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 crudit├ęs, 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

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Phsar Prahok: One Of The Smelliest Places In The World



I was in an area where no-one speaks any English, and I’d got lost trying to find what I’d been told was one of the smelliest places in the world - Cambodia’s prahok-making hub, Phsar Prahok (fish paste market), on the banks of the Sanke river near Battambang, where hundreds of tons of freshwater fish are bought and sold each year.

How anyone would ever know it was one of the smelliest places in the world, I have no idea, and I’ve been to a few. But mention the name and even Cambodians hold their nose. I kept cycling up and down a mud track lined with stalls, and stopped to ask people for directions. But no-one knew what I was going on about.

The smell of rotten fish was definitely getting stronger though. There was just a gentle breeze in the hot midday sun, but sometimes with the wind on my face as I cycled, there was the distant whiff of Cambodia’s infamously smelly fermented fish paste.

I kept cycling, and then stopped to ask an old woman for directions. She was selling fresh spring rolls at the side of the road. She had five chairs outside her stall, and her cats took up two of them. I didn’t want to push them off. They looked vicious. The sort of cats used to keep snakes away.

I thought about dark, hooded encounters with monocled cobras hissing like garage tyre inflators. One of the cats yawned at me and stretched out its claws. It licked its lips, and we both looked round in the same direction. The wind had definitely changed. The smell of rotten fish was coming from somewhere behind those trees to the north-east.

I asked the woman again and she kept shaking her head when I said Phsar Prahok. Then she asked if I could speak French. She started to babble and slowly a few words came to me, and before I knew it she was shouting Phsar Prahok exactly the way I’d said it to her, and I’d gone through a number of possibilities.

She slapped me on the chest, as if to say ‘why didn’t you say so all along’, and then pointed to where the ginger cat was drooling. A mile later, the stench of fermented fish was breathtaking. It smelled worse than the crocodile farm I’d been forced to spend two days in for a story about whooping tourists hurling live chickens and ducks into crocodile pens.

It’s so strong if you get some on your hands while dipping chunks of barbecued veal and raw vegetables in prahok sauce, you soon know about it. Even bleach doesn’t get rid of the smell. Or as someone once said: “To describe prahok as pungent is being too charitable. It smells like it should be buried with corn seed.”

There was a huge fish processing plant hidden behind iron gates and then further on, where the boats were moored on the Sanke, a long line of huts filled with people covered in fish guts. Men were offloading fish they’d netted from the river, and the locals were sorting them into plastic barrels and crates before the real process of prahok fermentation would begin, exactly the way their ancient ancestors had done to preserve fish and guarantee a year-round supply of protein.

The fish are cleaned and then salted and mashed underfoot in barrels before being left to rot in the sun for a day - which helps kick off the fermentation process. More salt is added. Then they are weighted and left in huge barrels for months, depending on the desired taste or price, with prices rising in the rainy season when the paste becomes scarce.

River fish are put in barrels and salted...


The fish ferment and become a grey, cheese-like paste...


Prahok chopped and ready to cook...


The taste and smell varies largely from batch to batch, depending on the type of fish used, how carefully they’ve been prepped, and the time, skill and methods used to ferment them. The cheapest stuff is filled with bones, fins, and scales like the bag of prahok I’d bought from a street stall on the coast last month. It looked like it had been made from crab bait, and had a disconcerting ripeness.

In some of the other huts they were smoking and curing fish. Racks of fish no bigger than minnows were being slowly grilled over charcoal coals until deep bronze and rigid. Some of the larger fish were being turned into maam, a more expensive version of prahok. It’s salted for 24 hours, then stacked in a jar with salted rice and galangal, and stored for less time (usually a month) until it becomes sour.

It’s these fermented fish products that define traditional Khmer food and differentiate it from the strong culinary influences of China, Vietnam, Thailand, and much further back, India and Sri Lanka.

Many countries use fermented pastes and sauces, of course, to add the savoury, meaty ‘fifth taste’ of umami to food. China and Japan have soy sauce and miso made from fermented soy beans, wheat flour, water, and salt. Vietnam and Thailand have fish sauce, drained from salted and fermented anchovies, prawns or squid. Malaysia has its blocks of fish paste, or blacan, and there are many other varieties around the world.


But none of them have the cheesy punch of prahok. Most people agree it tastes of blue cheese. But it’s more the harshness and saltiness of Danish blue rather than the creamier, more refined flavour of say Roquefort or stilton. And always there on the palate and in the nose is the smack of rotten fish, as though you’ve been cutting skata with the cheese knife.

For that reason, you don’t see it on restaurant menus much, especially in places where tourists go. Sadly, many Khmers talk about how it’s now looked down on by Cambodia’s emerging middle class as a reminder of the bad old days. They say it’s the smell of poverty - a remembrance of their tough, previous lives working on the farm.

It’s certainly true of Cambodia’s highly aspirational pop videos, which always seem to feature affluent, pale-skinned Khmer couples posing around in shiny SUVs that would keep a whole village in food for a year. You never see them munching prahok at a street stall. It’s always pizza, burgers or fried chicken in soulless, chain-style restaurants.

It breaks my heart more than the appalling car crash at the end, which is how most Khmer music videos seem to end, with a girl crying hysterically, holding the lifeless body of her boyfriend in her arms, and screaming “WHY!” at the sky. Which is not the best viewing when you’re being forced to watch it on a bus clattering away on tyres with less grip than a pickled egg.

After an hour, I could take no more and cycled across the bridge to the old woman’s stall. The cats were still there, but this time there was a seat free. The ginger cat sniffed the air again and looked at me. The smell had suddenly got a lot stronger. 



:: BOOK UPDATE:

I want to apologise for the very poor delivery times of the paperback version of my new food book Down And Out In Padstow And London. For reasons that are beyond me, Amazon have had problems distributing recent batches. It’s something to do with the wrong metadata being input, whatever that means. But Completely Novel who print my book have promised they are trying to sort it out.

I don’t know how long it will continue, but I’ve been told that books ordered through Amazon will arrive soon, and they will obviously not take your money until they do post the book to your address. To help remedy this, an eBay page has been set up to sell my book. So if you want the book in the next few days, then cancel your order at Amazon and buy the book HERE... For the eBook version click HERE...


Tuesday, May 08, 2012

A Message In A Bottle To Rick Stein



You meet some very strange people in Cambodia. It’s a place full of misfits and loners. Expats escaping from something, or looking for something, and nearly always reinventing themselves in the process. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever come across such a high concentration of alcoholics, junkies, perverts, arseholes, and compulsive liars.

For instance, I met a guy the other day who said he was the executive chef of a group of luxury hotels. He walked into the bar, introduced himself, and then held court on his barstool telling us how difficult it was drumming the basics of hygiene into his Cambodian cooks. We got chatting and I told him about my dismal failure retraining as a chef and the book, Down And Out In Padstow And London, I’d written about my experiences.

I told him how the cheffing door had been opened when Rick Stein agreed to let me do a week in his Seafood Restaurant in Cornwall. The executive chef suddenly butted in.

“He’s one of my best friends!” he beamed. “He even sent me a long email when Chalky died. He loved that dog. He was devastated.”

He told me they’d done their chef training together in France, and hinted at the drunken nights they’d had. I listened on, but was thinking of something else. I’d been wanting to send the celebrity chef an email thanking him again for the opportunity he gave me, and how if he hadn’t, my book would probably never have been written.

But I’d lost Stein’s email address and knew if I sent a message through his PR people it would probably never get to him. I’d have more chance of sending him a message in a bottle from one of Cambodia’s soon-to-be-developed Robinson Crusoe islands.

So when the executive chef eventually paused to take a swig of beer, I asked if he’d mind passing my thank you letter on to the TV chef. He handed me a smart business card with his email on it.

“Not a problem,” he said, “Oh, we had some times together!”

Then he stopped suddenly and looked slightly angry and bitter.

“Do you know the difference between him and me? Do you know how he got to where he is and I didn’t?” He didn’t wait for an answer: “Luck!”

A couple of days later I wrote a thank you letter to Stein and emailed it to the executive chef. I didn’t hear anything back. Not even anything to say he’d got it. Then a couple of weeks passed and my suspicions were finally confirmed when I was back in the same Irish bar talking to the owner Ronan.

He told me the executive chef had been in a few days before and tried some of his Irish stew - a dish tongue-in-cheekily described in his bar adverts as “the best Irish stew in Cambodia”.

We’d been chatting about the best way to cook it because the price of lamb out here - $47 for a small frozen leg imported from New Zealand - makes it impossible to make. At least at a price the cheapskate losers in Sihanoukville are prepared to shell out for. Goat would have been the next best option, but we couldn’t get hold of that, and when I jokingly suggested dog meat Ronan looked appalled.

“My dog would smell it! He’d never come near me again!” he whimpered.

So I told him to use beef instead, but to throw in a few anchovies to give it a richer flavour. He made the stew with the usual chunks of carrots, potatoes and onions, and then showed me his secret of mashing up a few of the spuds and putting them in a thin layer in the bottom of each bowl, and pouring the stew on top. It was a nice touch and kept the broth high in the bowl while allowing people to thicken the thin liquor to their liking without having to do the mashing themselves.

He told me the executive chef had raved about it in the pub. Ronan began laughing, his arched eyebrows wiggling away.


Oh, he said, that’s a lovely bit of lamb! That's neck fillet isn't it?’ Fucking lamb! And he’s an executive chef! People were listening, so I just played on. What the fuck could I do? ‘I love lamb!’ he says. ‘It’s my favourite fucking meat.’ What the fuck! You couldn’t make that up now could you!”

No wonder the bloke hadn’t replied to my email. It probably wasn’t even his business card. The real executive chef was probably thinking who the hell is this idiot banging on about Rick Stein. I had to get the letter to him myself. The next day, I searched through my contacts list again for the TV cook’s email, and then decided to send a message to his press department, asking them if they would mind passing my letter on to Stein in between dunking digestives.

Surprisingly, I got an email from his PA the next day. She said she had forwarded the letter to Stein. And a week or so later, an email arrived from the celebrity chef, thanking me for my letter and saying: “I've heard a lot about the book and am ordering it.”

I can’t tell you how pleased I am. I’ve always liked the man. I know I rant about celebrity chefs and say they should all be napalmed, but like Fergus Henderson or the late Keith Floyd, who sparked the pandemic of TV cooks, he’s so different from the morons that plague our screens, newspapers, magazines, billboards, government campaigns, and stock cube adverts. He’s got a brain for a start.

Can you imagine Gordon Ramsay, James Martin, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall or Gary Rhodes even talking to you unless there was something in it for them, let alone arranging for a stranger and complete novice to do a week in one of their restaurants? And the lesser known TV chefs trying to squeeze their way up the rat cage walls are even worse.

I wonder what Stein will think of my book? I think he comes across pretty well, even if I do mention him in my tirade about celebrity chefs never actually being in the kitchen. I know he’s touchy about the name Padstein too, and there’s plenty on that.

But I’m far harsher on other TV chefs like Heston Blumenthal, who I only saw once in the three weeks I worked at the Fat Duck, and that was just a glimpse of him on the stairs as he took a break from filming in the lab. He didn’t even come down to the prep room to shake our hands and thank us for working for free in his restaurant. I wonder if that nutter in the bar knows him as well?


Book Update:

I want to apologise for the very poor delivery times of the paperback version of my book Down And Out In Padstow And London. For reasons that are beyond me, Amazon have had problems distributing recent batches. It’s something to do with the wrong metadata being input, whatever that means. But Completely Novel who print my book have promised they are trying to sort it out.

I don’t know how long it will continue, but I’ve been told that books ordered through Amazon will arrive soon, and they will obviously not take your money until they do post the book to your address. To help remedy this, an eBay page has been set up to sell my book. So if you want the book in the next few days, then cancel your order at Amazon and buy the book HERE... For the eBook version click HERE...

Sunday, May 06, 2012

Book Review: Down and Out in Padstow and London by Alex Watts



A newspaper review of my book in the Maidenhead Advertiser - original article HERE...

By Nicola Hine

If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen – or so the saying goes.

But how many people can actually say they've leapt out of the frying pan and into the fire in pursuit of the career they've always dreamed of?

Lennie Nash did when he ditched the relative comfort of the world of newspaper journalism in a bid to become a professional chef.

And while the results were pretty disastrous, the risk has brought success in the form of Down and Out in Padstow and London – the written account of his experiences.

An honest and enjoyable read, it begins when Lennie – better known as Burnham-based journalist Alex Watts – engineers a chat with TV chef Rick Stein and secures himself work experience in one of the restaurateur's Cornwall kitchens.

He's long dreamed of owning a seaside fish restaurant of his own and makes the decision to 'kick off the slippers and feel alive again'.

The need takes him from one restaurant to another, ranging from the most basic of establishments to the Michelin-starred kitchens of cooking royalty.

It brings about a failed audition for Masterchef, which sees Lennie make sushi in a bid to impress Greg 'the egg' Wallace and John 'the toad' Torode.

It also introduces a whole host of questionable characters ranging from a racist homophobe to a stroppy 19-year-old who locks him in a walk-in chiller.

Lennie's laugh-out-loud anecdotes include dressing in bin liners to pluck pheasants with a helpmate who does puppet shows with the dead birds' heads, and turning up to a placement at Heston's most famous restaurant armed with two knives in a Tesco bag.

In fact, arguably the highlight of the book is his time at The Fat Duck in Bray, which he describes as 'a three-star Michelin restaurant famous for concoctions like snail porridge, bacon and egg ice cream and a food poisoning outbreak that struck down 500 diners'.

From peeling grapefruits to prising open oysters – both equally painful but for different reasons – Lennie's jobs at 'the gastronomic equivalent of the centre of the universe' are a brilliant insight into Blumenthal's lair, although the real secrets remain closely guarded.

The whole book is a real eye-opener into the differences between the TV image and the reality of the kitchen, particularly where celebrity chefs are concerned.

It's sharp, easy to read and almost impossible to put down, whether you're genuinely tempted to follow in Lennie's footsteps or you'd rather stick to watching Masterchef on the sofa.

Personally I think I'll stick to my desk for now – but I look forward to a sequel.

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


Other Newspaper Articles...




Twitter Reviews:

"Cracking read...It's great - seek it out. Raw, honest, funny, great stories..." @eatlikeagirl

"Just finished reading Alex Watts’ terrific book - must read for anyone interested in food/cooking/restaurants." @jteramsden

"Bought your book and am hugely enjoying. Funny, engaging, interesting, lively." - @oliverthring

"Great book, Alex - a one-sitting read! Love the Chelsea-Barca scene! " @MarkLewis32

"A rattling good read." - @chrispople

"Sensational account of a chef’s life, couldn't put it down. Get it from Amazon now!" @Fishermansarms

"It's a fab read. The Fat Duck chapters are class." - @Mcmoop

"Really enjoyed it. Such refreshing food writing. Looking forward to your sequel..." @Jen_foodmag

"So this morning I bought Alex Watts’ book and now at the end off the day the book is done. Really enjoyed it - so easy and funny to read." @darrencoslett

"Bloody loving it..." @babaduck71

"Deserves to be bestseller - great book." @Blostins

"You will not be able to put it down - great read." @MTomkinsonChef

"Great, great stuff." @VictoriaHaschka

"Loving @alexwatts book, Down & Out In Padstow & London. A must read for wannabe chefs!" @londoneating

"A good read." @matkiwi

"A must read!" @brockhallfarm

"Currently motoring through your book. Great read - quite an eye-opener. Hopefully not an old wound-opener for you!" @drdickdixon

"Really enjoying Alex Watts’ book Down and out in Padstow and London. Worth a read." @Christian_Ace

"Thought the book was great, felt exhausted just imagining the work levels (and monotony - e.g. grapefruit!) " @applelisafood

"Just read Down And Out In Padstow & London by @alexwatts. Good read but couldn't take heat of being a chef." @karenmediawales

"Loved your book. Thanks for such a fascinating read." @hubbs

"I just finished reading your book, I very much enjoyed it. Bravo." @hungerincardiff

"Thanks for a good read, made my commute a lot nicer. My wife who's a Masterchef fan didn't find it as amusing as I did though!" @erik_me

"If you claim to be a foodie you MUST buy this book." @CorkGourmetGuy

"A great read about the reality of working at The Fat Duck & other less famed restaurants."  @alanbertram

"Very funny, very close to the bone." @AmeliaHanslow

"A great read and must have book for anyone in the industry." @philwhite101

"Thoroughly enjoyed it." @rosechadderton

"Excellent!" @MissCay

"Just finished your book, and loved it! Thanks for ending on a happy note; it needed it after all the reality ;-)" @voorschot

"Fab account of psycho chefs, plus work experience with Heston and Stein." @Laurajanekemp

"Excellent read & loved the ‘scary duck’ tale! I look forward to the follow up book (no pressure ;D). Great memories of first being addressed as chef." @granthawthorne

"I'm loving your book. Very enjoyable. Some great one-liners. "His legs wobbled like a crab on stilts" had me chuckling." @griptonfactor

"Highly recommended. A great book about changing careers for his love of cooking." @Whatsinmymouth

"Downloaded the book last Sunday and finished it the same day! Great read." @MTomkinsonChef

"Very funny." @SkyRuth

"Any of you who have flirted with chefdom, go and immediately download this book from Amazon - Down and Out in Padstow and London. Great read." @el_duder

"Truly brilliant." @kcassowary

"Just rattled through Down And Out in Padstow and London by Alex Watts in no time at all, what a great book." @leejamesburns

"It's brilliant, a fine piece of work. If you've ever wanted to peer into a professional kitchen I can't recommend it highly enough." @acidadam

"Fantastic read - the English Kitchen Confidential!" @cabbagemechanic

"A great eBook to buy about serving your time (literally!) as a trainee chef." @OkBayBach

"Great read." @rankamateur

"Don't start reading it if you have things to do:)" @NorthernSnippet

"Great book...couldn't put it down, read it non-stop on a train and finished it in one day."  @chunkymunki

"Jolly good read, feel free to do one more. " @esbens

Is Phnom Penh Really Being Overrun By Filipino Blackjack Gangs?



An article I wrote for Khmer 440...

I take everything I read in the Phnom Penh Post with a large bucket of salt, especially after noticing it couldn’t even get the date right on the front page a couple of months back. I’ve had fun spotting appalling errors like “insert byline here” in big bold print where a reporter’s name should be – perhaps indicating that even the subs don’t read the paper.

But it’s not just the subs. Far from it. A story this week must have left readers with the impression that if you take even a few steps down the riverside area, you’ll be pestered by armies of gangsters trying to scalp you of thousands of dollars in rigged blackjack games.

It appears you can’t walk anywhere in the capital’s tourist spots without some kindly member of a Filipino crime syndicate complimenting you on your sunglasses or choice of ice cream, and before you know it you’re hypnotised into a tuk tuk.

Generally, the fraudster will make up a story about how his (insert relative) is heading to your country and could you give some advice/assurance to (insert relative) while enjoying a lovely meal at their home. Then you’ll be hoodwinked into a game of cards upstairs, frogmarched to a bank to pay off your losses, and end up walking home without your shirt.


:: 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

Damming The Mekong: Cambodia Facing A Thai-Made ‘Catastrophe’



An article I wrote for Khmer 440...

Weighing up short-term economic gains against long-term environmental costs is always a thorny issue in geopolitics. But when the profits are reaped in one country and the ecological costs are suffered in another, then it’s all the more problematic.

There are few better examples than the controversial hydroelectric dams planned for the Mekong River – particularly the Xayaburi Dam in northern Laos, which campaigners say could devastate fish stocks in Cambodia and Vietnam by blocking migration routes, and may lead to the extinction of critical species like the giant Mekong catfish and Irrawaddy dolphin.

In a worrying development, it appears Thailand’s CH Karnchang is ploughing ahead with construction of the $3.5bn site despite regional agreements that no work should take place until more environmental research is done into the likely impact on the 60 million people living in the Lower Mekong area.

On Tuesday, the development company’s chief executive Plew Trivisvavet informed the Thai Stock Exchange that its subsidiary Karnchang (Lao) had signed a contract with the Xayaburi Power Company (conveniently, another subsidiary of CH Karnchang) – and construction work was scheduled to begin on March 15 last month.

At the time of writing, the Cambodian government said it was trying to get confirmation from Laos that the dam was going ahead, and that the need for further study agreed by the four members of the Mekong River Commission (MRC) – Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam – last December had been ignored.

Officials again warned of the huge environmental costs the project is likely to bring to Cambodia and its future generations, and stressed the need for more research to be carried out.


:: 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

Cambodia’s Booming – So Why Is It The ‘Least Thriving Country In The World’?


An article I wrote for Khmer 440...

I read a column in the Bangkok Post this week, entitled Poor Cambodia Not Looking So ‘Poor’ Anymore, which began as a thank you letter congratulating Cambodian PM Hun Sen for his hospitality during the ASEAN summit.

The letter took a swipe at the obvious wealth in Phnom Penh, mentioning how everyone was now the proud owner of a Lexus, and questioning whether the Kingdom still needed the huge amount of foreign aid it receives, when the streets were so obviously paved in gold.

Although the article pondered whether the word “poor” now only applies to the rural population, and whether any of the aid money actually reaches Cambodians in need, it’s a shame that foreign correspondents didn’t stray further than the scrubbed streets of the capital, which had been cleared of beggars and other unsightly features, and go in search of the truth themselves.

A quick trip into villages far from main roads would have shown the appalling poverty, malnutrition, stunted growth, and lack of education and healthcare. It would have hammered home how little money has trickled down to the people it’s supposed to help. “What’s that? There’s a new Range Rover coming out?” And that’s just the NGOs.

John Macgregor, from the Lom Orng Organisation, an NGO which doesn’t use SUVs or consultants, and is helping flood victims in north-west Cambodia, gives a very depressing picture of life in some villages. He says residents in one rice-growing commune on the Thai border are spending nearly half of their disposal income just on trucked-in water and medical bills.

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:: 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

Saturday, May 05, 2012

The Fat Dragon: A Tale Of A Cook And A King


I’ve just published a children’s story in rhyme called The Fat Dragon, which began with an idea I had while prepping endless boxes of veg training as a chef.

The first few lines about a King and his love of lime kept spinning round my head for some reason. It was probably the tiredness and the sleep deprivation. I jotted them down that night after the pub, and in the morning had a couple more lines.

Over the months, as I moved from kitchen to kitchen, I kept a small notebook and a blunt pencil in my back pocket. And whenever an idea or new line came to me, I wrote it down. Or at least I tried to in between the orders, heat, and constant bollockings.

It took a long while, and kept going off in different directions. Then I burnt the notebook because it was all rubbish. I kept the stuff about the King and the limes. Oh, and the cook and the greedy dragon. And then I spotted a folk tale in one of my favourite books ‘Folklore, Myths and Legends of Britain’ - a tome-like work heavy enough to press a huge terrine.

There was a story from the Midlands, or thereabouts, about a potwash, a King growing old, and a dragon who plagues the land. I don’t know why it appealed so much, but there seemed to be a lesson in it somewhere. At least there was for me. So I padded out what I had, and wrote it up in rhyme.

Anyway, sorry for the shameless plug, but if you’ve got kids - or are a kid at heart - you might enjoy it. It’s available as an eBook on Amazon for the price of a bag of Monster Munch. CLICK HERE...