my mind from my cigarette cravings for a while as I waited for my latest 25mg, step one nicotine patch to work - something not helped by the fact I can buy seven packets of fags for the price of one, very-hard-to-find patch out here.

I’d read somewhere that soup is so important to the Cambodian diet that women often greet each with the phrase: “What soup will you cook today?” I’ve never heard them say it, but this is certainly as good a soup to cook as any.

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 Rick Stein's and the Fat Duck, is available as a paperback and eBook on Amazon CLICK HERE To buy the paperback from Amazon seller Wattzbooks at a discounted price, CLICK HERE

MORE: Failed Chef's Book Becomes Kitchen Best-Seller