Bopha Devi, Melbourne

I’d started my day with a heartening trip down Victoria Street in Richmond: noodle soup breakfast; harassing local Vietnamese grocers for Khmer ingredients; and an unexpected and typically Cambodian street food snack. There exists a good potential to cook “authentic” Cambodian food in Melbourne. You’d need a hook up into the underground Cambodian expat network so that you could secure the correct dried and fermented fishes, but apart from that, almost all the right ingredients are there, some of which are fresher than those that you’d see in your average Cambodian market. I had been trying to lower my expectations when approaching Bopha Devi, Melbourne’s sole Cambodian restaurant in the inner city, but the signs on Victoria Street had put me in a positive mood.

Bopha Devi Cambodian restaurant Melbourne

Bopha Devi has had a fistful of favourable reviews in the Melbourne food press. If you hadn’t already gathered, this isn’t going to be one of them.

The fish amok (A$26.90, US$21.50) was an exercise in disillusionment. It bore a basic resemblance to fish amok in that it contained some sort of fish and a banana leaf. Apart from that I would hazard a guess that the other two ingredients were Mae Ploy brand green Thai curry paste and a full can of coconut cream. When you’re charging this much for an amok and have all the ingredients at your disposal only kilometres away, there really isn’t any excuse for obliterating the soul of the dish.

Somlah Machou Kroueng with Fish (A$18.90) had the slightest touch of lemongrass and sour tamarind water but could more correctly be labelled “onion and capsicum soup”, as could the Char Kroueng (A$18.90) be labelled “onion and capsicum soup, hold the soup”. The rubbery tofu versions of each made me sorry for the vegetarians on my table; more sorry than I am that they miss out on the glory of bacon.

I was hoping that the Beef Salad (plear sach ko, A$15.90) would come marinated in lime juice, jam-packed with sliced lemongrass and raw, as it does when one throws caution to the wind and opens their intestinal tract to parasites in Cambodia. It didn’t. Dried Shrimp Salad (A$13.90) had desiccated shrimp aplenty and masses of shredded carrot which hid a scant few slivers of white vegetable that may have been the advertised green papaya but by this stage, I was feeling too jaded to ask.

The interior was pleasantly haute-Asian: red lanterns, muted but tasteful wallpaper, a Russian Market antiquity on one wall, footstool-sized cube seating that the Herald-Sun’s Stephen Downes complained about. The staff were welcoming although I’m unsure whether to lay the blame on the staff or on the chef that our waiter had to visit the kitchen when I asked if anything contained prahok, Cambodia’s national fish condiment. Nothing did.

In Cambodia, Princess Bopha Devi is best known for being the former King Sihanouk’s wayward daughter. Educated as a ballerina in France, the princess emulated the other princes by taking a succession of beautiful lovers but unlike the princes, this was much to the dismay of Sihanouk who once labelled her a “whore”. It makes for an interesting choice of name for a restaurant: Cambodians would more likely associate Bopha Devi with Sihanouk’s comments or her more recent political career as Minister for Culture. If the food had been better, I’d rant about the clash of feminism, modernity and tradition that the name embodies, and the difficulties of reconciling a modern education with the demands of Cambodian royal life. But it wasn’t.

Location: 27 Rakaia Way, New Quay, Melbourne (Australia). www.bophadevi.com.

Victoria St. Melbourne: Known unknowns

There is good food everywhere if you know how to look. Everyone already knows where to look. In Melbourne, where food rates as much of local obsession as the queer Australian code of football or being better than Sydney at everything (apart from being queer), the chances of finding a “hidden gem” amongst the restaurants is unlikely. The real challenge is finding the best dishes within the known areas. The known unknowns, in modern anti-guerrilla warfare parlance.

Victoria Street in Richmond is one of the Melbournes’s pre-eminent Vietnamese hubs. It’s packed full of food that puts much of Ho Chi Minh City’s best to shame and it isn’t near as hard to find. Your best bets for most of the restaurants are to eat the foods that are named on the front windows of the store. They’re displaying them so prominently for a reason.

Vietnamese herbs in Melbourne
Fresh Indochinese herbage! Top row: Thai basil (xang hum), rice paddy herb (maom), fishwort (poel trei). Bottom row: Possibly celery (? Feel free to out-guess me, botanists).

Amongst the crowded Vina strip there are a handful of dedicated pho restaurants serving nothing but beef and chicken soups, most notably a second outlet of the Footscray-based Hung Vuong and Pho Dzung.

Pho Dzung - Melbourne

I was most tempted by Pho Dzung because a few evenings earlier when I dropped by with a vegetarian friend only to find that the single dish that they could conceive that contained no meat was a fried egg on plain rice. The notion that vegetarianism is weird and foreign suggests that this is just like the real Vietnam.

Pho from Pho Dzung Melbourne

Pho Dzung’s pho bo tai (A$6, small bowl, above) is a carnivore’s delight. The silky smooth broth breathes pure meat. The tai, thin slices of raw beef that warm through in the broth, couldn’t be much juicier. A few doors down at the grocer, there are a huge assortment of deep-fried snacks that I tend to associate with Cambodia rather than its most hated enemy.

Cambodian food Anksom Cheik Chien - Melbourne

The num anksom cheik (A$2), which in Phnom Penh can be conveniently found in front of the Chinese Embassy on Mao Tse Toung Blvd, comes chopped, smothered in tinned coconut milk and with a complimentary plastic spork. Not quite fresh from the barbecue but still a good (and previously unknown) find.

Amokalypse Now: Byline ahoy!

The Dish: Fish Amok in Wall Street Journal Asia

Nothing polarizes aficionados of Cambodian cuisine like fish amok. The ubiquity of this fish curry, which is typically steamed to a light mousse in a wrapper made from a banana leaf, belies a vast range of approaches to its preparation and serving.

At the core of fish amok are four elements. The first, freshwater fish, is generally the endemic snakehead fish, but other firm-fleshed freshwater creatures are often substituted; freshwater snail amok (amok chouk) also appears on local menus. In recent times “tofu amok” and “chicken amok” have emerged as an alternative for fish-averse tourists.

The second essential is kroeung, a pounded spice paste that contains a heavy dose of lemongrass alongside Cambodian fermented fish paste (prahok), fresh turmeric root, the ginger-like rhizome krachai, galangal, garlic and red shallots. Chili? “Some people use it for amok; others don’t,” says Joannès Rivière, author of Cambodian recipe book “La Cuisine du Cambodge Avec les Apprentis de Sala Baï” and executive chef of upscale Khmer restaurant Meric in Siem Reap. “What is sure is that it shouldn’t be fresh chili but always dried. Just soak them and chop them thinly, using a bit of palm sugar to make a paste.” More palm sugar is also added to sweeten the curry.

Thirdly, and what most differentiates a Cambodian amok from its regional neighbors, is the addition of the herb slok ngor (the leaf of the noni tree, morinda citrifolia). The small ovoid leaf confers a subtle but distinctive bitterness to the dish.

The fourth and final must is fresh coconut milk.

So writes and photographs me(!) for today’s Wall Street Journal Asia. Sorry for no link to the rest of the article wherein I speculate at amok’s history and the reasons why it is rarely cooked at home , WSJ Asia is subscription-only.

Addendum (12 June 2007): Full fish amok article is now online at WSJ.com

Ed Interviews Me

Ed Charles from Tomato, followed through on a meme from Lucullian Delights to interview another blogger with five questions. Here are the questions Ed sent me with my responses.

1. How long have you lived in Cambodia and why did you move there?

Just over two years. Why? Lack of decent fermented fish in Australia, and the result of the 2001 Australian election made moving to a fish-filled, single party state seem much more appealing.

2. Could you explain how blogging has had a positive (or negative) effect on your life/work?

Work-wise, it’s a massive positive. I finished my full-time job just over a month ago and at the moment I’m food and travel writing professionally for my remaining few months in Phnom Penh. Without blogging, I’d now be unemployed. I’ve got an article and photo in today’s Wall Street Journal Asia on fish amok and a few more food and travel articles forthcoming. In my non-travel writing work (marketing with a copywriting/web bent), the blog makes for a handy portfolio.

Life-wise, blogging lets random strangers have a forensic account of what I eat upon which they can comment. I’m still unsure whether this is a good thing or not. I’ve also met a few other bloggers who happen to be in Cambodia and elsewhere, and they all seem to be not as freakish as you’d expect from people that you meet at random from the Internet. After I was in the local newspapers, a few restauranteurs have recognised me when I’ve been eating at their restaurants and accost me for not reviewing them.

3. What do you miss from Australia in terms of culture and food?

Lamb. The many cultures that eat lamb.

4. Where else (if anywhere) would you like to live in the world and why?

Thimpu, Bhutan. It’s so hot right now.

I’m open to moving anywhere that isn’t being shelled by somebody nor can be described as “post-genocide”. Living in Phnom Penh has made me realise that I can make the best out of living in most cities. The new E3 visas that Australians can get to work in the USA makes either the Bay Area or New York very tempting, but in all likelihood, I’ll be back in either Melbourne or Sydney for some time.

5. In your view what’s the biggest problem with Cambodia and is there any hope in it being solved?

This will be controversial regardless of which problem that I pick: the depth of (sometimes vested) interest in every problem in Cambodia amongst business and development professionals fuels intractable debates. There are many problems, each more problematic than the next.

With that broad disclaimer, my pick for biggest problem: complete lack of the independence of the judiciary and the rule of law. It is what underpins civil society and provides a base for all other development. The Hon Justice Michael Kirby AC CMG who took on the task early on in Cambodia’s rebuilding outlines the problem much more eloquently than I ever could:

On my initial visit to Phnom Penh I found that there were virtually no judges. No courtrooms. No officials. No laws. When we consider the challenge of international law and order, it is vital to remember that, in many countries, even the most rudimentary of governmental institutions may be missing. Any judge of the old regime in Cambodia who did not flee the country was almost certainly murdered by the Khmer Rouge. Accordingly, Cambodia had to start again. I remember vividly speaking to the new “judges” in what had been the old courthouse in Phnom Penh. None of them was a lawyer. Most of them were teachers. At least they could read and write. They asked me rudimentary questions about what it meant to be a judge.

Could they remain members of a political party? Could they accept presents? What would they do if there was no law on the subject? My task, with judges from India, Zimbabwe, France and elsewhere, was to offer a crash course in the judicial function. Similar courses have been given under the auspices of the United Nations before and since. Most recently, in East Timor, judges from many lands are working with locals to rebuild a rudimentary system for the administration of justice.

These are the truths of many countries. I explained to the “judges” in training that it was unacceptable for them to receive gifts. If a gift were accepted from a large multinational corporation, happy with the outcome of a case, it would soon become known. No one would trust the decision of that judge. Yet I was told that it was a strong tradition in Khmer culture to offer gifts of friendship and gratitude in certain situations. I warned that this was intolerable in judicial office. The eyes of my listeners were downcast. Later it was explained to me that judges in Cambodia received as salary $US20 a month. The only way they could survive would be by occasional gifts. Only in that way could they educate their children. I saw a look of anguish in the eyes of the new “judges”. I could perceive their dilemma. The notions of “privatisation” had combined with cultural politeness to suggest the supplementation of meagre public salaries. Police and guards on roadways in Cambodia regularly levied “tolls”. It was a kind of users’ contribution to the pockets of the lonely guards performing a sometimes dangerous job. Yet judges are supposed to be in a different class, I insisted. The eyes were lowered further. I was demanding a rule that it was almost impossible to live by.

There can be no global rule of law without an uncorrupted judiciary. Nations can enact laws. They can subscribe to solemn international declarations. They can ratify treaties. But unless those who enforce the law are uncorrupted, it will mean little or nothing. Reliance on the uncorrupted decision-maker is something we take for granted in developed countries. But in most countries of the world the judges and magistrates are underpaid, if they have been paid at all.

My endeavours to persuade the World Bank to interest itself in the underpinnings of governance in Cambodia, fell on deaf ears. This was before the new head of the Bank, Mr James Wolfenson, an Australian, took it, with other global institutions, down the path of strengthening governmental infrastructure. Without an infrastructure of integrity, talk of money laundering laws and extradition or of drug law enforcement and international police cooperation, is rather empty. In many countries of the world the absolute prerequisite to a just, efficient and lawful implementation of high standards against international economic crime is simply not present. This is why the new interest in governance of the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the World Trade Organisation, the OECD, the Commonwealth of Nations and other bodies is to be applauded. Without independent and impartial courts, the building of a global rule of law will enjoy only selective success.

I don’t believe that this problem is impenetrable – if I did I would be consigning many of my good friends to a life of pointless work and a hopeless fate.

Want me to interview you?

  1. Leave a comment saying, “Interview me.” I’m on the road at the moment, so I might take a while to interrogate you.
  2. I will respond by emailing you five questions. Please ensure I have your email address.
  3. You will update your blog with the answers to the questions.
  4. You will include this explanation and offer to interview someone else in the same post.
  5. When others comment asking to be interviewed, you will ask them five questions.

Godspeed, you palm sap vendors II

lienpalm

The roadside from Siem Reap to the outlying temple of Banteay Srei is dotted with huge woks filled with a foaming, sweet mystery. Most tourists steam past in their tour buses and tuk tuks, desperate to hit Banteay Srei before the morning light dissipates and thus don’t get the chance to discover what those woks hold.

Lien (above) makes a living by tapping sugar palm trees, refining the sap by slowly boiling it over an open flame while removing the foamy impurities, and then selling the resulting palm sugar to the tourists with the time to stop. Tourism has created a tiny windfall for the local vendors – most roadside houses have a small palm sugar stall – but business does not seem to be booming.

lienpalm3

Trees are tapped by her husband twice daily with the raw sap collected in above bamboo tubes (ampong). The sap comes from the cut stalks of the palm’s flowers which reside in the top of the palm, and many palms in the surrounding villages have a makeshift bamboo ladder haphazardly lashed to their trunk to aid climbers. The yield of each tree varies depending on the skill of the individual tapper with a good tree yielding 5 to 6 litres of sap every day.

lienpalm2

Trees also yield the photogenic palm fruit. According to my friends at the FAO, each palm “may bear eight to fifteen bunches of fruit with a total of about 80 pieces of fruit per year”.

P1010024_2

The finished product is moulded into small discs of palm sugar which remain hard but slightly crumbly. Pure Cambodian palm sugar is generally the above colour; lighter sugars will often have cane sugar added.

See also: Godspeed, you palm sap vendor

A new day dawns for parachute journalism

Nixon
Image: Wikipedia

Some works of travel journalism leave me thinking of Richard Nixon: bewildered; hopped up on martinis and Dilantin; not knowing which part of Indochina to nuke first. Works much like Hari Kunzru’s article from this weekend’s Observer:

Legend has it that when the Khmer Rouge entered Phnom Penh in April 1975, journalists watching from the balcony of the Foreign Correspondents Club left in such a hurry that the people who opened the boarded-up building years later found cameras on the floor, complete with undeveloped images of the fighting…A dry local joke about the FCC is that it’s the only place where the city’s many NGO workers have to grit their teeth and make conversation with so-called ‘sexpats’.

Legend has it that the FCC opened its doors in Phnom Penh for the very first time in 1993. Legend also has it that a few months ago, the New York Times made the exact same mistake and then printed the following retraction:

The Next Stop column on Feb. 11, about a new liveliness in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, misstated the role of a bar and restaurant there called the Foreign Correspondents’ Club as a hangout for Western journalists. It opened in 1993; it did not exist during the reign of the Khmer Rouge during the 1970s, a time when few Westerners were in Cambodia.

A dry local joke about The Observer newspaper is that unlike Nixon, they value factual accuracy.

See: The Observer’s A new day dawns

The case of the disappearing beer

Karakuchi! Thanks again to corruption, the Cambodian Government’s coffers have been left super dry.

Millions of bottles and cans of beer imported from Singapore and Thailand simply disappeared at the Cambodian border before being taxed, the Economic Institute of Cambodia (EIC) said in a report commissioned by two local breweries, Cambrew and Cambodia Brewery Limited.

“With weak governance and law enforcement, ‘contraband’ beer has … been booming,” the EIC said, adding that the smuggled brew accounted for 29 per cent of the country’s total beer market, far outstripping legal imports at 6 per cent.

The EIC says the Japanese beer Asahi, the cheapest foreign brand on the market, made-up the largest percentage of imported beer.

One of the strangest things about Asahi Super Dry in Cambodia is that Chinese-, Thai- and Japanese-brewed Asahi all make it onto the market at exactly the same price (around $9.50 per case). You can tell the difference between the Japanese and the other two before you taste them because the Japanese version has three rings in the lip of the can, as seen in figure 1 below, and the real thing will occasionally have Japanese promotional stickers on the cases and individual cans.

ASAHI
Figure 1 – Know your contraband beer

See: Cambodia losing millions to beer smuggling

Parachute Foodblogging: 5-hour Kuala Lumpur mission

One of the greatest perks of food writing is that I can justify certain types of extreme eating behaviour in the name of “business”. This weekend I had a five hour stopover in Kuala Lumpur which I could breakdown as 30 minutes to clear Malaysian customs, 28 minutes on the train to Sentral Station (RM70, return), two minutes to Chinatown (RM1), an hour of finding and assessing streetfood vendors, an hour of eating, return journey, dash to my plane before I they start referring to me as “Mr Lees” over the loudspeaker.

I’ve been to Kuala Lumpur’s Chinatown once before, about 15 years ago, and am now not sure if I remember eating there or if I’ve supplanted all of my Malaysian food memories from KL with Robyn and Dave’s photographs from EatingAsia. What had remained unchanged over the last decade and a half was that Chinatown’s central road Jalan Petaling is still filled with the type of souvenirs that can be classed as Southeast Asian Generic Tourist Crap: faux-sneakers; pirated CDs; t-shirts for pan-Asian beer brands; fishermen’s pants; tschotchkes made from either coconut shell, wire or discarded beer cans. I believe that I may have bought a pair of parachute pants there in the early-90s and that these same pants are still on sale. I would still wear these pants if MC Hammer had not betrayed his more secular audience by recording “Pray“.

More heartening than both the tourist trap and Hammer’s continued career is that the streets and alleys around Jelan Petaling are filled with great streetfood that can be found by someone not at all familiar with KL.

Claypot chicken and rice from KL

Sweet Chinese sausage, chicken and rice: it takes some clever cooking over an open flame to both cook the chicken to the perfect consistency as well as delicately charring the rice so that it’s both burnt and delicious. The gelatinous result was topped with spring onions and filled with fresh ginger and a little soy, and a world away from the following ten hours of inflight entertainment and plane food.

Spy Vs Spy: Spy Black and Spy Ice

Spy

Brewer: Siam Winery Co Ltd

Spy Black Wine Cooler – A delicious blend of the finest wine, sparkling mineral water and natural ingredients: the Siam Winery Co has the temerity to write those exact words on the bottle. Maybe the finest wine that Thailand has to offer actually is in Spy, hidden beneath Thailand’s finest sugar and edible industrial chemicals. It pours as black as it looks but with a faint portwine edge. As much as I was hoping for either “Guinness”, “Black Pudding” or “Coal” flavour, the chemical nose betrays the taste of faux-grape and sugar syrup. Alcohol by volume 7%.

Spy Ice Wine Cooler – Anything that is advertised as “ice” flavour that is neither based on crystal methamphetamine nor frozen water is cause for immediate suspicion. Ice is a naturally occurring crystalline solid and calling it anything otherwise is an affront to physics. Slight nose of lemon-scented car freshener. Syrupy mouthfeel. Like a drunken, van-less Mr Whippy had stirred a lemonade-flavored icy pole through a glass of stale Spumante. Altogether, the best Spy I have ever tasted and the clear victor. ABV 4%.

Location: Most larger drink stores, Cambodia-wide

Price:3000 riel

Wiener-related crime on the rise

Via DAS, Phnom Penh Post:

APRIL 23: Four suspected robbers were shot dead after preparing to commit robbery at 9pm in Russey Sang village, Prey Veng province. Police said the four exchanged gunfire and tried to escape on a motorbike after they were ordered to stop for inspection. Police confiscated two AK-47s and 43 bullets, three flashlights and a plastic bag of poisonous hotdogs.

Hotdogs: bringing out the wurst that humanity has to offer.