Tony Wheeler needs new Friends

On my Singapore-Shanghai jaunt I spent a couple of nights in Phnom Penh and if the restaurants I tried hadn’t been up to scratch I would have been severely disappointed, since I was dining with Nick Ray. He’s the author of our Cambodia guide and also advised on locations for the movie Tomb Raiders’ Cambodian sites, Nick knows his way around the country. Friends was set up to employ street kids, many of whom go on to work in other hotels and restaurants. The food is superb.

When asked to name his top ten restaurants worldwide, Lonely Planet co-founder Tony Wheeler lists Friends of Phnom Penh, which left me with one question: what the fuck? I admire Friends’ work and know a couple of successful graduates from their hospitality training but their pseudo-tapas eatery hardly rates alongside the world’s or even Cambodia’s best restaurants. Although the Lonely Planet is almost my last resort for a restaurant recommendation (fitting somewhere between “moto-taxi driver” and “the khmer guy who eats the leftovers from my bin”), I’m going to take my future food advice from them with a mound of salt.

Corn on the Cob with Grey Onion Sauce

Cambodian Corn Vendor

There isn’t a nation in the world that doesn’t sell corn-on-the-cob as street food and Cambodia is no exception. I have seen people barbecuing corn streetside in all the Cambodian provinces to which I have toured. This particular corn-griller was fired up in Hun Sen Park, but frankly, Phnom Penh is rife with them.

Cambodian Corn with Grey Sauce

What attracted me to this particular vendor was a curious pale grey sauce that she ladelled over the corn. As I am wont to pimp Cambodian culinary innovations, I bought one of the less dessicated looking cobs for a few hundred riel and asked for a dose of the grey stuff. I was hoping for prahok-flavour. The sauce had the consistency and flavour of warm dishwater after you had recently cleaned the plates from a meal that consisted solely of week old spring onions, chicken necks, and MSG. I now have a much deeper understanding of why this particular corn condiment hasn’t had the same global appeal as butter and ground pepper.

Addendum (18 April 2006): After a discussion with a workmate, the grey sauce is alleged to be coconut milk, salt, monosodium glutamate, spring onions, oil and fish sauce.

Chocolate Flavour Collon


The good news for Japanese expats and Pocky fans alike is that Starmart in Cambodia has started stocking Glico products via Thailand. The bad news is that Glico have also imported their Japanese brand of Engrish humour with them, as evidenced by the Chocolate Flavour Collon.

Collon is available in flavours that run from nauseating (“Strawberry”) to downright weird (“Green Tea”), but on my mission to Starmart for some milk, I only spotted the Chocolate and the Cream flavour.

As for the taste, I only bought the Chocolate, because Cream Flavour Collon made me feel dirty. It had a pleasingly crisp carapace surrounded a slightly gooey, chocolate-flavoured pool cleaner substance.

Overall, the experience was marginally less infuriating than the Flash-heavy Thai Glico website. I clicked through to the Collon page in hope of shedding some light on its ingredients and was greeted with a full-motion commercial for Green Tea Collon starring someone who I swear is the Thai sister of Juliette Lewis, cavorting overzealously in a tea field with her Thai friends. The level of their zealotry seems to suggest that the main ingredient in the Green tea flavour is cocaine. I looked no further.

Riches in the ruins

“When I was in the jungle,” Kat Manh tells me, “I ate this.” He is pointing at a drawing of a pig-tailed macaque in a park leaflet on protected species. “Also this,” – a crab-eating macaque – “this,” – a Sunda pangolin – “and this,” – a common palm civet. “Very tasty,” he concludes

This is the confirmation I needed: pangolin is tasty. Now I just have to work out how to crack them open. I believe you need a lobster fork, something that Andrew Marshall from the Telegraph omits to mention when he hits Cambodia’s best ghost town at Bokor.

See: Riches in the Ruins with an inexcusable companion piece just to prove that you can’t publish a travel article about Cambodia without mentioning Angkor.

Amok Trei (Fish Amok), part 2

Jo, one of my readers, is much more hardcore about fish amok than me. Frankly, I respect that.

She writes:

Dear Phil

Please just allow me to be a French bad surrender monkey and give you a lecture about Amok by correcting a few things. If I agree that there is about one recipe of amok per cook in Cambodia there are some rules so you can call your dish amok.

First of all the krachai (in Thai, ktchey in Khmer, Kaempferia pandatura in Latin, zedoary in English) is the most important spice in amok. You shouldn’t advice not to use it or you amok won’t taste much different than Samla kti (and that we don’t want, damned no)

Amok paste is nothing but Khmer yellow curry paste mixed with krachai.

Here is a recipe:
Yellow paste
1 small piece of fresh turmeric
1 small piece of galangal
2 stem of lemongrass (no green on)
4 shallots
2 garlic cloves
2 kaffir leafs
To turn it as amok paste, just add 3 pieces of krachai.

Second weird thing, shrimp paste: ask any Khmer female cook and you’ll see that you should use prahok (I recommend some good prahok trey compliegn 10000 riel/kg if it’s from the year). A small spoon will do, thinly chopped before being used. Kapi! And why not barbecue sauce too???

Chili? Some people use it for amok. Others don’t. What is sure is that is shouldn’t be fresh chili but always dried (fresh chili is only for salad or Thai curry paste.) Just soak them and chop them thinly, using a bit of palm sugar to make a paste.

Amok is always sweet. So trust me, palm sugar, palm sugar, palm sugar…

Amok is amok because it is made with slok gno (a leaf from a tree that doesn’t seem to have a good name in English or French. Morinda Citrifolia in Latin.) It’s available on every local market. The fruit of the tree once ripe has an interesting smell of old spoiled French cheese. The leaf brings a little bit of bitterness and the characteristic taste of Amok. When I go home I usually replace it with Swiss chard green (or spinach at least)

How is your amok going to hold without eggs once you steamed it? If steamed amok is quite popular among expatriated and tourists I would believe that among Khmers the liquid version is the most cooked and ate. The steamed one is originally made to be taken away when people go the rice field.

One last thing. Could we stop decorating amok or soup or whatever with kaffir leafs and chili julienne? Khmer food is delicate and complex enough so it doesn’t have to be ruined with that kind of things. Let’s just leave it to the Thai.

Sorry for that. It had to come out. Have a good day.

(Addendum, 13/03/06, Mid-morning: Jo is a man. Sorry.)

Sam Doo Restaurant

Sam Doo Hot Pot

I haven’t been eating much Chinese food in restaurants since I’ve been in Cambodia because until recently, I’d been sorely let down by it. This was largely a function of my own laziness. My nearest Chinese is just north of the intersection of Mao Tse Toung Boulevard (appropriately) and Monivong, where there are three Cantonese restaurants that specialise entirely in offal – to which I’m not entirely averse, but I’m not really in the mood for organs all the time. One of the places has the evocatively named “Mixed Insides” on the menu and when I enquired as to which insides were included, the waitress told me “All of them”. Just south of there on Monivong is Hua Nam Restaurant, which is designed solely for patronage by Chinese garment factory owners and consequently is just beyond my price range, as is Xiang Palace at the Intercontinental Hotel, which does excellent yum cha ($10 all-you-can-eat dim sum, Mon-Sat).

I was searching for the calibre of Cantonese food that people like Supper Inn in Melbourne would purvey to me at low, low prices but I had not been putting in any effort to find it. It only took four people recommending me Sam Doo before I realised that cheap, good Cantonese was back on the menu for me in Phnom Penh.

I don’t go out for lunch as often as the average expat but needed to repay Roman the favour of recommending me Enjoy Restaurant. I ordered the Seafood and Beancurd Hotpot ($3.60) in homage to my favorite dish at Supper Inn, their Pork Belly and Beancurd Hotpot; and the Siew Mai dumplings ($1.20) in homage to the deliciousness of mixing swine with seafood.

The siew mai had a fairly large slug of sesame oil in it, pork, very finely minced prawn, all enclosed in a chewy beancurd wrapper. The hotpot was spot on: sweet, glossy, glutinous sauce; crisp slices of young ginger and spring onion; soft, fried pouches of beancurd; fresh squid, sliced fish and a few small shelled prawns to make up the seafood quotient. Served bubbling hot. Food this rich makes me glad that it’s Friday and if I was less committed to my real job, I would have floated off to a beer garden somewhere for a mid-afternoon digestif.

Roman selected the chili chicken ($4.40) to make a direct comparison to Enjoy Restaurant just around the corner. Battered, deep-fried slices of boneless chicken with a few scant pieces of diced capsicum and chili wasn’t what he expected, but was hugely enhanced with spoonful of chili oil from the canister on our table. The food arrived less than ten minutes from our order.

By Khmer standards, the restaurant was squeaky clean. Being able to see the kitchen in the front actually made me contemplate eating, rather than thinking about where I’d stashed the anti-diarrhea medicines at home. Service was attentive despite being busy and I think that I’ll be back there often enough for them to get to know me.

Location: On Kampuchea Krom (st.128) between Monivong and Psar Thmei, near the corner of Monivong. Contact details. Phnom Penh photoblogger Mythicaldude has a great photo of the kitchen at the front of the restaurant.

Bayon and Angkor Beer: Colonial Heritage Edition

Bayon Beer

Cambodian Beer Labels

Angkor

A hand-illustrated beer label bestows the trappings of refinement even on Bayon Beer. It makes it look like the class of beer that you would savour on the balcony of Bokor Casino in its heyday while you watched the islands recede into the mist; contemplating which dinner suit you’d wear that evening.

While I was on the hunt for the dubious origin of Love Beer, I stumbled across Mick, a beer label collector who is on the lookout for Cambodian beer labels. He has posted his collection of 1960s-era Bayon and Angkor labels on his site (which he has kindly allowed me to reproduce) and would love to get in touch with any local or international collectors willing to trade in South East Asian labels. His firm belief is that Love Beer is from Indonesia and the “Singapore” on the can refers to the brewery. The mystery ensues.

For label-trading action and a tale of one collector’s heartbreak at the gates of the Cambodia Breweries cannery, see Mick’s website.

Bayon

Love Beer

Love Beer

The beer that asks the question to which you answer, “Of course I do, but not this one”.

There is a moment in The Man With The Golden Gun where Herve Villechaize, that white-suited, vindictive dwarf from Fantasy Island, chats with James Bond about killing his boss, Francisco Scaramanga (played inimitably by Christopher Lee). “If you kill him, I get to keep the island” says the dwarf, referring to Scaramanga’s tropical island lair and most likely to Fantasy Island as well. Just like you should be suspicious of a man bedecked in a white suit, you too should be suspicious of a beer that is dressed in a white can.

I became even more apprehensive about this beer when I couldn’t easily ascertain its origin. According to the can, this brew’s island lair is Singapore and is rumoured to be brewed by APB, the same team that bring you ABC Stout. I say rumoured because the only reference I can find for a point of origin of this beer is on www.beergirls.org: a non-government organisation devoted to monitoring “sales practices and health, safety and welfare policies of major globalized beer companies observed doing business in Cambodia” in their handy spotter’s guide to the beer promotion women of Siem Reap.

APB says: Nothing.

Beergirls.org says: “Frankly, I abhor your policies in these regions and I would prefer taking my business to a company that does not have such reprehensible practices.”

I say: The novelty of making jokes about the emaciated quality of Asian beer is beginning to wear thin. Ho ho. There is a suspicious hint of hops oil bitterness but not much malt. Does not taste or smell anything like “love”.

Availability: Uncommon, can only.

Best Coffee in Phnom Penh?

That thin dark water sweetened with condensed milk no longer cutting it? Get yourself to FCC’s latest off-shoot, Café Fresco. It’s the first place I’ve been in Phnom Penh that can actually serve a decent Italian-style coffee ($2), which in Phnom Penh terms, is the price of a full breakfast. They’ve got imported Illy beans and a decent espresso machine that they know how to use. To top it off, they’ll also make you one of Phnom Penh’s most expensive sandwiches in surrounds that could have been transplanted from any slick, soulless café the world over.

Location: Below FCC. Contact details