Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Cambodian Food: Eating Duck Embryos And Cow Guts

I met a woman in the sea who works as a marketing manager for Hyundai and eats for a living. By that I mean she takes rich Asian clients around the culinary hotspots of Phnom Penh to give them a good feed and persuade them to buy land-gouging equipment.

“I know all the best places - it’s my job,” Alin said, before quickly spotting a shadow in the water and asking me if there were sharks in Cambodia.

She offered to show me a tiny, family-run joint that serves the best Khmer chicken curry in the capital, and another cheap place that only sells duck soup, and the best street food stall for fertilised duck eggs, and a restaurant that specialises in offal with prahok sauce, and a number of other places I’ve forgotten about because by now I was looking for sharks too.

I met her a week later after catching a bus from Sihanoukville to Phnom Penh. She picked me up on her moped outside the Central Market and we headed off to a smart area of BKK1 to eat cow guts. It was at a type of restaurant known in Khmer as pu ko tuk prahok (cow stomach with prahok sauce).

It was Saturday night and the place was rammed. There were people sat around on mopeds watching every chopstick, and waiting for tables to clear, and still more people kept arriving. We sat down on a wooden bench next to a cook barbecuing steak, and joined the queue. Not that there was a queue, or line, if you speak Ameringlish  - people dived in if you weren’t quick enough.

Ten minutes later we were perched on two seats opposite an old Cambodian man who was merrily stuffing himself with intestines and cans of ABC - a hideously-strong local stout. He smiled as we sat down and Alin ordered away.

The first dish came in the time it took the waiter to walk 20 steps from the wooden boards where the cooks were chopping with blinding speed. It was grilled sirloin steak, served medium-rare and cut into thick slices. It came with bowls of grey prahok sauce (tuk prahok), lemon grass, red chillies, ground peanuts, lime quarters, and a plate of vegetables that she called a “Cambodian salad” - slices of green tomatoes, green bananas, culantro, and raw aubergines.

Then the star dish arrived - cubes of liver, sliced intestines, and strips of tripe, all simmered in beef stock. It was wonderful. We sat there dipping the offal into the cheesy, fermented fish sauce, and then the owner came over to chat to the only white face in there.

He was a rich Cambodian who lived in New Zealand, and his parents had set up the restaurant 20 years ago when the area was a dark ghetto and not the gentrified, boutique-filled strip it is today. He looked on proudly as more Cambodians arrived, waiting for tables to clear.

The next stop was a bustling street food stall outside Orussey Market, near the Olympic Stadium, that Alin said sold the best fertilised duck eggs (balut) in Phnom Penh. They were 18-days-old - the best age, she said. Not too ancient to develop too bony a crunch, and not too young to be beakless.

The eggs had been steamed over a charcoal burner, and were piping hot. We held them with paper napkins as we cracked open the shells and looked at the strange life form inside. I’d tried them before, but hadn’t looked too closely. I’d just shut my eyes, whacked the thing in my mouth, and swallowed as quickly as I could, trying to banish the thought of dark feathers tickling my tonsils, and beak crunching between my teeth. Then I downed a tequila.

This time I was determined to conquer my squeamishness. I sipped the brown liquor from the shell as instructed. It had a curious taste similar to duck stock and was delicious once you allowed yourself to forget about the alien beneath.

Then I spooned out a chunk of embryo head, crowned with feathers, and dipped it in garlic and chilli pickle (again as instructed) - followed by a couple of sprigs of a bitter-tasting herb that Alin called chi bong tia korne (fertilised duck egg herb) - and then another morsel of yellowy-brown foetus.

The unborn chick had a flavour that I found difficult to describe. It tasted a little like scrambled egg and had a soufflé-like texture. Then I crunched on the beak and tried to hide the thought of what I was eating from the rest of my mind.

As soon as I’d finished, Alin pointed to the second egg, and I got to work on that one too. It was far from unpleasant - reflected in the way young couples on surrounding tables were enthusiastically studying each flavour and nodding appreciately.

But it made me realise just how different people’s tastes vary from East to West. There was no way they’d take off as a street food snack in London, however good they tasted. I’d seen the same look on Khmer people’s faces when I’d given them mayonnaise.

:: My new, bestselling food book Down And Out In South East Asia is an adventure story, spiked with a heavy dose of backpacker noir, through the eateries, street food stalls, and hazy bars of Cambodia, Thailand, and Vietnam.

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