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.

– 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 BeerCambodian 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”.

Khmer: The National Alcohol Beverage

Khmer Beer

Brewer: Some guys out in Daun Mann

As I opened this bottle of cold Khmer, I was reminded of an edition of the blog Steve, Don’t Eat It!. Not content with eating corn smut or the original Steve Urkel breakfast cereal ten years past its use-by date, Steve decides to brew his own prison wine (or “pruno” in the American prison vernacular). He refers to the Jim Hogshire 1994 classic “You Are Going To Prison”:

One of the problems you have right away with making wine in prison is the difficulty getting yeast. It’s a strictly forbidden item and you might not be able to get any. In this case you can improvise the by using slices of bread, preferably moldy (but not dry) and preferably inside a sock for easier straining.”

The initial aroma wafting from my Khmer smelled as if it had been created with moldy bread strained through a sock. A sock that Satan himself had been wearing on a particularly loathsome day in the sulphur mines. The rotten egg notes continue through to the flavour, where they seem to cut through the mouth-puckering sourness and overwhelm anything else in this beverage. The brew has a slight natural effervescence which only serves to make things worse. Alcohol by volume was listed as 4.5%, so there wasn’t much hopes that a few swift gulps could anaesthetise my tastebuds into submission.

There are at least one hundred uses for the ubiquitous sugar palm tree in Cambodia and this is the very worst.

If this beverage was jailed, it would be for: Grand Theft Hydrogen Sulfide

Availability: Bottle only, in drink stores.

See also: Taipei Times interviews the Khmer beer manufacturers.

Take your stinking paws off my stout, you damned dirty ape!

New to the Cambodian blog scene, Details are Sketchy reprints the Cambodia Daily’s monkey o’ the day scoop: jealous ape hooked on stout.

Forestry officials will investigate reports that customers at a Battambang province restaurant have been plying a pet monkey with multiple cans of ABC Stout after it developed a taste for the eight-percent alcoholic drink, an official said Wednesday.

Three-year-old Mira recently started drinking at least three cans of stout per day, apparently to cope with jealously caused by waitresses pretending to flirt with male customers, according to Rath Sorphea, owner of Sorphea Restaurant in Battambang district.

Too much monkey-related news is never enough.

Previously on Phnomenon: ABC Stout

Cambodian Beers a No-Show

Despite being entrants since its inception and proudly displaying their medals on the bottle, none of Cambodia’s breweries entered the 2006 Australian International Beer Awards. Regionally, BGI, Chang Light, Beer Lao and Myanmar Beer all made an effort, with Chang Light receiving a bronze in the International Lager – Other section.

For a full listing of the 2006 winners and losers, read the AIBA catalogue of results. For anyone loosely interested in small breweries, the list of exhibitors at the end is a good wrap up of the rapidly expanding list of microbreweries in Australia.

Black Panther Stout

Cambodian Beer - Black Panther Stout by Cambrew
Brewer: Cambrew

To let the cat out of the bag is an especially cruel idiom for anyone who has actually either seen a bagged cat or attempted to bag one for themselves. Folk etymology has it that the idiom developed from the practice of unscrupulous suckling pig vendors substituting a live cat for a pig, (“the pig in a poke”). Letting the cat out of the bag discloses a horrible and much less-tasty secret. Cambrew have let the cat out of the bag, a bag that they should sink back into the aphotic depths of the Tonle Sap filled with horseshoes.

Cambrew says“Black Panther Stout is a stout named after the powerful symbol for strength, energy and health. Black Panther Stout embodies the full quality of a stout with an alcohol content of 8% to 8.3% by volume. Black Panther Stout is robust, full bodied with special bitterness and a strong hoppy aroma, to put back what the day has taken out.”

I say: I was hoping for an imperial stout that did Huey P. Newton proud. J. Edgar Hoover called the Black Panthers “the greatest threat to internal security in the United States” and I believe that this beer is an equal threat to the security of my internal organs. Alcohol content is 8%, so Black Panther burns on the way down like setting fire to Watts in 1966 and then beats you about the liver like a COINTELPRO agent. Thin head, burnt butter and molasses flavours. Finish is dry and astringent.

Availability: Widely available, can only

If this beer was an animal, it would be: A jive turkey

Tip Off: Talkin’ to a Stranger has proper beer

As you may have guessed from my Cambodian beer reviews, I sorely miss a bottle-conditioned beer. As if St. Arnold had answered my hop-infused prayers, Talkin’ to a Stranger now has it in the form of South Australian beers, Coopers Sparkling Ale and Coopers Pale Ale. At $3 a bottle, I’ll drop by whenever my palate needs resetting.

Location: Talkin’ to A Stranger, #21, Street 294, not far from the corner of Sothearos.

Bayon and Angkor Beer: Colonial Heritage Edition

Bayon Beer

Cambodian Beer Labels


A hand-illustrated beer label bestows the trappings of refinement even on Bayon Beer. It makes it look like the class of beer that you would savour on the balcony of Bokor Casino in its heyday while you watched the islands recede into the mist; contemplating which dinner suit you’d wear that evening.

While I was on the hunt for the dubious origin of Love Beer, I stumbled across Mick, a beer label collector who is on the lookout for Cambodian beer labels. He has posted his collection of 1960s-era Bayon and Angkor labels on his site (which he has kindly allowed me to reproduce) and would love to get in touch with any local or international collectors willing to trade in South East Asian labels. His firm belief is that Love Beer is from Indonesia and the “Singapore” on the can refers to the brewery. The mystery ensues.

For label-trading action and a tale of one collector’s heartbreak at the gates of the Cambodia Breweries cannery, see Mick’s website.


Love Beer

Love Beer

The beer that asks the question to which you answer, “Of course I do, but not this one”.

There is a moment in The Man With The Golden Gun where Herve Villechaize, that white-suited, vindictive dwarf from Fantasy Island, chats with James Bond about killing his boss, Francisco Scaramanga (played inimitably by Christopher Lee). “If you kill him, I get to keep the island” says the dwarf, referring to Scaramanga’s tropical island lair and most likely to Fantasy Island as well. Just like you should be suspicious of a man bedecked in a white suit, you too should be suspicious of a beer that is dressed in a white can.

I became even more apprehensive about this beer when I couldn’t easily ascertain its origin. According to the can, this brew’s island lair is Singapore and is rumoured to be brewed by APB, the same team that bring you ABC Stout. I say rumoured because the only reference I can find for a point of origin of this beer is on a non-government organisation devoted to monitoring “sales practices and health, safety and welfare policies of major globalized beer companies observed doing business in Cambodia” in their handy spotter’s guide to the beer promotion women of Siem Reap.

APB says: Nothing. says: “Frankly, I abhor your policies in these regions and I would prefer taking my business to a company that does not have such reprehensible practices.”

I say: The novelty of making jokes about the emaciated quality of Asian beer is beginning to wear thin. Ho ho. There is a suspicious hint of hops oil bitterness but not much malt. Does not taste or smell anything like “love”.

Availability: Uncommon, can only.

Leo Beer

Brewer: Boon Rawd
This isn’t actually a Cambodian beer, it’s brewed in Thailand by the same folks that bring Singha Lager to Indochina. Boon Rawd introduced it in the 1990s to compete for the bottom end of the Thai market where Singha dare not tread and, sadly, it has made its way into Cambodia, possibly aimed at people who don’t find the leopard on the can confusing. Leo is Latin for “lion”, but my guess is that it is also Thai for “insipid”.

Boon Rawd says: “Leo Beer is a full-flavored standard lager beer with a smooth and pleasant finish”

I say: Another beer so thin that it has an aerodynamic quality. At the very least, you can tell that there actually is some malt in there, somewhere, hidden behind a weak honey smell. It’s characterless but not irredeemably awful.