Never ending piles of prahok

The odour comes from a red washing-up bowl filled with grey sludge in which float pieces of silver fish. The smell is outdone only by an equally pungent pile of grey paste with bits of rotting fish poking out. The wet grey stuff is fish sauce, while the other is fish paste, although both seem to be called prahoc; they smell and look awful to the unaccustomed nose and eye.

Prahoc is a vital flavouring in almost everything savoury in Cambodia. So common is it that the national flag, which features the ubiquitous emblem of Angkor Wat, should be soaked in the stuff.

They’re both different grades of prahok. It describes a whole genre of fermented freshwater things. Journalist and blogger Ed Charles takes on fish in Cambodia and takes off with one of my jokes about prahok in The Australian newspaper. It’s a joy to read an article where a journalist doesn’t just eat fish amok.

There’s also a bit of a mix up between tuk trei (fish sauce, made with saltwater fish) and trei riel (“riel” fish – a few different varieties of small fish used to home-brew prahok) further down in the article, but it is understandable since there are no written resources where you could fact check such details.

See: The Australian’s A fishy pleasure

Thomas Keller does Bangkok

Thomas Keller "Menu"

The closest that I’ve been to super-chef Thomas Keller was driving past French Laundry while a black helicopter was landing there. I assumed it was Mr. Keller himself because I think that he’d make a great Bond villain, executing his enemies by luring them into his Yountville lair then slowly cooking them in a vacuum-sealed plastic bag. Playing into my sad delusion is that over the weekend Keller cooked at Le Normandie in Bangkok, serving up his ‘”agnolotti” of sunchokes’ to some of Thailand’s military masterminds. Maytel and husband Chef were there:

The signature dish of Keller “oysters and pearls” was probably the highlight, although I know that if I was to put an oyster with a big dolllop of caviar and cover it all in a butter sauce people would probably applaud me too, although I probably wouldn’t be so sophomoric as to place inverted comments around it. It’s long been a sign of insufferable pompousness for people to do the whole inverted comma thing when talking, I don’t see why menus should be exempted from this judgement. But it was yummy and it did however almost inspire me to break into a modified version of Prince’s song “diamonds and pearls”.

His culinary and punctuation villainy knows no bounds. Surely, he’ll be in Cambodia next. Coverage and photos at Maytel

Bring the noise

While newspaper Cambodia Daily’s coverage of the local food scene over the last two years has amounted to the occasional mention of a stout-drinking monkey or the carnivorous habits of Ratanakiri’s recent “jungle woman”, today they’ve atoned and inserted a 12-page full-colour wining and dining supplement packed full of original content. The coverage is as diverse as Cambodia’s dining scene: fresh mangoes, fish amok, the desserts from Raffles, local sommeliers and winery, ribs in Battambang, Swedish in Sihanoukville, vegetarian faux-meats, akao (with comment from “pastry chef” Joannes Riviere), and an interview with me about Phnomenon. Thanks to Suzy Khimm for the article (also read her latest piece over at Slate), Nathan Horton for the photo of me grinning deliriously into my 1500 riel bowl of num banchok from Psar Orussei.

I would provide a link to the supplement for the 95% of my readers who don’t have access to the Cambodia Daily but the Daily hasn’t quite caught onto Internet publishing yet.

There’s also an interview with me over at Jaunted today, where I was asked to recommend five things not to do in Phnom Penh and supply alternatives. I recommend against pilseners, The Killing Fields, only eating amok, The Lake, and expecting your motodop to know his way around Phnom Penh.

Only one person has commented on my obvious pretensions so far which is well below average whenever I use the words “poststructuralist” or “Klang Stout”. Month one of New Year’s resolution is now on track.

Where do recalled products go? Cambodia

Just a word of warning for American peanut butter fiends via the Cambodian Parents Network: Lucky Supermarket in Phnom Penh is currently selling a batch of Peter Pan brand peanut butter that was recalled in the US of A due to its salmonella content rather than being a sickly sweet approximation of real peanut butter. According to the US FDA:

ConAgra is recalling all Peter Pan peanut butter and all Great Value peanut butter beginning with product code 2111 that already was distributed. The company also is destroying all affected products in its possession. The company has stopped production and is working to identify the cause of the contamination. ConAgra has advised consumers to destroy all Peter Pan peanut butter and any Great Value peanut butter beginning with product code 2111.

The recall also features the fantastic line:

“Tennessee” is a type of Salmonella.

My advice: eat Cambodian. There’s a local brand of peanut butter which isn’t too bad (and I’d plug it if I could recall its name). If your kids miss the saccharine evil of Peter Pan, just add a teaspoon of MSG and a slug of corn syrup to the local brand. To get a full refund for your peanut butter, ConAgra says:

If you have this product, please discard it, but save the Peter Pan Peanut Butter lid or label beginning with product code 2111 imprinted on it.

For a full refund, please mail the Peter Pan Peanut Butter product lid or label beginning with product code 2111 imprinted on it along with your name and mailing address to the local distributor in your geographic region. The complete list of distributors by country can be found below.

No Cambodian distributor is named but my guess is send it to:

Vietnam
Bao Quang Production and Trading Co., Ltd.
Room No. 503, Bldg. No. 4
Lang Ha Badinh Dist.
Hanoi, Vietnam
84-4-7723624-25-26

Addendum (22 March 2007): The Cambodian brand is “Healthland Natural Peanut Butter” and is found at most Phnom Penh supermarkets. Cheers to DAS, PB. Lucky Supermarket has since pulled the products from its shelves.

Drinking coffee, Phnom Penh-style

Phnom Penhois love their coffee. I don’t love Phnom Penhois coffee but we have reached a mutually agreeable détente. I sneak off to get my Illy espresso to assuage my crema fixation at a frankly ludicrous price or brew my own at home with my emergency macchinetta, and don’t unduly hassle the locals. My tastes are for thick, rich and Italian thanks to my inherited Melburnian coffee fetishism. While the local coffee is both eminently drinkable and well caffeinated, it isn’t for what I pine. It is an issue of process rather than raw ingredient.

Cambodian coffee pot

The Cambodian method could not be simpler. Boiled water is poured into a fine cloth sock containing a few hundred grams of finely ground beans, and the water and resulting coffee percolate into the purpose-made ceramic vessel below. From this master brew, there are four variations: hot or iced, with sweetened condensed/tinned milk or without. There is a marked preference for iced coffee with either sweetened condensed milk and/or for drinkers to add four to five teaspoons of sugar. This oversweetening is possibly to offset the general bitterness of the dark-roasted local beans and to cater to the indigenous preference for maximising calories per dollar.

Cambodian Iced Coffee

Coffee brewed in the local manner can be found anywhere that you see one of those brown coffeepots and a string of the coffee socks hanging out to dry by their wire handle. Most small roadside breakfast vendors brew their own and larger chains such as T&Coffee World or the execrable Lucky 7 cater to Phnom Penh’s more affluent crowd. The above coffee was from the corner of st.432 and 155, who also roast Cambodian coffee beans, and was notable for the degree of smoke flavour that their personal roasting style added to the brew. Not a trace of pork flavour.

See also: Roasting Coffee, Phnom Penh-style, The best coffee in Phnom Penh?

Pork and Rice: The national breakfast.

There are four types of Cambodian breakfast: pork and rice (bai sach chrouk); noodles (mee cha) or noodle soup (khtieau); rice porridge (bobor); and the improvised foods of those who are starving and eat whatever they or the World Food Programme can unearth. At a rough guess, these groups equally split the population (with an outcast minority such as me who tend to only eat breakfast on weekends and therefore try to make it as decadent and calorific as humanly possible. In the view of most Cambodians, my diet is not so much unbalanced as it is unhinged; and thus somewhere outside orthodox classification).

The standard Cambodian pork and rice set is as follows: any boneless cut of pork, thinly sliced and barbecued on a wire grill over warm coals then served with a hefty plate of broken (or just cheap) rice. The pork is sometimes marinated in garlic and oil, but more often than not, is just cooked slowly over the fire to soak up the fat-induced smoke. The side is invariably pickles, most commonly cucumber. The below pickles were a piquant mix of fresh ginger, cucumber with still a hint of crispness and paper-thin slices of daikon radish.

Cambodian food - pork and rice

The set will include a bowl of thin chicken stock from the noodle soup master stock, topped with spring onions, and a dipping bowl of sweet chilli sauce (tuk mteis). The method of eating the stock is to either eat it uncut or take a small spoonful of rice and then top up your spoon with a little stock. The above chilli was blindingly hot which is a real rarity, because the sweetness tends to outweigh the capsaicin.

If cutlery is not already present on the table, then it will arrive in cup full of steaming and sterilising water (orange and plastic, above) and the correct etiquette is to wipe down your knife and fork with a provided napkin or toilet paper, disposing of the paper on the floor or into a provided tableside bin. Do not under any circumstance drink the water in the sterilising cup.

The eateries are at their busiest from 6:00am until 8:00am, as most locals have seemingly been up since sunrise and need a huge carb-and-lard boost to get them through to the interminable hours until the midday meal. When busy, all tables are considered communal. It is perfectly acceptable to intrude on anybody’s table and engage them in your wittiest repartee. My Khmer wit is extraordinarily limited, although everyone gets a laugh out of how I can’t properly pronounce the word for “glass”. Unlike Vietnam or Thailand where small breakfast vendors often lack tables, a Cambodian pork and rice vendor without seating and a rudimentary bench is an exception. Where the tables are not built from the thin metal, they are covered with a garish vinyl tablecloth which is either geometrically patterned or provided as an advertisement from a large soup or monosodium glutamate manufacturer.

By 9:00am, breakfast will be over. Small pork and rice joints will disappear entirely to be replaced by lunchtime soup, fish and rice vendors. Brunch is not an option.

Location: Pictured pork is from my coffee roasting friends at the corner of Street 432 and 155, but there is a pork-charring crew on practically every Phnom Penh side street in the mornings. The best guide to picking a great bai sach chrouk vendor is finding one where the barbecue is still smoking and pork is served directly from the grill to your plate. Most vendors buy their pork daily (as a cashflow issue rather than not having proper storage) and so freshness is guaranteed.
Continue reading

It’s grim up north

Its undoubtedly the liveliest and most popular Korean restaurant in town. Packed for lunch and dinner, the Pyongyang Restaurant is famous not only for its cold noodles and barbecue served with kim chi, but also for its talented wait staff, which when not serving are dancing to traditional Korean tunes played on violins and electric piano.

But the Pyongyang Restaurant in Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh is no ordinary Korean eatery. For one, it’s owned and run by the North Korean government, a capitalist enterprise that sends its profits directly to state coffers in Pyongyang.

Asia Times’ Bertil Lintner covers the geopolitical implications of Phnom Penh’s weirdest food attraction: the North Korean-owned and run Pyongyang Restaurant. This seems to be the only Cambodian eatery that plays the food-as-propaganda angle, and does a roaring trade attracting South Koreans into its razor-wired compound. Not much mention of the food but plenty of juicy political tidbits to make it worthwhile.

See: Asia Times’ Dining with the Dear Leader

Pig’s Blood Tofu

Pig's Blood Tofu

In keeping with this week’s theme of “Surprise, it has PORK in it!” these innocuous tofu-like chunks are congealed pig’s blood. Cambodia is one of many nations to embrace eating every part of an animal that is humanly possible, and with pigs, this means every part from snout to asshole.

Unlike snout or asshole, the blood tofu tastes more neutral and spongy, and is used as an addition to soups or noodles with broth. As the blood tofu ages, it tends to turn from congealed red to slightly grey. If you were unfamiliar with it, you would probably push a small cube of it to the side of your bowl after a nibble, along with the other chunks that fall into the “mystery innard (not pipe-shaped)” category, still unsure if it comes from an animal or not. When in doubt, it’s always a pig part.

Roasting Coffee, Phnom Penh-style

Cambodian Coffee

One of the rare disappointments that I’ve had when hunting the provinces for Cambodian food is finding Cambodian coffee. I’ve been to the far northeast, met the growers in their villages, and then wandered about Banlung in search of fresh Java with increasing and unfulfilled desperation.

What I ended up discovering in my brief Ratanakiri-ward sojourn is that there is a disconnection between growing and roasting coffee within Cambodia. Rumour has it that a Cambodian roastery briefly existed in Ratanakiri until growers were offered a better price from Vietnamese buyers. Bulk beans are now shipped from Cambodia’s north east, processed across the border in Vietnam, then imported back to Cambodia as a finished product. While I can confirm the rumour with at least one bulk coffee vendor in Phnom Penh, it still has an air of disingenuousness about it because on a small scale, coffee is easy to roast. All you need is an oven, some patience and a good deal of practice. Or alternately, a popcorn popper.

Thus it was an embarrassing bitch slap to the face to discover that a café within walking distance of my house roasts local beans. The process is relatively simple. Sok (pictured) rotates the beans in a metal drum over white hot charcoal.

Cambodian Coffee

When they approach the correct degree of blackness (Phnom Penhois tend to prefer a black-as-pitch roast), Sok adds a cup of rendered pork fat, gives the drum a few more quick rotations to let the fat partly burn off, then dumps them onto a waiting mat to cool.

Cambodian Coffee

The coffee smoke is so rich that I’m surprised that I could not smell it from my house and I’m still not sure of the best method to remove it from my clothes. I’m not even sure if I want to remove it.

Cambodian Coffee

I find it comforting that even my coffee has meat in it, vegans probably less so.

Location: Corner of st.432 and 155, near Psar Tuol Tom Poung (Russian Market). Coffee is roasted in the afternoons around 3pm.

Loc Lac


Two loc lac recipes and a mercifully short digression on authenticity.

Loc Lac (occasionally, lok lak) is a superb expression of Cambodia’s recent colonial history and the imagined authenticity that is generally transferred by foreigners onto Asian food; an authenticity that is mirrored by the way that Khmer national culture itself is constructed. Loc Lac comes to Cambodia via Vietnam where it is named bo luc lac (literally, “shaking beef” in Vietnamese) and was most likely brought to Cambodia with the French colonisers rather than with the Vietnamese. At some point within the last 50 years, Cambodia has wholly claimed it as part of Khmer cuisine – so much so that it would be literally unimaginable for most Cambodians that the dish was originally Vietnamese. Somewhere along the line, an enterprising Cambodian added French fries (dumlon barang chien) as a typical accompaniment.

Like fish amok, loc lac tends to be a favourite with foreigners who also tend to confuse it for something much older, more Khmer and therefore somehow more authentic. What could be more authentically Asian than beef stir-fried with commercial ketchup and soy sauce, then served with a side of fries? I suspect that much of its popularity also comes from loc lac hitting directly within the Western palate and being packed full of umami-ness thanks to the folks at Ajinomoto.

“Authentic” loc lac recipe

This recipe is the result of me chatting to the chef from the cafeteria in the building where I work, watching him cook loc lac, then running a brief straw poll of workmates and friends. There is no canonical version. While beef is the most common meat used, pork, chicken or occasionally venison (see second recipe) do come into play. Often the marinating step is removed entirely, and the beef is immediately stirfried with garlic and oil instead, or the sauce/oil is cooked together with the beef. The sauce elements seem to be interchangeable depending on availability – but there was some consensus that the sauce should appear brown in colour and contain the key components of oil, sugar and MSG.

Ingredients:

150g beef, in 2cm cubes

For marinade:
2 tbsp chopped garlic
2 tbsp soy sauce
1/2 tsp salt

For sauce:
1 tbsp tomato sauce (ketchup) and 1 tbsp oyster sauce – There is some contention whether to use rice wine; oyster, soy or fish sauce; or combinations thereof. Neither oyster sauce nor ketchup are used widely in Khmer cooking, so I suspect that most times these two tablespoons are a mix of soy and fish sauce, or just fish sauce, thickened with corn flour.
1/2 tbsp sugar
3 tbsp cheapest cooking oil available
1 tsp MSG

1 onion
1 greenish tomato

Tuk meric (pepper sauce) for dipping
1 tsp crushed/ground black pepper
1/2 tsp salt
2 tsp lime juice

Marinate beef in garlic, soy and salt for between 10 minutes and an hour depending on the toughness of your cut. Thinly slice the onion and spread in a single layer on your serving plate, and slice tomato for garnish.

Add cooking oil to wok, and heat until the oil shimmers and just begins to smoke. Add beef and marinade, stir fry until browned. Add sugar, oyster sauce, oil, tomato sauce, MSG. Once warmed through, pour onto your serving plate.

Serve with a side of fries (“Loc Lac American”), steamed rice and a dipping bowl of tuk meric. If you’re in a decadent mood, top with a fried egg.

“Inauthentic” forbidden loc lac recipe

Despite being illegal, local deer (sach chlouk) does get served occasionally in Cambodia’s Northern provinces as delicious loc lac. While the Cambodian judicial system may be corrupt to the core (with one shining exception), I still do my best to adhere to the rule of law and so will not be eating nor promoting any Cambodian venison for the moment. However, most of my readership live in deer-legal regions, so cooking a deer loin outside Cambodia in the manner of Cambodians raises no moral or legal quandaries. Restaurant Le Royale’s beef loc lac inspired this recipe which throws all pretence of authenticity out the window. It’s more Franco-Chinese than Sino-Vina-Franco-Khmer.

Ingredients:
250gms trimmed venison loin, cubed

For marinade:
2 tbsp chopped garlic
2 tbsp mushroom soy sauce

1 onion
2 tbsp peanut oil

For reduction sauce:
1/4 cup of red wine
2 cups of venison stock
1 tbsp Kampot pepper, removed from stalk

Tuk meric (Pepper Sauce) for dipping
1 tsp crushed/ground Kampot black pepper
1 tsp sea salt
2 tsp lime juice

Marinate the venison in chopped garlic and mushroom soy sauce for 10 minutes. Thinly slice the onion and spread in a single layer on your serving plate.

Add cooking oil to wok, and heat until the oil shimmers and just begins to smoke. Add venison and marinade. Stir fry quickly until the venison is browned. Remove the venison from the wok, and set aside.

Turn the heat down and let the wok cool a little. Add the 1/4 of a cup of wine and stir to lift the coagulated meat juices from the wok. Bring to the boil and add the stock and fresh Kampot pepper. Reduce to about half, salt to taste, then pour over the venison.

Serve with steamed rice and dipping bowl of tuk meric. If you’re in a decadent mood, top with a fried egg.