Five (Cambodian) foods you should eat before you die

I generally don’t jump on the meme bandwagon. When one of my favourite food web loggers, Austin at RealThai tags me for it, and Robyn at EatingAsia jumps on as well, it certainly can’t hurt to be seduced this time.

In 2004, BBC published a voter-recommend list of “foods to to eat before you die” which mostly proved that democracy does not work. Huge food blog Traveler’s Lunchbox pointed this out recently and sent out the call to food bloggers to nominate something better. Being the pimp of Khmer cuisine that I have become, here is my list of Cambodian foods to eat before you meet your untimely, but not wholly unexpected, denouement.

Prahok
– It’s a little hard to wax lyrical about any food that is both the color grey and made from gutted, mashed then fermented animals. But if Cambodia was to replace the architectural ruin on their national flag with a foodstuff, prahok would be the most representative and versatile but the least visually appealing. You can eat this fermented fish paste raw, cooked, as a dipping sauce, and as a crucial ingredient in many typical Khmer foods.

Samlor Machou Yuon – Delicious sour soup and geopolitics, together at last. “Samlor Machou” refers to the whole genus of typical Khmer sour soups. “Yuon” refers to Vietnam or Vietnamese. Whether or not “Yuon” is a racial slur is a subject of huge debate, but it does show that when it comes to food, Cambodian people are passionate about their place in the world, and simultaneously defensive and acknowledging of the influence of other cultures’ cuisines on theirs. All of this in a tamarind-sour soup, no less.

Kampot Pepper – If you thought that all the French left behind in Cambodge was the seeds of bureaucratic corruption, madcap defamation laws, and some decaying colonial architecture, then think again. Never in my life have I been tempted to eat a spoonful of unadulterated peppercorns straight out of their plastic bag. Both fresh and dried Kampot pepper induces this sort of madness. Describing pepper as decadent seems to be something that was lost in the High Middle Ages: a decadence that the manganese rich soil of Kampot has managed to retain.

Fish Amok – If there were two words of French origin with “mousse” in them that I could never say enough, one would be “mousseline”. However, describing fish amok as a “mousseline fish curry” does not capture the clever subtlety of the dish, which balances fresh turmeric, galangal, lemongrass, krachai and palm sugar with the almost uniquely Cambodian ingredient, slok gno leaf (Morinda Citrifolia in Latin). Not to mention that most Khmer people tend to prefer a more liquid, un-mousse-like amok.

Cambodian Beer – Cambodian beer will always have a place in my heart, right next to that blood fluke that I caught while swimming in the Mekong. It’s certainly not all that bad, only most of it. What Cambrew and Cambodia Brewery do well is consistency. I’ve got no doubts that they could brew excellent beers given a larger budget, but the market for a quality brew in Cambodia would be so minute that there is no incentive. You shouldn’t expect much when you pay $10 or less per 24 cans, and frankly, it pays to come down from the ivory tower of hand-pulled real ales to fraternise with the locals.

For those of you reading closely, the other French word would be “pamplemousse”.

Rule One: Don’t eat sashimi in the desert

Squid and Prawns at Psar Thmei

If I was writing a rulebook on Third World roadside eating, at the top of my list would be “Don’t eat seafood unless you can see the water from whence it came”, which I could probably shorten to something snappier and memorable like “Don’t eat sashimi in the desert”. Despite my wariness towards Third World streetside seafood, when I spot a vendor who is keeping their raw produce on ice, it pays to give them the benefit of the doubt and break a few cardinal food rules. This mom-and-pop kraken charring duo were keeping their squid-on-a-stick iced in a plastic bucket at the entrance to Phnom Penh’s Central Market.

Squid and Prawns at Psar Thmei

Compared to the diminutive beachside-in-Sihanoukville variety, this squid looked like it would play a starring role in the delirious undersea nightmares of Captain Nemo. Served charred, sliced into bite-sized pieces and topped with a spoonful of spring onions and fish sauce.

Squid and Prawns at Psar Thmei

Barbecued prawns (bawngkia aing) are also on the largish side, basted with the same sauce and onion mix. Sides of fresh but sickly sweet homemade chilli sauce, salt/pepper/lime juice dipping sauce, and a green tomato, chee krassang and cucumber salad were complementary. At 32000 riel (US$8(!)) for two plates of giant squid and a plate of prawns, these snacks are premium priced but top hole.

Location: The main eastern entrance of Central Market, Phnom Penh, after 2pm. Central Market (Psar Thmei) has a changeover period at about 2pm when the “official” food vendors who dwell near the northeastern wing in tiled concrete booths shut up shop completely, and a few makeshift stands open at the main eastern entrance to the market, serving late afternoon/dinner snacks.

Filipino Food in Cambodia

Of the regional cuisines that I know literally nothing about, Filipino cuisine tops my list. My knowledge of the Philippines has mostly been gleaned from Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon and the works of seminal turntablists, the Invisibl Skratch Piklz. 100mph Backsliding Turkey Kutz may be one of the canonical scratch weapons that every aspiring hip hop disc jockey should have in their armoury, but it hardly provides much insight into food and culture of the Filipino people. Thankfully, the Internet is filled with people who know that there is more to Pinoy food than Jollibee and are conversely less interested in hip hop marginalia than me. It seems that Filipino expats aren’t too badly served by the Phnom Penh food scene. Toe writes:

In markets and supermarkets, you can buy bagoong, patis, bulalo, kangkong, ampalaya, and others. Probably the only thing you can’t buy here is bangus.

When it comes to restaurants, there is a handful. There is Helen’s Bakery which is a carinderia-style turo-turo where she cooks super-delicious pork chops, ampalaya, Filipino fried chicken, menudo, afritada, pinakbet etc. for about $1.50 per meal. Her tapsilog, longsilog, and tocilog are famous all over Phnom Penh. She also delivers for free. Her carinderia is visited not only by Pinoys but also westerners who like her tacos, potato salad, and pizzas.

Then, there’s Bamboo Restaurant, situated strategically near the Independence Monument. It’s a little bit more elegant than Helen (air-conditioned) and of course a little more expensive… but still quite reasonably priced. They have crispy pata, kaldereta, lumpiang shanghai, sinigang na hipon, pancit bihon and everything else you could think if you’re craving for Filipino food. Their leche flan and halo-halo are to die for.

Locations: Helen’s Bakery is at No. 159B, Norodom Blvd; Bamboo Restaurant is on the strategically important corner of Sihanouk Blvd and St.9.

See Also: kurokuroatbp

Why travelers dislike Khmer food

It is no great secret that Cambodian food gets a bad wrap in the media. Most travel scribes are content with writing “it’s like Thai food but boring, except for fish amok” and leaving it at that. Here is where they go so atrociously wrong:

Ordering the wrong balance of things

A great Khmer meal isn’t necessarily about having each individual dish with balanced flavours, but having a whole spread of flavours and textures that form a balanced meal. When I first arrived and ate with a group of my Khmer workmates, they would order mostly the same things every time we ate: a sour soup, a curry, a fried fish, steamed rice (and when I was there, loc lac “American-style” because “that’s what foreigners like”). I never thought that we had any standout dishes but always ended up having a delicious meal.

The best of Khmer food is about balancing your meal as a whole. Where single Thai dishes might attempt to balance spicy, sour, sweet, salty (and occasionally, umami and bitter) in a single bowl, Khmer food goes about achieving the same balance through multiple dishes with diners themselves seeking gustatory equilibrium over the course of the meal.

Ordering the wrong meats.

If you happen to be cruising through the Cambodian countryside and see a cow to which your immediate reaction is “I’d like to eat a barely warmed slab of that”, my guess is that you have recently been on a heavy course of hallucinogens to deal with what your psychotherapist calls a “deep denial issue”. Cambodia is all about fish, pork, and in coastal areas, crustaceans. Chickens, cattle, goats, frogs and the weird meats of the forest are mostly subsidiary. Unless you’re at a Khmer BBQ place, try ordering three quarters fish/prawns/crab and one-quarter pig and you’ll be in for a treat.

Ordering no meats

There are a handful of great Khmer meat-free dishes (e.g. samlor karko sap; the ubiquitous stir fried morning glory/”water convolvus”) but they don’t maketh the meal. Although vegetarians are occasionally catered for by Khmer food, it isn’t a vegetarian cuisine as a whole. Most dishes try to heft the maximum amount of punch out of the minimum amount of meat, whether this is a spoonful of fermented fish or a few pork bones. When you remove this punch, there is often not much left but an anaemic broth full of MSG.

Familiarity

Practically every traveller that gets to Cambodia has come via Thailand or Vietnam. Most of these people have eaten Thai or Vietnamese prior to landing in South East Asia and thereby haven’t plunged headlong into the cuisine of either nation without a preconceived notion of what they enjoy in these foods and what they absolutely detest. When they hit Cambodia, everything is vaguely foreign.

The undeniable lure of weird meat journalism.

Whenever I read the “I went to Skuon and all I ate was lousy spiders” article in whatever foreign newspaper, the first thing that I think is that either: the author is too embarrassed to mention that they ate the rest of their meals at their hotel; or alternately, their editor thinks that their work is utter crap but needs a “fresh” angle to justify the Angkor junket. It’s true, Cambodians will eat practically any source of protein but for the most part, don’t subsist on weird meats unless it is out of sheer desperation. Every culture has their weird meat. Some Americans eat road-kill but it hardly characterises American cuisine. Nor does it get a mention every time that somebody reviews French Laundry.

Utopian expectations

When Anthony Bourdain came to Cambodia on the hunt for “the perfect meal”, he made a bee-line towards Pailin. If I was coming to Cambodia looking for some parasites to whom I could play the role of “fertile breeding ground” or possibly find out where the ex-Khmer Rouge are keeping the dream alive, I’d also head to Pailin. Admittedly, Bourdain confesses that his trip was ill advised. He was expecting Pailin to be the Indochinese equivalent of Reno, which it would be if Northern California had recently been involved in a prolonged guerrilla war with the genocidal regime from Nevada. Coming to Southeast Asia’s poorest nation and expecting it to be the lost culinary utopia is a little unwise. Cambodian food will eventually be revered like Thai or Vietnamese cuisine because most Cambodians who can afford to live more than a subsistence lifestyle are passionate about their nosh, but developmentally, Cambodia has a lot of catching up to do.

Somewhere in the early- to mid-1990s, a food meme surfaced that conflates poverty and authenticity. In Cambodia, this is revealed in the strange backpacker myth that street food is the best food because it is somehow a more “authentic experience” for the traveller than rocking up to BB World and stuffing their grimy, recently-bearded face with a BB Cambodia Burger. If you want to see what Cambodians love to eat, go to Pizza Company in Sorya Mall on a weekend. Trust me, they’re authentic Cambodians. Expecting that the food that the abject poor eat is going to be better or more “real” than the food that the slightly-less poor eat is insanity. Some street food here is excellent, but most of it is not. It is definitely worth shelling out an extra dollar to eat your meals somewhere better – even if it is a local, bones-and-napkins-on-floor joint – if you don’t have the time to dig for decent street vendors.

Addendum (18 August 2006): Loc lac (or sach ko loc lac) is marinated, cubed beef stir-fried with a soy sauce. It is usually served garnished with a single slice of tomato and raw onion on a lettuce leaf, and depending on your level of decadence, topped with a fried egg. Delicious lime juice, salt and pepper sauce (tuk meric) often comes on the side. The “American style” (also occasionally referred to as “French style” or in Khmer, sach ko loc lac barang) is served with a side of French fries. Vietnam has the similarly named “bo luc lac” and because I’ve heard the “that’s what foreigners like” mantra from a diverse range of Khmer people, I’ll hazard a guess that the French introduced the dish from Vietnam during the colonial era, rather than the Vietnamese popularising it in Cambodia at an earlier date. Cheers to Anonymous Emailer for calling me on an unfamiliar term.

Like eating vanilla custard in a latrine

Mobile Durian in Phnom Penh, Cambodia Photo credit: Liz.

So says Anthony Burgess, regarding the King of Fruit: durian (thouren). I’m still on the fence about durian. I understand their sensuous, visceral appeal, and the obsession with certain cultivars and terroir. I have seen people in intense arguments about whether a specific fruit came from Kampot, the seat of the throne for durian in Cambodia. It is a fruit that is suggestive of raw violence. But despite the best efforts of friends to persuade me with younger, milder “beginner’s durian”, I can’t seem to generate any personal passion for or against them.

Ohan

Running a restaurant aimed at expats in Cambodia requires equal parts audacity and derangement. There seems to have been a recent growth in the number of Japanese restaurants around town, and of all the national cuisines that are replicated in Cambodia, Japanese has one of the greater degrees of difficulty. As a consequence, the restaurants seem to be run by a diverse and occasionally motley crew of Japanese expats who all seem to fit into the categories of audacious or deranged.

The owner of Ohan is definitely at the daring end of the spectrum. I’ve never seen him bedecked in anything but his canary yellow chef’s ensemble. He’s always keen to greet every single patron in the restaurant and when he asks if you’re enjoying your meal, you can tell that he is not asking as a routine social nicety. His moist-eyed look of joy when you answer in the affirmative is the only thing better than the food.

Apart from Iron Chef fashion sense, Ohan’s second audacious factor is the strange location. Although relatively close to most of Phnom Penh’s other Japanese restaurants (Kokoro, Himajin, and Origami), it is next to Cambodia’s worst sandwich vendor, Lucky 7, and opposite the decidedly un-sexy Phnom Penh Centre office buildings. You can only enter the place from the Phnom Penh Centre parking lot side. The external features are nondescript and the inside slightly less so. A few people I know who work in Phnom Penh Centre didn’t know it existed but the people who obviously matter, Japanese expats, have been more attentive because the restaurant is full at lunchtime.

Mackerel at Ohan Phnom Penh Cambodia

The drawcard is the $5 set lunch special. Four choices, each as delicious as the next – pork sukiyaki, mackerel, tempura, and a soba/sushi set. There’s also a few more expensive bento ($7-10) if you have a hankering for something else. Since I’m on the piscatorial bandwagon at the moment, I went for local mackerel. The charred, salty slices of mackerel fillet were crispy without losing the mackerel’s tender oiliness. A potato/egg/mayonnaise salad, pickles, seaweed-heavy bowl of miso, and short-grain rice round out the set. Tea, hot or cold, is complementary.

Ohan has a loyalty card that only serves to remind me that in relative terms, I’ve blown a lot of cash on Ohan since it opened. They made a fatal mistake of offering a few Japanese-loving friends and I free draught beer as an opening special, so we’ve stayed until close a few nights over the past month to test their mettle and the capacity of their kegs of Tiger. The kegs run deep. Their dinner menu is expansive without being overwhelming. In Cambodian terms, it is not cheap. For a sushi/sashimi blowout dinner look to pay about $25 a head, sans sake.

Location: On Sothearos, opposite the Phnom Penh Centre

How to buy fresh fish in Phnom Penh

Fish from The Russian Market in Phnom Penh Cambodia
I don’t often read Cambodia’s most popular expat website, but when I do, it generally has something to do with the food. This week, they’ve put together an Idiots Guide to Buying Food in Cambodian Markets and despite the missing apostrophe, it is fairly spot on. It does however make the shocking admission that:

Fish is a bit of a minefield, and I’m happy to admit that I never completely got the hang of it, but as a rule the more expensive it is the better it is.

In the Khmer spirit, I thought that I’d try my hand at some informal demining of the fish purchasing process. Fish is central to Cambodian life, so it’s no great surprise that there is a good deal of it to be bought at your local market at bargain prices.

Organoleptic assessment for Dummies

In the West, the best way to find a good fishmonger is that their fish counter should smell like the sea rather than like the fish: fresh, clean and crisp. There shouldn’t be pools of mucous lying around the fish, the store, or the fishmonger. This all goes out the window in Cambodia. Unless you happen to arrive at a market damn early, everything in the market smells fishy and finding a patch of floor in the meat section which isn’t covered in brown mucous or something coagulating is rare. You can of course pick up the fish itself and give it a sniff.

Five tips for choosing better fish:

  1. Gills should be bright red. There is a very handy practice in Cambodia of cutting the covering off the gills before sale and exposing the gills for all the world to see, eliminating the need to pick up the fish and poke at its fleshier bits. It does ruin the attractiveness of the whole fish a little. Steer clear of the brown gills.
  2. Eye clarity is a good measure of freshness in Cambodia. Although some deep-sea fish have naturally cloudy eyes, very few of these species will be on sale at the market. Look for the fish that is looking at you with bright, unsunken eyes.
  3. Skin should be bright, shiny; iridescent or opalescent with no signs of bleaching or discolouration.
  4. Texture: When you give the fish a poke in a fleshy part, the indentation should spring back in under a second. Even better is if the fish feels rock hard (and of course, is not frozen) – it means that rigor mortis has only recently set in, or possibly, the fish is still alive.
  5. The fish should show no signs of bruising or broken skin.

Where to shop:

Every market has fish but some markets are fishier than others. Because I don’t know my way around the local fishing villages, Central Market (Psar Thmei) is the best bet. They have the largest selection of freshwater and saltwater creatures and unlike most local markets, they keep some of it on ice. The next part is really only for your hardcore fish junkie.

Handling: Separating the fishermen from the fisherboys.

Knowing about how your marine friend was handled on its journey from underwater to under your griller is the secret that separates the angling amateur from the piscatorial pro. For the most part, these tips are a bit useless for Cambodia because most fish that you’ll see in the market have been caught and dumped on the floor of a small wooden boat, then shipped to market on the back of a refrigeration-free motorbike. However, if you’re lost for words next time that you’re speed-dating in a fishing village, try these questions:

  • How is the fish caught? Line-caught fish generally receive less of a beating than those trapped in a trawler’s net.
  • Is the fish stunned immediately upon coming aboard? Important to know for larger fish that tend to do a fair amount of thrashing around once they’ve left the water, damaging both themselves and unlucky crew members.
  • Show us your fish-to-ice ratio: As a rule of thumb, one part ice to 2 parts fish. This will obviously depend on the initial temperature of the fish, fish hold temperature, and the period of storage.

See also: Mekong River Commission has far too much information about the local varieties of freshwater fish. The FAO has a handy guide to organoleptic assessment, if for instance, you want a “Sensory score sheet for cooked cod flesh taken from gutted fish that have been stored in melting ice“. They’ve also got a guide to ice ratios, if you’re looking to radically reform the Cambodian fishing industry.