Phnom Penh delivery menus: Antisocial expatriates rejoice!

Fresh from the Ministry of “I wish I’d thought of this first” , Cambodia Pocket Guide has just made every housebound expats’ dreams a reality and started publishing delivery menus for their various advertisers around Phnom Penh.

Current online offerings include:

Cambodia’s Yellow Pages also contains a food delivery section – only the first thirty or so listings marked with a star have menus for take away/delivery.

Siem Reap is the next Las Vegas

Siem Reap, the increasingly popular base for visitors to Angkor Wat, is beginning to feel a little like the Las Vegas of Cambodia, with one showy hotel after another being built along the highway into town. (Is it just a matter of time before the signature of Steve Wynn graces the skyline?)

Stuart Emmerich from the New York Times rounds out his Cambodian sojourn with both a review of Siem Reap’s Hôtel de la Paix and another peculiar geographic simile. Siem Reap would be much like Las Vegas if most Las Vegans began living a rice-based subsistence lifestyle in one of the poorest provinces in the nation. At least this time, he ate some Cambodian food at:

…Meric: a seven-course Khmer tasting menu, which features such dishes as stir-fried pork with ginger (superb), braised bar fish with palm sugar and green mango (an acquired taste) and “assorted Khmer sweets” (not very sweet).

He was also thwarted in his attempt to buy a non-alcoholic beer in the kindest possible way.

See also: NY Times’ Siem Reap, Cambodia: Hôtel de la Paix, Phnom Penh is the “next Prague”, Sihanoukville is the next Goa, Sihanoukville is the next Goa 2: Electric Boogaloo, Sihanoukville is the next Goa III: Beyond Thunderdome

The pornography of tropical ice cream.

Phnom Penh's Ice Cream, Cambodia

Ice cream in the tropics is pornographic. There is a moral wrongness about consummating your lather of hot season sweat with something cold and creamy. It’s a fleeting pleasure riddled with First World guilt. What’s more it’s for sale, quite openly, on the streets of Phnom Penh. Presumably, ice cream arrived in Phnom Penh with the French colonisers and has since become popular with the colonised as a street food (which I have covered previously in both a microbiological and more sociological sense). What has changed within the past year is the opening of a handful of upmarket establishments, pimping their rich flavours to richer Phnom Penhois.

Fanny at Open Wine

Any locals fearing a Vietnamese invasion be warned: advance troops have been sent to pervert the local population with their seductive iced treats. While the name may refer to an Australian slang term for female genitalia, Fanny is actually an offshoot of a well-established Saigon ice creamery rather than a more disreputable local establishment selling their namesake. Painted in the same mustard palette as their partner over the border with the same menu and wrought iron furniture, the only concession to Cambodian preferences seems to be the covert removal of any reference to Vietnam from the marketing collateral. Their garden seating area looks a little worse for wear by day, but classier by night when the fairy light bedecked palm lights up.

With twelve flavours of ice cream on offer and eight sorbets (including local seasonal flavours of passionfruit, durian and mango), I was only left with one choice: order the ice cream modelled into the shape of a cyclo (US$3.50). After a short negotiation with my assigned waitress, it was revealed that a vital component to the dish, the slices of orange for the wheels, had run out, so I settled for a much more prosaic scoop of mint and dark chocolate (pictured above). The mint had an industrial mint essence quality and contained the ice crystal warning signs of being defrosted then refrozen; the dark chocolate was foamy, fatty and mousseline.

Price: $0.75 per small scoop

Location: In Open Wine, Street 19 just north of the Street 240 corner. Open Wine also has a magic barbecue that transmutes animal flesh into timber: if you’re planning to eat there, pair your wines with ice cream. However, their meat-centric antipasto platter is a great accompaniment to a celebratory bottle of brut de brut.

Bong Karem

Phnom Penh's Ice Cream

Bong Karem is a welcome newcomer to the Street 240 tourist strip because unlike practically every venue on that street, the food is outstanding. Sixteen flavours of gelati taunt you at the front counter and Karem will offer custom flavours to larger orders. I foresee a bold future for personally designing Kampot pepper, fresh turmeric and galangal gelato. The small shopfront lacks seating which is a huge drawback in hot season when you’ll be left with a fistful of sticky cream within minutes of exiting the store.

Bong Karem’s cones are fresh and they pad out their local fruit range with rarer imported flavours such as hazelnut. I hit my personal gelato favourite (cocco) which entrapped the refreshing tartness of green coconut milk with a few slivers of desiccated flesh mixed throughout, and the matching ciocolata (chocolate) was fully rounded with a slightly grainy cocoa mouthfeel.

Price: $1 per scoop

Location: #57Eo, Street 240 (map)

Vergers D’Angkor

Phnom Penh's Ice Cream

Vergers D’Angkor is a hotel/restaurant supplier and Cambodia’s oldest artisanal ice cream producer, but doesn’t have a parlour befitting of its own product. Their dark chocolate (pictured) was more anorexic than Karem’s or Fanny’s and had suffered a little in storage at Comme à la Maison’s small delicatessen. When I find a fresher punnet, I will do them the justice of a better review.

Price: $3 for a 250gm punnet.

Location: Available from Comme à la Maison, #13, Street 57.

See also: Mobile Ice Cream: Droppin’ Science, Ice cream Sandwich on Wheels, Paucity of Phnom Penh Power: Ice cream in Crisis

Welcome to the tastiest year, pigs.

Sait chrouk aing

Gong xi fa cai.

Last Chinese New Year, I made a few limited and achievable resolutions for Phnomenon..

This Year of the Pig I only have one: achieve global respectability for Cambodian food.

So as well as writing on the web, this year I’m crossing over into the mainstream press. Expect Cambodian food to be coming to a newspaper or magazine near you. Also, this will be the last year of this website (at least, the last year that it will be updated with any frequency from Cambodia) and I want to end it on a note of unfulfilled desire.

Blowing my own (French) horn

Il fait saliver ses lecteurs en vantant le mérites des cantines le plus discrètes pour déguster de travers de porc frits ou du num pan chen, la “foccacia” khmère. Il brocarde avec humour journalistes et guides etrangers pour qui la gastronomie cambodgienne se résume au poisson amok ou à exotisme convenu, tels les insects grillés. Phil Lees anime avec talent un blog sur internet entierement consacre a la cuisine khmere.

Bienvenue, lecteurs de Cambodge Soir. Je suis désolé que je n’ai aucun contenu dans votre langue maternelle. Cependant, je dis des plaisanteries au sujet du colonialisme et postmodernisme français.

Cheers to Samuel Bartholin for the interview in today’s Cambodge Soir newspaper and mentioning deep-fried pork ribs in the very first sentence of the article.
Continue reading Blowing my own (French) horn

Phnom Penh is the “Next Prague”

So sayeth the New York Times in their most recent run-of-the-mill review of Phnom Penh by Stuart Emmerich, who managed to cover the town with his parachute still attached. On matters of eating, he lands a few blows to the doughy belly of the Foreign Correspondent’s Club (“undistinguished (at best), and the toothache-inducing fruity drinks should be passed up in favor of a cold bottle of Angkor Beer”) and displays a complete inability to do the most basic research on restaurants in this strange, foreign country:

For truly authentic Khmer cuisine, one must go to nameless little places all over town where you’ll spend less than a dollar — but it might not be advisable to ask just exactly what this meat you are eating is.

It’s whatever meat you ordered. And here’s a list of the names of 870 restaurants in Phnom Penh, all in English, from the Cambodian Yellow Pages. They shall not remain nameless.

See also: NY Times’ In Phnom Penh, Hopefulness Replaces Despair, Sihanoukville is the next Goa, Sihanoukville is the next Goa 2: Electric Boogaloo, Sihanoukville is the next Goa III: Beyond Thunderdome

Made by small hands

Roadside bread seller near Sihanoukville, Cambodia

I am always reluctant about taking photographs of children even though they play an integral part in the production, sale and capture of Cambodian food. In part, it’s a consent issue. Partly, it is because I don’t find children interesting and don’t want to despoil my camera of valuable bytes with them. Thankfully, there are more nuanced approaches to capturing kids at work, such as the upcoming exhibit by Jerry Redfern, the other half of Rambling Spoon. He is exhibiting his shots of working Cambodian children, opening at 6:30 pm, 10 February 2007 at Le Popil Gallery in Phnom Penh. Sneak preview at his website.

Above shot is mine, from a roadside stop on the outskirts of Sihanoukville.

Continue reading Made by small hands

Yes, I always laugh at my sour soup that way

Continuing with the Phnomenon/RealThai love-in, Austin over at RealThai reviews one of my favourite Khmer restaurants in Phnom Penh: Sweet Café on St.294. For potential stalkers, it opens with a photo of me looking mighty pleased at my bowl of samlor machou yuon and follows with some beautifully shot images of amok trei (fish amok), porng tea trei prama (semi-dried fish omelette, with a hearty dose of fatty pork and a much less hearty dose of trei prama), bok svay (pounded green mango salad with deep-fried dried fish) and the aforementioned sour “Vietnamese” soup. Also featured is a photo essay on various food vendors around Phnom Penh.

Real Khmer? Cambodian fine dining in Phnom Penh

Orussei and Malis

“I hope I’m not going to wake up to that tomorrow morning”, Austin mentioned as I took the above photo.

Good morning, Austin.

I spent last weekend with Austin from RealThai while he crafts a piece for a Thai newspaper about Phnom Penh as a weekend destination, and takes photos in a manner much more professional than mine. He was keen on me showing him some of the less fluffy edges of Cambodian food (see pig parts, above, from Psar Orussei) that we could use for our own purposes. It is always a pleasure to travel about Phnom Penh with a fresh set of eyes and compare notes on respective adopted nations’ cuisines. Austin has an encyclopedic knowledge of Thai food, whereas my knowledge of Khmer cuisine is much more like an 1880’s Children’s Primer: One part shipping tables; one part unverifiable observation; three parts Tales of Interest in Foreign Lands. When Austin invited me along to provide local insights into Phnom Penh’s top end at the restaurants’ expense, how could I refuse? I consulted my shipping tables to check my availability with the tides.

Chef Luu Meng from Malis was a genuine surprise. Since I had last eaten at Malis about six months ago, Luu Meng had tweaked the menu to add some homier Khmer food (a few basic, herb-rich soups) and altered the street-level layout to look a little classier with a paintjob, fewer tables and some deep couches.

Meng spoke at length on the primacy of freshness, the importance of the Mekong’s rise and fall to affect the seasonal growth of local herbs and the migration of Cambodian freshwater fish. He devoted twenty minutes to speaking on the flavour profile of th’noeng leaf which he describes broadly as somewhere between “green mango and tamarind”, and the huge difference between maom leaf (“Vietnamese!”) and ma-aum leaf (basil’s lovechild with spearmint). He spoke about being excited about Indian food and about weaning his staff from their previous MSG habits (none is used in his kitchen).

Scallops at Malis, Phnom Penh

In between chatting we ate a handful of journo-friendly plates – fish amok, kroueng-coated chicken wings, local scallops with pepper (pictured above), and beef in bamboo. Most hit the more Chinese end of Khmer cuisine – Luu Meng is a man who wholeheartedly embraces the capsicum.

Night was reserved for the Khmer degustation menu at Raffles Hotel Le Royal’s fine dining effort, Restaurant Le Royal. After chatting with Luu Meng, I was openly optimistic about the direction that this New Khmer Cuisine was taking in Phnom Penh. I had also previously eaten a seriously good bowl of pho at a conference buffet at Le Royal but never set foot in their fine dining area.

Jan, our maître d’hotel/sommelier, described the menu, suggested wines, and was an altogether ideal host. European wines are not my strong point: I’ve got a decent grip on varietals but come from a background of drinking too many tannin-heavy Aussie reds, some of which from a box rather than a bottle. He made one of the best wine/food pairings that I’ve had in Cambodia. After describing Southern German terroir with glee, he picked a 2005 Wittmann Estate Riesling which was acidic but with sweetness on the back palate that fits perfectly with both the richer and subtly spicy elements of Khmer food. The nose of peaches was clear enough to bring back my grim memories of working in a central Victorian orchard, memories that in hindsight I should have appreciated as a small omen.

The trio of starters was locally inspired, only in the loosest sense. The pared-down mango salad contained chopped capsicum instead of chilli, dried shrimps mashed to a fine paste rather than whole with no real seafood punch. This was accompanied by two slices of West Coast scallops on triangle of banana leaf and a pair of wonton parcels with hoi sin sauce. I’m a fan of when chef’s pay attention to texture, which was evident, but the salad was pared back to being barely recognizable as Khmer, and the other two components could have come from literally anywhere.

I questioned our waiter in Khmer as to whether the forthcoming Pumpkin Soup was Samlor Karko, a Hindu-influenced Khmer soup which amongst other ingredients, contains pumpkin.

“No”, he answered, “It’s samlor lapov” – quite literally “Soup Pumpkin” followed by a grin.

There is a grin of nervousness in Cambodia. Ask a local about the current regime, the Khmer Rouge, or their dead parents and you’ll get the same grin. For a Westerner, there is nothing more unnerving than having a local describe their tales of torture and terror under the Khmer Rouge whilst they give you an unflinching and toothy smile. I hoped that the nervousness was more about the service staff suddenly realising that I could understand them a little when they were musing in Khmer about the sexuality of two young white men eating together by candlelight, rather than about the soup. I was tempted to confirm with them that Austin actually was my alluring Thai songsaa*.

The pureed pumpkin soup arrived topped with a square of gold leaf. It bore no resemblance to Khmer food, just as my bleak peach harvest memories bore no relationship to my continued enjoyment of the riesling. As a curious coincidence, I’d left my inamorata (who now wishes to be referred to as such in print and in person) at home defrosting herself a bowl of pumpkin soup from the freezer which she’d previously packed full of fresh Khmer ginger, lemongrass and coconut. It was the last aroma that I could smell when I left my house and now I longed for that soup rather than the one in front of me.

Between soup and mains, the Rosicrucian-ly named Executive Chef Christian Rose devoted us a half hour of his time. He spoke guardedly about Khmer food choices and regarded us with slight suspicion when we asked about sourcing local ingredients, about local Cambodian restaurants (his recommendations: Khmer Surin, Malis, beachside seafood in Sihanoukville), and about the interest of his guests in Khmer cuisine. There appeared to be very little interest despite his assurances to the contrary.

Scattered amongst the conversation, he name-dropped his upmarket ingredients and recipes: West Coast scallops; beluga caviar; Wagyu beef (“Grade 9, not Japanese but with excellent marbling”); a multiple course duck degustation; an entire constellation of foods alien to the Cambodian culinary cosmos. This was the food of international excess, high diplomacy and hardcore local corruption. Does serving this food in a starving nation make you complicit? Does eating it? The mains arrived to break our conversation before I got the chance to head it in a lachrymose direction.

The following beef loc lac hit the right note: beef (not a cut of Wagyu, which would be a foolish excess), fresh pepper from Kurata Pepper, stock reduction – completely unlike your regular loc lac which is generally made with bottled soy and tomato sauce – and so a positive top-end innovation. This was paired with a miscellaneous coconut curry with a hearty chunk of fresh bawngkang (river lobster) tail meat, a few batons of vegetable matter and a minute mound of rice. Desserts were a wide selection of Khmer sweets and I caused a small commotion when I asked the waiter to name a more obscure one (I thought num lhong, but it was revealed to be the similarly shaped num bhor por).

We rolled out of Le Royal after four hours of well-paced food conversation, great wine and barely Cambodian food.

Meals and wine at Restaurant Le Royal and Malis were provided free of charge. Malis is located on Norodom Blvd, just south of the Independence Monument. Restaurant Le Royal is located in Raffles Hotel Le Royal on the corner of St.92 and Monivong Blvd. Enter via the main foyer and turn left.

See Also: Seeing how the other half lives – Malis and Pacharan, Austin’s RealThai
Continue reading Real Khmer? Cambodian fine dining in Phnom Penh