Rice Nationalism

Ricefield at sunset, near Siem Reap

Ask anyone in Asia who grows the best rice and the answer is inevitably the nation of origin of the person questioned. In Cambodia, it’s likely to be an exact village of origin at a specific date. There is no room for objectivity because the rice harvest is chained to the national identity of every nation who eats it as their primary carbohydrate. Apparently, you can get caught up in the nationalistic fervour. Karen Coates over at Gourmet magazine’s food blog writes:

In years of bouncing around Southeast Asia, I’ve had many a conversation with locals and expats about the seeming superiority of Cambodian rice. I am not alone in my assessment. But why? Is it really better than rice in Thailand (my home for the past three years and therefore my natural point of comparison)? Or is it just my imagination?

Yes, it’s your imagination. Maytel also lands a bodyslam on the shaky agricultural underpinnings and the fetishization of poor farmers at their expense at Maytel:

But lets get one thing straight, subsistence peasant agriculture in the tropics is not some rare heirloom tomato variety found at your local USA farmers market. It’s not du puy lentils. There is nothing to glamorise and doing so often compromises the food security of these farmers. From what I found imposed ideals of ‘organic’/ ‘artisanal’ varieties, inevitably results in lower yields and is about as unhelpful as you can get in a country like Cambodia.

Getting down in Cambodia Town

Outside of Cambodia, Cambodians are practically invisible. When I tell people in Los Angeles that I live in Cambodia they tend to mention The Killing Fields movie rather than Choueng Ek; Princess Di’s work with landmines and Angelina Jolie.

When overseas Cambodians in the USA do get a mention, the press focuses on gang crime, deportations back to Cambodia and the high rates of post traumatic stress suffered by Cambodian immigrants. Issues that tend to get hidden rather than tackled. Unless you keep a close watch on the Khmer diaspora, places like Lowell in Massachussetts or Long Beach in Los Angeles, California have no special resonance.

Against this backdrop, having Anaheim St in Long Beach, between Atlantic and Junipeiro Avenue designated as “Cambodia Town” by the city council in July this year is a huge achievement in that it gives the existing Cambodian diaspora visibility. It literally places them on the map. It isn’t a town in any traditional sense; rather it is four lanes of traffic bounded by the occasional store with a sign in Khmer script amongst the local bodegas. If you didn’t know what Khmer script was, you’d probably confuse it for Arabic like the airport security at SeaTac did on my way into the USA. The surrounding suburbs hide almost 50,000 Cambodians.

After fishing around for some Khmer eating recommendations (Siem Reap Restaurant and New Paradise were discussed), we hit Sophy’s at one of the far ends of Cambodia Town. Sophy’s is both familiar and foreign: packed with Khmer people, black Landcruisers in the parking lot, tacky Angkor-Wat-from-the-reflecting-pool painting, Khmer 50s hits CD on permanent loop, cheapo aluminium soup bain maries. Their menu is filled with Cambodian comfort food with a small side business in Cambodian-style Thai, and the occasional Vietnamese dish that has drifted into the Cambodian vernacular (banh xeo, loc lac)

In a manner befitting Los Angeles, I was dining with somebody who’d finished up working on a show with both the words “makeover” and “extreme” in the title from where they’d recently moved into something that involves the trade in Third World islands. They’d never eaten Cambodian food before but were enthused when they discovered that Cambodia’s islands were up for grabs.

Prahok Khtis

Prahok khtis, a Cambodian dip served with crudités was light on the prahok but heavy on the pork and salt; which much to my consternation, rated as the surprise hit of the meal amongst the American folk. I did neglect to mention that delicious fermented fish was the central ingredient.

Sophy's in Long Beach, Los Angeles

Samlor machou yuon (Vietnamese-style sour soup) was overflowing with fish, tomatoes, pineapple and loofah gourd with basil substituting for the Khmer maom leaf; hitting the right sour and salty notes. The deep-fried pomfret with chili (trei charb chien tuk mteis) was slow to arrive but well worth the wait, and by Phnom Penh standards, gigantic. Unlike Cambodia, the fish had been gutted rather than fried whole which I tend to prefer. Plear sach ko (beef salad) was a bit dull but beef-heavy in a way that speaks to Americans and their insane farm subsidy system. While Angkor Lager was on the menu, they’d run out and when the waitstaff discovered that I spoke a little Khmer, they plied me with free Singha beer so that I’d continue to perform tricks to the delight of eavesdroppers.

Location: Sophy’s Fine Thai and Cambodian Cuisine, 3720 E Anaheim St, Long Beach, CA 90804 Tel: (562) 494-1763

Aborted Mission Mission

Angkor Borei, San Francisco

I missed rice.

Three weeks of nothing but beef, microbrews, Texas-style barbecue and varying shades of Mexican had begun to take its inevitable toll. I’d had a recommendation from a Phnom Penh friend that Angkor Borei Restaurant in the deep, deep south of Mission Street in San Francisco was the real deal for Cambodian food. They even had the bad painting of Angkor Wat on display which in my mind is the Cambodian equivalent of displaying a Michelin star. It’s easy to get there: just catch the MUNI J-Church straight to where San Jose meets Mission Street.

So close, so far away

What my friend neglected to mention was that Angkor Borei was closed on Tuesday, the only free day that I could make it there. Being out the front of the restaurant did actually make me close on Tuesday, but not actually close enough to review or eat anything. As much as I’m all for postmodernism, not eating at a restaurant precludes discussing the food.

Pho Phu Quoc, San Francisco

To add insult to injury, the Vietnamese substitute dinner was at Pho Phu Quoc, named after the Cambodian island that thanks to some French colonial geographic reshuffling, ended up as part of Vietnam.

Pho at Pho Phu Quoc, SF

Their pho was not quite right. Plenty of tai (raw sliced beef), beef balls that tasted uncharacteristically like they were made from actual cow parts, and soup that tasted like its sole ingredients were cinnamon powder and cloves. It was somewhat frightening to spot a new Vina-Malaysian fusion food on the menu – pho satay – regular pho with a hearty slug of commercial satay sauce for good measure.

Locations: Angkor Borei Restaurant, 3471 Mission St , San Francisco.

Pho Phu Quoc, 1816 Irving St (At 19th Ave) , San Francisco.

Spider Fixation

“Largely, media coverage focuses on less representative Khmer foods like spiders, as well as being covered by journalists who have never before eaten Khmer food and have no real drive to discover more about it once they have filed their spider story. Serious food journalists don’t come here.

So whinges me, in an Asia Sentinel article by Mark Fenn. Of course, the article includes a photo of a spider seller. Cheers Mark, DAS for both scooping and calling me “beer-swilling”.

Awesomely short Lowell wrap-up

For a few people that follow the global Khmer diaspora or posthumously stalk Jack Kerouac, Lowell in Massachusetts is one of the few hubs. The Boston Globe, in its coverage of the Lowell Folk Festival has picked up on the trend and published a diminutive article on the local Khmer food options. Their picks:

Locals recommend Khemara (308 Westford St., 978-452-4431), New Koh Kung (249 Chelmsford St., 978-458-8883), Phnom Penh (309 Westford St., 978-275-0999), Red Rose (716 Middlesex St., 978-452-5400) and Senmonorom (1671 Middlesex St., 978-275-0024).

If you want to try Cambodian cooking at home, stop into the Battambang Supermarket (125 Church St., 978-454-1128) for fresh fish and herbs and a large assortment of imported Khmer foodstuffs.

See: Taste Something New

Bluffer’s Guide to Phnom Penh Restaurants

One of the most frequent emails that land in my inbox is the “I’m coming to Phnom Penh, where should I eat?” question. I hate recommending restaurants to people when I don’t know them, but it does seem to be the question everybody does ask. To save me venting my hatred in a shirty reply email, instead here are my top 13 places to eat in town with map. It’s subjective. If you ask me why your favourite restaurant didn’t make the cut, the answer is you are not me.

Print it on some cardboard, fold into quarters, and pretend you’re a Luxe Guide-wielding opulence junkie.

Phnom Penh Restaurant Guide (700K PDF)

Cambodian Waffles (Num Poum)

Cambodian waffles

I’ve been teaching a friend’s grandmother, Channa, to make pizza. I literally have no idea how she got the desire to learn to cook Italian but she’s a relentlessly inquisitive student and masterful Cambodian cook. The exchange is a little one-sided – I tend to pick up about ten recipes for every one that I teach her.

“Can I put morning glory on pizza? Cucumber? Prahok? Do you need a special knife to cut pizza? Is yeast made from rice or wheat? Is cheese and butter the same? Can you make cheese?” She asked.

I tried to explain that you can put anything on pizza (I’m not a purist). I explained yeast as “the powder that makes bread grow” only to find that there is a Khmer word for it. Cheese and butter are not the same. I can only make simple cheese and not mozzarella. Then she described to me her first disastrous attempt to make pizza.

Knowing how to make waffles, she assumed that Cambodian waffle batter and pizza dough, were at heart, the same thing and so she made waffle batter with more rice flour to thicken and no palm sugar.

Her thoughts: “It was not delicious”

In the process, I managed to glean her waffle recipe. The above photo is from a waffle vendor at Psar Tuol Tom Poung (Russian Market) in Phnom Penh

Cambodian Waffles (Num Poum)

1/2 cup rice flour
1/2 cup wheat flour
1/2 cup of coconut milk
3/4 cup of palm sugar
2 eggs
1/2 tsp salt

In a bowl, mix the flour, coconut milk, palm sugar and eggs and salt. Brush a waffle iron with oil pour in the batter and cook over an open fire until light brown and crispy.

See also: Sisters All Day Breakfast

Shinta Mani

The Nehru jacket. The jacket so nice that they named a Pacific island after it. The crisp battle armour of Third World service staff. Beige. The person inside it greets you in a characterless patter that suggests you’ve arrived in a non-place, a refuge from whichever city the hotel is located. It is a garment that signifies that the hotel bears no relationship to the city itself. A hotel designed to impersonate all of the other hotels where the beige Nehru jacket is worn. In this case the town was Siem Reap, the simulacra of a town located next to something of significance; a town of garish, tourist-driven architectural stupidity and misgovernance. The gewgaw wasteland writ large. The hotel was Shinta Mani.

My task was simple: spend six hours on the bus, 18 hours in the hotel, eat, write an article about it that appears in today’s Wall Street Journal Asia, read a Nobel Prize winning author by the pint-sized pool, six hours on the bus back to Phnom Penh. It wouldn’t be the first time I’ve been to Siem Reap and not seen a single Angkorean temple and it won’t be the last. I had plenty of time on my hands and wrote far too much to be submitted for the article, much of it inappropriate and off topic. The following is what I omitted from my draft as well as what the editors subsequently edited out, apart from the following quote:

Unlike the growing flood of boutique hotels in Siem Reap, Shinta Mani attempts to bridge the gap between rich and poor with a unique mix of philanthropy and hospitality training. Shinta Mani selects 26 students from surrounding villages to attend a 9 month hospitality course. Students are provided with on-the-job schooling, a monthly salary, meals, learning materials and a weekly stipend of four kilograms of rice to remit to their family…

…in return for providing the behind-the-scenes grunt work for the hotel. The hotel also offers tours of local villages from where it draws students and supplies options for tourists to buy villagers a bicycle, well, or house but it is unclear whether this a well-coordinated and long-term development strategy or the exploitation of the poor as a tourist attraction. Portmanteau-minded critics have dubbed this boutique assuaging of luxury guilt as “poorism”.

Shinta Mani’s décor is relatively spartan with faux-marble tiles and minimal white walls adorned with hand-coloured lithographs of the nearby temple ruins. Its restaurant is less muted with a mandarine-painted dining room decorated with local silks. A single lotus flower in a hammered silver vase dresses each table.

My neighbouring diners were a pair of holidaying Japanese women: it was Golden Week in Japan and Siem Reap has been reaping the golden windfall. One wore a white T-shirt that said “Je voudrais un détente” and the other carried a lime-green umbrella and a digital camera. When their plate of fish and chips with caper mayonnaise (US$7) arrived, they placed it in the centre of the table and together dissected it in a way that suggested a long term friendship rather than the intimacy of lovers.

A couple from Boston sat a few tables away. They asked the waiter to photograph them to memorialize their meal before they had eaten it. The man was balding with circular glasses and looked like a minor television actor whose name I can’t recall. The woman could be described as nondescript. They both ate something meaty, possibly the roast strip loin with okra, taro gnocchi and beef jus (US$15). They ordered desserts that looked like a square of kitchen sponge in HP sauce and discussed that they expected something different.

I spotted someone I knew from Phnom Penh strut through the lobby. Someone I wanted to avoid. They didn’t see me.

Service was surprisingly modest, unassuming and honest to the point of brutality. After discussing the a la carte Khmer-French fusion options with my waiter, when asked as to whether many tourists tried the Khmer set menu (US$16), the waiter answered with a blunt “no”. The set menu is structured more like a Western meal with an entrée*, main and dessert than in the Cambodian tradition of many dishes shared by the entire table or family. The wine list is expensive even by local standards, narrowly spanning Old- and New World wines. My waiter, shadowed by one of the student-trainees, recommended me the Yering Station Chardonnay (US$10 by the glass) to match the set menu.

The Bostonian couple gave me a blank stare of incomprehension while I wrote notes on the entrée of banh chiao. I wrote “street-food sublime” and made a note that somehow I had to put the words “hospitality” and “philanthropy” in the same sentence because they’re almost anagrams. I anagrammed “philanthropy” into “Hi, python larp!” and thought to myself that I should never dine alone ever again because it encourages me to record my interior monologue and thus betray my Scrabble-hustling skills. I invented a recipe for a dried python larp with sour mango in my head.

At its best, banh chiao is an exercise in street food sublime: a turmeric and rice flour pancake that is at once crispy and rubbery enveloping a mix of dried shrimp, fatty pork and crunchy bean shoots; served with a jungle of fragrant local herbs by a roadside vendor with dubious hygiene. At its worst, it is much like Shinta Mani’s, being a soggy pancake with a bland blend of foreigner-friendly minced chicken, pork and Chinese cabbage.

The main is prahok kroueng khtis, normally served as a dip with crudités, but in this case served as a curry alongside pandan-infused rice. The menu omits to mention that the central element to the dish is Cambodia’s national condiment and one of the larger challenges to an unfamiliar palate, the fermented fish paste prahok. The dish was dominated by salt and lacked its usual lemongrass punchiness. Cheik khtis, local namwa bananas boiled in sugar and fresh coconut milk rounded out the set on an eye-twitchingly sweet note.

I sent my inamorata an SMS to see if she thought that returning to my room and dejectedly drinking the minibar was, in the eyes of a newspaper’s accounts department, a legitimate expense for a food reviewer after a forgettable meal. Angkor Beer, bottle (US$2.50) times two. Heineken, can, (US$3) times two. Beer Lao, can (US$3) times two. She recommended against it. I didn’t.

On returning to my room, the service staff had turned down the bed, fluffed the pillows, cranked up the aircon to accommodate a flock of wayward penguins and changed the television channel to Fashion Channel. I tried to think of some way to write that the pillows were too soft without sounding like a complete wanker. It turns out that you can’t do so, at least not without making a self-deprecating joke about it.

Over breakfast (Black coffee (US$2.20) times two) I chatted with one of the students, Neana, 22, hailing from Tapul village in a mix of Khmer and English. He had completed six months of the training course and despite the tourism boom was downbeat about his job prospects. He was happy with Shinta Mani and had made many friends. Do you like the uniform? I asked.

“Only the jacket”.

Shinta Mani’s restaurant is open every day from 6:30am until 11:00pm. Guests are welcome to visit their Institute of Hospitality located next door and wonder why the students eat a simple Khmer sour soup and fried fish for lunch, but you don’t.

Location: Junction of Oum Khun and Street 14, Siem Reap. Tel: +855 (0) 63 761 998.

Dried Python Larp with Sour Mango

This is in no way larp, only loosely Cambodian but it is a great way to showcase dried snake flavor.

1 boneless dried snake
1 green mango, shredded
1 handful of mixed fresh fishwort, coriander and basil
1 tablespoon of fish sauce
1 tablespoon of lime juice
2 teaspoons ground roasted rice
Palm sugar to taste

Go to your local supermarket and buy a dried snake – if you’re in Cambodia, they’re available from Lucky Supermarket. Roast the dried snake over a charcoal fire, then break into smaller pieces. Mix with green mango, mint and basil. Mix fish sauce, lime juice, ground roasted rice and a little palm sugar, attempting to balance salty and sweet, then mix through the salad.

The plan: picking a perfect plate of pepper crab

Pepper Crab in Kampot

It is a rare day in Cambodia where everything goes to plan, more so when that plan involves cooked food. Austin and my plan was relatively simple: drive to Kampot then Kep on Cambodia’s south coast and eat pepper crab until we received a plate worthy of a food magazine money shot. Getting to Kampot these days is easy: a five-hour busride on Highway 3 that skirts Phnom Voar and the limestone karsts near Kampong Trach where the Khmer Rouge bookended their decades of terror by kidnapping three foreigners and a group of Cambodians in one of their final acts of banditry in 1994. Things can still go wrong but not nearly that wrong.

Getting perfect crab should have been more difficult. We hit Ta Eauv Restaurant in Kampot straight from the bus, just as the local Lexus-driving CPP apparatchiks were finishing their midweek crab meals and bottles of lunchtime Johnny Walker. It is never a good time to hit a Cambodian restaurant late at lunchtime, mostly because they tend to run out of food rather than the risk of running into a boozy, politically-connected four-wheel drive enthusiast.

We ordered the crab, stripped the table of its cheap lace tablecloth to reveal the sort of perfectly-scratched patina that food stylists probably carry about with them and were presented with the best looking plate of crustacea that I’ve ever seen. By all rights, my job should be much harder and Ta Eauv should be charging more than $4 a plate.

My Pepper Crab Recipe

This recipe is one that I made up based on many a crab meal: it skirts more closely to Cantonese territory than Cambodian. I go heavy on the pepper and don’t add any other green distraction. A more Cambodian version of pepper crab would also include more palm sugar.


4 mud crabs
100 grams of fresh green peppercorns on the vine (brined peppercorns can be substituted, but wash to remove excess salt)
3 cloves of garlic, roughly chopped
4 tablespoons of light soy sauce
4 tablespoons of oyster sauce
2 tablespoons of oil
2 teaspoons of palm sugar


Boil the crab. Drain. Clean the crab and cut into quarters.

Heat the oil in a large wok and fry the peppercorns and garlic until the pepper is fragrant and slightly soft. Add the oyster sauce, soy sauce, palm sugar, and mix until the sugar is dissolved. Toss through the crab pieces and serve.