Just the facts, Mam

mam in Cambodian food.

Over the border in Vietnam, mam is used as a catch-all fermented aquatic animal word: nuoc mam is fish sauce; mam tom is shrimp paste; bun mam is purported to be the best noodle soup in Saigon.

On my Cambodian side of the border, mam is mam. It refers to the above salted, fermented fillets of snakehead fish, to which roasted red sticky rice and palm sugar are added during the fermenting process to impart an earthier and sweeter flavour. The sugar and rice also lends the ingredient a reddish tinge. From the time that the fish is filleted, mam can take over a year to reach maturity. According to the unsubstantiated rumours that I transcribe as actual history, mam originates from Kampuchea Krom territory, the wedge of the Vietnamese Mekong Delta that was previously under Cambodian ownership.

What to do with it? You ask with veiled incredulity. Being the crème de la crème of rotting yet edible aquatic vertebrates, mam is versatile. Like the more pedestrian prahok, it’s added to soups, noodles, or steamed on its own but unlike it’s poorer grey fermented brother, mam adds far less pungency to dishes and a little more fishy subtlety.

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Spring Onion Bread: Khmer focaccia

Spring onion bread at psar toul tom poung

Cambodian street food acts as an indicator of the global and historical tensions on modern Khmer culture. The pull between different cultural and historical influences is literally played out in the street food. It isn’t uncommon to see food that was transported to Cambodia about a millennium ago served next to food that first arrived a decade ago. Occasionally, like this flat bread, both the influences and timing are difficult to place.

Spring onion bread at psar toul tom poung

I’ve heard this variously referred to as Chinese pizza or in Khmer, num pan chen (literally Chinese bread). My regular vendor at Psar Orussei has a sign that proclaims it “Stone Leek Bread”. It is certainly not a traditional Khmer recipe but seems to have come via China and capitalizes on one of France’s lasting colonial legacies in Cambodia: the ability to bake bread.

Where the Chinese version is simply fried, the vendors that I have seen around Phnom Penh simultaneously bake and fry the bread in a miniature commercial pizza oven. The dough proves in a plastic tub until a likely punter arrives, whence the vendor picks out a lump, adds a handful of chopped spring onions (scallions, for non-Commonwealth readers), gives it a quick knead and roll with a length of blue plumbing pipe and frys away.

Spring onion bread at psar toul tom poung

Hot off the press, the bread is soft, elastic, and remarkably similar to good Turkish bread. It doesn’t keep particularly well but is so good that it is unlikely you’ll have leftovers.

500 riel (US$0.12) for an eighth of a pizza.

Location: The above vendor has only been open for a week at Stall 572, on the northern side of Psar Toul Tom Poung (Russian Market), amongst the motorcycle parts. There another talented spring onion bread baker near the southern entrance of Psar Orussei.

See also: A recipe for Spring Onion Bread mercilessly lifted from Bill Granger’s recipe book Bills: Breakfast, Lunch + Dinner

On Literature

Phnom Penh is blessed with a handful of good secondhand bookstores which have managed to allay my initial fear in Phnom Penh that I would run out of anything worthwhile to read. Chea Sopheap, Cambodia’s only nuclear physicist fanboy and owner of Bohr’s Books gets profiled in today’s Telegraph (UK)

“I started from zero. I left my job and spent my time buying book stocks here and there from leaving expats with savings made over the previous three years. I built up a stock of about 600 titles at home. I opened my own second-hand bookshop two years ago, and now I have 4,000 titles in stock.”

While on the marginally food-related subject of literature, Bohr’s worthy rival, D’s Books has a grand sale this weekend.

Sach Chrouk Trey Ngiet Porng Tea (Pork and dried fish omelette)

Psar Toul Tom Poung

When you first step foot into a Cambodian market, the first thing you’ll notice is the smell. Within that complex and fertile aroma, there is always the warm earthy scent of dried salted fish. In the markets, the dried fish is completely inescapable, and in Cambodian food, even more so. While most dishes use it sparingly, this simple omelette recipe is a great way to show that you have bought salted sun-dried fish (trey ngiet) and you’re not afraid to use it brazenly. You can even omit the pork and increase the fish content for a halal/kosher variant.

Sach Chrouk Trei Prama Porng Tea

What you’ll need

3 chicken eggs (porng moan)
60gms of trey ngiet (or trey prama, a slightly better grade of semi-fermented, semi-dried fish)
100gms of boneless pork meat (sach chrouk sot)

Method:
Mince the pork and finely chop the dried fish. Beat the eggs. Fry the pork with the dried fish. Once the pork is cooked, pour the egg mix over the top. Fry to your heart’s content and flip into omelette-shape. Serve with a few slices of cucumber and green tomato.

カンボジアの食糧

For the five people in Japan reading this, Shin at Eline Saglik has been translating a few of the Cambodian recipes from Khmer Krom Recipes into Japanese. Judging from the photos, samlor machu sach moan can be easily replicated in your average Japanese kitchen. The recipe does however make the slightly bizarre suggestion that vinegar is a suitable substitute for tamarind water, so I’m not sure how far the recipes can be trusted.

Gold Crown Beer

Gold Crown Beer, Cambodia

For those of you unfamiliar with the pantheon of Australian beer, Australia has a similarly named Crown Lager. For countless years, it masqueraded as a premium lager, thinly disguised behind its smug golden foil cap and flowery font. I still harbour the lurking suspicion that it is actually Foster’s Lager in a fancy bottle, but wouldn’t know, because Australians don’t actually drink Foster’s.

Sadly, you can’t polish a turd.

The best thing I can say about Gold Crown is that unlike Crown Lager, it holds no delusions of grandeur. The worst thing I can say about it is that it smells like boiled cabbage. Along with the light vegetable aroma, there is a little malt sweetness and it is slightly thicker than your average forgettable Asian lager. In 2004, Gold Crown received a bronze medal in the World Beer Cup in the European Style Pilsener category. According to my handy beer judging guide:

European Pilseners are straw/golden in color and are well-attenuated. This medium-bodied beer is often brewed with rice, corn, wheat, or other grain or sugar adjuncts making up part of the mash. Hop bitterness is low to medium. Hop flavor and aroma are low. Residual malt sweetness is low; it does not predominate but may be perceived. Fruity esters and diacetyl should not be perceived. There should be no chill haze.

In non-beer nerd speak: European-style pilseners should be as bland as humanly possible. Cambodia should consider itself proud to be home to another beer whose crowning achievement is a bronze medal in vapidity.

Cambodia Brewery says that Gold Crown is aimed at the “economy” segment of the market, which in Cambodia, is practically everyone that can afford beer. Those guys are marketing geniuses.

If I could crown this beer, I would dub thee: King Insipid Of Rotting End

Availability: All Cambodia, but tends not to be stocked in tourist/expat bars. Can only.

On the trail of Cambodian food in New York

The fruitless pursuit of Cambodian food in New York continues unabated. Sonja from Brooklyn Ramblings goes hunting:

I must have looked lost, as I was soon greeted with “hey guy – whatcha lookin’ for?” When I said Cambodian, my good samaritan just looked bewildered. But then I started getting some interesting leads. First I stopped in at St. Rita’s youth program, which does a lot of work in the Cambodian community. The staff there told me that there was a Cambodian grocery a few blocks away, above the park on University. Very excited, I walked there, but it turned out to be a Vietnamese grocery. The owner pointed me towards Jerome Ave just south of Kingsbridge, where he said there was a larger Asian grocery that was owned by someone who is Cambodian. Once at Phnom Penh Market (2639 Jerome), the owner confirmed that she was Cambodian but said that they didn’t sell any Cambodian food, just Thai and Vietnamese. This is the point in my fantasy where I would get invited to their house for some home cooking, but alas, that didn’t happen.

Also first-time commenter Tara scouts out the upcoming location of Kampuchea Noodle Bar on the Lower East Side:

…thought you might appreciate knowing that this noodle joint will be steps away from 99 Rivington, the site of the album cover for Paul’s Boutique. Also, Cambodians will surely be displeased to know that while dining at this restaurant they will be forced to watch the frequent street traffic to and from New York’s most storied sex paraphernalia store, Toys in Babeland, 94 Rivington.

See Also: Brooklyn Ramblings, Cambodian Street Food on The Lower East Side

Akauw

Desserts: Akauw, akauv, akaur in Cambodia
One of the worse fates that I’ll be consigning to this website is that I will never be able to review all of the multitudinous variations of Cambodian rice flour desserts. When you eat one type, four new ones return to take its place. It’s like battling a saccharine Hydra made from pudding.

At the moment, akauw are a favorite: simple steamed balls of sticky rice flour, coconut milk and a little palm sugar topped with shredded coconut and toasted sesame seeds (occasionally, crushed peanuts), served at room temperature. When they’re good, they tread a fine line between cake-y and rubbery. Either way, they are offensively more-ish.

Akauw

My regular aisle-way vendor at the Russian Market ( Psar Tuol Tom Poung) who presented them in photogenic banana leaf cups hit the provinces over the Pchum Benh religious holiday and returned to Phnom Penh with a surplus of Styrofoam clamshells. Damn you, modernity.

1000 riel (US$0.25) for a punnet

Location: In the aisles of Russian Market, just north of the food court. If she is around, the easiest way to find this vendor is to walk along the northern edge of the market and enter through the entrance with the rice sellers near it. Then head due south. Otherwise, akauw vendors can be found at most of the larger markets.

Samla Machou Yuon: The Y-word

Samlor Machu Yuon

It’s amazing what a few hundred years of invasion and counter-invasion will do to a relationship with your immediate regional neighbours. At best, Cambodia’s relationship with Vietnam is rocky. Indeed, there is a huge amount of debate as to whether the Khmer language word for the Vietnamese – yuon – actually constitutes a racial slur. How it came to be appended to this simple sour soup, I literally have no idea.

Generally, this soup is a lunchtime meal component to provide a refreshing, sour complement to a few other dishes. Flavour-wise, the main event is the balance between fish, sour tamarind, sweet/sour pineapple, and the floral rice paddy herb and sawtooth leaf freshness. Occasionally, the soup contains chilli, but this one doesn’t.

What you’ll need:

400 grams of firm-fleshed white fish, in steaks.
100 grams of fresh pineapple
100 grams of lotus stem (prolit). If they’re not already clean, rub a wooden chopstick along them to remove the crazy stringy skin from the outside.
Half a clove of garlic
A ripe tomato
One tablespoon of fish sauce (tik trei)
One tablespoon of oil

1/2 cup of tamarind water – to make tamarind water, soak about 100gms of tamarind pulp in 1/2 a cup of warm water for 5 minutes, then rub the pulp off the seeds with your fingers. Strain to get rid of the seeds and stringier bits of pulp. You can make it in bulk and keep it in the refrigerator for a few days, but it will begin to ferment.

Four cups of water
Two teaspoons of sugar
Two teaspoons of salt

1/4 cup of saw mint (chee parang)
1/4 cup of rice paddy herb (ma-om)

Method:
Clean your fish and chop into steaks. Finely chop the garlic and pan fry in oil. Add the fish to the pan.

While the fish fries, cut the lotus stem into 5cm lengths, skin then chop the pineapple into bite-size chunks, cut the tomato into wedges. In another pot, bring water, half of the tamarind water, sugar and salt to a gentle boil.

When the fish is a pleasing golden brown, add the fish sauce to the pan of fish and garlic to deglaze. Transfer the fish, and about half the garlic/oil/sauce to the boiling water. Immediately add the lotus stems and return to a simmer.

Wait exactly five minutes. No more.

Add the pineapple and tomato. Cook until the skin just starts to peel from the tomato. Taste and add more salt/sugar/tamarind water if necessary.

Divide the saw mint and rice paddy herb evenly amongst 4 bowls (or stir into the soup if you’re serving immediately/lazy) and transfer the soup to a tureen that you only use on “special” occasions.

Makes 4 smallish bowls.

Also known as: samlor machu yuon, samla mahjew/maju yuon, rarely, samla machu trei to avoid the y-word.
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The Barking Deer’s Mango

The Barking Deer's Mango - Irvingia Malayana

Unlike most people, I have a high tolerance for eating things that I cannot identify taxonomically. Whenever I pass somebody on a roadside shucking something that looks edible, I’ll give it a go. Often it’s not edible. Often it’s not even supposed to be food.

This roadside vendor was undergoing the arduous process of cracking open these woody nuts scavenged from the forest and offered me a free sample. After peeling the leftover shell, the toasted kernels had a subtle peanut-like flavour. The texture and shape was a little closer to an almond. They would make a decent substitute for peanuts in any Khmer dish that called for them, if you’d like to set a new and impossible standard for regional accuracy.

The Barking Deer's Mango - Irvingia Malayana

I’m not a botanist but I do play one on television. With a little research, I’m willing to take a punt that these nuts are from the Irvingia Malayana, which has the marvellously fanciful English title of the Barking Deer’s Mango. According to The University of Melbourne it also has the much more prosaic Khmer name of Cham Mo. There’s a similar tree (Irvingia gabonensis) distributed about Western tropical Africa, whose nuts are used fairly extensively as a soup thickener and bread ingredient.

1000 riel (US$0.25) for a small cupful

Location: On the dirt track to Neak Pean inside the Angkor complex. In probably the silliest Romanisation of a Khmer word, Neak Pean is pronounced “Ne-ak Po-ouan”. There is possibly another “ou” sound or two in there.