Carl Parkes’ new contrarian pants

This post is probably gonna piss off a few people, and make other people doubt my sanity or street cred, but street food in Asia is almost uniformly bad. I’ve eaten from food stalls all across Asia, and most of the fare was pure crap. Boiled fishballs in water with seacress is not food – it’s fish food for goats.

But that’s what is usually served from food stalls in Bangkok, Pattaya, Kuala Lumpur, Jakarta, Surabaya, Denpasar, Delhi, Varanasi, and Trivandrum. I’ve eaten street food in all those places, and mostly it has been less than garbage. Unless you have absolutely no taste or distinguishation in food, skip the street foodstalls and spend a little extra money and dine in a cafe where the chef actually knows how to cook.

Carl Parkes, Moon Guide author and acerbic critic of dire travel writing, has returned from his brief holiday wearing a new pair of contrarian pants. It’s an easy target to put the boot into every Asian street food vendor because they can’t fight back when you are out of reach of their razor-sharp cleavers, boiling oil and botulism toxin. The only expectation I have from a full meal that cost me less than 50 cents is that it will not permanently incapacitate me. You can’t make a silk purse from a sow’s ear, but you can make a non-lethal and tasty soup and possibly a selection from the Taco Bell menu. With this exceedingly low expectation as a starting point, I’ll occasionally discover something that befits any man or woman of distinguishation. At this stage, I’m not going to censure Carl for losing his marbles, street cred or dictionary because my personal theory is that he’s pitching for a job at an upmarket travel magazine and needs to offer them a low-budget food sacrifice as penance to the Gods of Luxury.

Seeing how the other half lives – Malis and Pacharan

I’ve had an excellent weekend of eating because I’ve had a friend in town who was up for an Ibero-Khmer food mashup and acting as an excuse to eat out for every meal.

Previously I’ve avoided Mali’s because of the large number of Black Landcruisers out the front. I’m convinced that if the ratio of Black to White Landcruisers is wrong, either the food is bad, expensive and over-Westernised (too many White) or the venue is actually a karaoke brothel (too many Black). Mali’s is in fact, neither. Khmer purists will inevitably point out that the food is both Westernised (i.e. the delicious Pumpkin Brulee; the general presentation; the lack of bones or napkins dropped on the floor) and under the fickle influence of Thailand (“Ack! Lime leaves!”), but I’m a strong believer that absolute authenticity is for chumps. Eating in air-conditioned comfort during the hot season is a godsend.

You know that you are really settling into Phnom Penh when faux-Angkorean statues have the inability to look anything but cheesy and you have hot season fever dreams wherein you are chased by people with stone Jayavaraman heads or Rama’s deadly monkey army.The cheesiness at Mali’s is toned down a notch but I still can’t help but cringe at neon-lit Leper King statue at the entrance. It isn’t to my personal taste but as Edward Said sez “Since the time of Homer every European, in what he could say about the Orient, was a racist, an imperialist, and almost totally ethnocentric”. Bring it on.

Unable to cope with the postcolonial landscaping dissonance, we ascended the cantilever stairs into air-conditioned comfort. Our attentive, besuited waiter was particularly keen to pimp a langoustine tamarind-sour soup upon us, with which we had no truck. We opted for a round of cocktails while we perused the photo-rich menu.

After much discussion of the campness of the Side Car versus the Long Island Ice Tea as metonym for suburban housewife alcoholism, we agreed upon entrées of the small “natural scallops” in rich glutinous sauce ($4.90) and the extra chunky prawn cakes ($4.90). Despite our waiter’s samla fetish, for mains, we shared one gigantic King Crab “fresh from Kep” ($9.20) with my current favorite local ingredient: fresh green Kampot pepper; stuffed pork fillet ($4.80); and a falling-off-the-bone duck curry with a yellow kroueng sauce ($5.10) rounded out our five meat meal. We washed it down with a bottle of the reasonably priced Marsanne ($16).

There’s no denying that this is the most expensive Cambodian food that I’ve eaten in Phnom Penh, if not the most expensive Cambodian food available. I’m well past feeling guilty about eating a meal that adds up to the same amount as a coworkers monthly salary. If you’re keen to show that upscale Khmer food can fit into the Western paradigm of good food, Mali’s is probably the place to coax your foreign visitor, before you head downmarket.

Overall, I award the experience two Leper King arms and one Landcruiser out of a possible two.

Location: Just south of the Independence Monument on Norodom Boulevard. Yellow Pages.

I can’t believe it’s not patxaran

Pacharan is still Phnom Penh’s most talked about venue, if only because of the impact of walking up the stairs into the second-floor restaurant and feeling that “I can’t believe I’m in Cambodia” sensation warm you like a glass of sloe and aniseed liquor. Its immaculate timber fitout, hammered copper features, custom artwork and stained glass in orange and yellow hues lend the stairwell and room a real warmth and depth of character that most Phnom Penh eateries sadly lack. It certainly isn’t like your average Spanish tapas bar but it is the only one with a view of fisherfolk floating down the Tonle Sap.

I’m glad we booked a table because by 8:00pm the room was packed and loud, with patrons being seated at the bar in wait. It is a strange sight to see waitstaff moving efficiently and at speed in Cambodia, but both were happening as the frantic open kitchen churned out Spanish morsels.

Service was not only quick but impeccable. Our thin wafers of manchego cheese, cheese-stuffed eggplant, albondigas, both the chicken and vegetable croquettes (all around $4 each) arrived within 10 minutes of our order; and our second jug of Sangria ($11) was refilled practically without needing to ask.

The big surprise for me was being served some rocket as a garnish. Rocket self-seeded in my tiny garden patch in Australia and grew at a rate that even the most maddened pesto fiend couldn’t pulverise it into a tasty pulp, before it outstripped my entire backyard. It not only had the ability to grow between the cracks in the pavement but could also materialise from the aether fully-formed. If I hadn’t left the country I believe that it would have achieved sentience and triffid-like defences by now. I realised that I had not tasted a single sprig of the peppery green since I left Australia more than a year ago and now it has returned to overrun Cambodge.

Pacharan might be the first tapas bar in Phnom Penh, but it certainly won’t be the last judging by the response from nearby businesses. K-West is holding a Spanish Week this week and Sa, next door to the Pacharan entrance, has already added tapas to the menu. Misguided stupidity is the sincerest form of flattery. I’m hoping that we’ll also be seeing a new era of Ibero-Khmer crossover: num anksom with Iberian ham, kroeung paella, prahok-stuffed olives and palm wine sangria.

Location: Corner Sisowath Quay and St.184. Enter on St.184. Yellow Pages.

mmm…Angkorlicious

Sachiko Kojima opened a cookie factory. She was soon supplying foreign tourists from Japan and around the globe with souvenir confections from this northern Cambodia city, the gateway to the Angkor Wat Khmer ruins. Her “Madam Sachiko” cookies, shaped like the ancient ruins, are now the must-buy souvenir for tourists visiting the city.

As much as I thought that candles shaped like Angkor Wat were a slightly profane souvenir (“See the majestic temples burn to the ground in the comfort of your own home!”), to use a Simpson-ism, these Angkor cookies are sacrilicious. Thankfully the must-buy souvenirs of the “Danger – Mines” t-shirt or a Jayavaraman head carved by small child hands have been supplanted by something edible.

See: Japanese smart cookie finds niche in Cambodia . Madam Sachiko’s own website (www.madam-sachiko.com) seems to be down.

Pho and breaks at Saigon Restaurant

Saigon Restaurant

I’ve had a sneaking suspicion that Indochina’s breakbeat scene is going to cut loose soon. There’s enough cheap midi keyboards floating around the music stores and the best software that money can pirate available. As soon as people run out of rhymes for “Sabai” then producers of bad Khmer pop will snap from their karaoke haze and start syncopating some big fat beats. This suspicion has been badly compounded by my dinner of pho and Tiger lager at Saigon Restaurant last night. Shortly after being seated by the staff, I was assaulted with a few tracks from Roni Size’s New Forms and the Fatboy Slim remix of 1998 classic Renegade Master, all played at ear-bleed volume. Extremely fishy.

pho at Saigon Restaurant

As you can see from the above photo, by night Saigon Restaurant is poorly lit by a paltry array of fairy lights, possibly to replicate that feeling of eating pho from an unlit roadside. An unlit roadside with a bass bin. In my pho bo ($1, but I’m paying for atmosphere), I could roughly make out three halved beef balls floating about, a sizable portion of real cow meat slices, and a few spring onions. As you can see near my helmet, it came with most the fixings: basil (chee krohom), saw tooth leaf (chee parang), halved limes, bean shoots. Good star anise and cinnamon kick in the practically unsalted broth. To top things off, tea was complimentary and the waiter generously left an entire colander full of ice on my table: a completely disproportionate response to my order of a single Tiger lager ($1.25).

Along with the pho (bo only, no ga), Saigon has a fistful of Vietnamese standards on its short menu, and will sear you quail, cockles and beef on their barbecue at the entrance.

Location: Above Vina Store, on the corner of Monivong and St.228.

Khmer New Year

Happy Khmer New Year!

Yes, the third and final New Year that Cambodia celebrates in this calendar year is upon us. But there’s more to Khmer New Year than cranking your karaoke machine to “eleven” and the recent adoption of the Thai Songkran practice of attempting to knock foreigners off their motorcycles with a well-aimed waterbomb.

For starters, there’s Khmer New Year games. I especially like:

5. “Leak Kanseng”
A game played by a group of children sitting in circle. Someone holding a “kanseng” (Cambodian towel) twisted into a round shape walks around the circle while singing a song. The person walking secretly tries to place the “kanseng” behind one of the children. If that chosen child realizes what is happening, he or she must pick up the “kanseng” and beat the person sitting next to him or her.

I’m assuming that you ineffectually beat them with the towel. Secondly, the Ministry of Tourism’s page on Khmer New Year is improbably informative this year. It even includes a typical Khmer traditional story; typical insofar as the protagonist has to deal with the imminent threat of being beheaded by a religious leader and then his corpse feasted upon by a pair of talking eagles.

Speaking of which, on the food front, New Year is another chance to fatten up your local monks and appease the spirits of the dead at your local wat with some num anksom. The only trustworthy Khmer recipe resource on the web, Khmer Krom Recipes, serves up Num anksom sach chrouk (rice cakes wrapped in banana leaf with pork):

Like many Khmer Krom families, each year, a few days before the New Year, my family will dedicate a day just for making rice cakes. Some of my relatives, neighbors and friends will get together usually at our house, some brings sweet rice, some bring mung beans, some bring meat for the cooking event. We’ll makes and shares hundreds of num anksom chrouk , num anksom chet, num kom. Most the cakes will be giving away to neighbors, friends and the poor. We’ll take some sweet rice cakes to Wats for food offerings to our ancestors.

Sadly, my neighbours haven’t been so industrious this year, but they generously gave me a big plate of steamed corn which they told me that they “cooked with no chemicals”, so no more grey onion sauce for me.

Sihanoukville is the Next Goa III: Beyond Thunderdome

Glowstick-wielding candy ravers rejoice:

THE “largest and wildest” full-moon party, promised the yellow flier taped to a phone booth on Khaosan Road in Bangkok. Another installment of Thailand’s girls-gone-wild bacchanal on the island of Ko Phangan? Or its bigger brother, Ko Samui? Or maybe it was the newcomer Ko Phi Phi, a remote island that is luring younger partygoers in the post-tsunami boom.

Not quite. This particular moonlight spectacle, in fact, wouldn’t even be in Thailand, but across the border, in Cambodia’s budding seaside town, Sihanoukville. It is “just nine-and-a-half hours from Bangkok,” according to the flier, the work of Cambodian entrepreneurs hoping to turn Sihanoukville into the latest party hot spot.

Those Google Ads that the New York Times has been running about “The Cambodia Craze” must be paying off, because Sihanoukville is back again with the words “In Cambodia, the ‘Next Phuket’?”. Jeff Koyen actually mentions that ” it won’t be long before the stretches of sandy seclusion are overrun with package tourists” which is an excellent assessment if the cruise ships start rolling in. Mark my words, Sihanoukville is the next Ensenada.

Satay Cart

Satay at Chatuchuk

Pristine white countertop, immaculately displayed satay skewers, and the sense of organisation and style that I have never seen within the Cambodian street food genre. Largely, because this satay cart wasn’t in Cambodia, it was under the stairs at the Mo Chit skytrain station near Chatuchak Market in Bangkok. If strolling over the top of a waft of satay smoke doesn’t make you hungry, I’m probably not going to be the first person to tell you that you live a life of olfactory impecunity.

Quick Melbourne Roundup

If you want to know why the blogging has been slow over the past few weeks: I’ve been in Australia for weddings, returning via Singapore and then Bangkok thanks to JetstarAsia being shithouse. Those of you paying forensic attention will notice that the background of the Chocolate Flavour Collon shot is in fact the floor of the departure terminal at Pochentong Airport. I haven’t indulged in much Cambodian food as such, but a whole lot of cheese, lamb, and bottom-fermented ales.

On the Melbourne bar scene, Manchuria has taken over the old Chez Phat space and fitted it out as an opium den, substituting iniquity for a rampaging cocktail list and a wide selection of whiskeys. Thanks to them, I discovered that one of my favorite Melbourne brewers, 3 Ravens is now bottling and widely available. In new bar trends, Section 8 (pictured below) has taken the a piece of wharfside streetside, turning a space that you could easily mistake for a carpark into a space that you could still easily mistake for a carpark. Artifice is the new subterfuge.

Section 8 Container Bar, Melbourne, Australia

As for Cambodian food, Melbourne’s best Khmer restaurant, Bopha Devi has also opened a new outlet in the Docklands. Next time I’m back and my cash situation is liquid, I’ll drop by to review their $24 amok trei.