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Friday, November 19, 2010

Eating Angkor, Adventures with Cambodian Food

It is the magnificent temples of Angkor Wat and the surrounding complexes that bring most people to the Cambodian city of Siem Reap. Once there, however, one quickly realizes that Siem Reap not only offers the opportunity to walk through the corridors of an ancient empire but also affords the opportunity to eat like a Khmer king. Siem Reap boasts a remarkable variety of foods from fine French cuisine to roadside stalls, from delicious and elaborate curries to the humble fried grasshopper. I recently spent two weeks on a search for the best bites in this Cambodia city, Khmer-style.


Khmer cooking mirrors the history of this Southeast Asian kingdom from ancient influences of Vedic cooking to a modern legacy of fine breads borrowed from their French colonizers. Chilies were introduced into Southeast Asia in the 16th century by the Portuguese. Khmer cooking doesn't make the same use of them as does its fiery neighbor, Thailand, but instead herbs and more dainty flavors like ginger, lemongrass, turmeric, galangal, and kaffir lime leaves impart that particularly Khmer taste in most dishes. Kroeung is a specifically Khmer blend of curry; it was not only religion that was imported from India, but also the art of blending spices (though, evidently, via Java). Kroeung forms the essence of Khmer cuisine with its more subtle flavors and distinguishes it from that of its neighbors Thailand and Vietnam. Fermented fish sauce, prahok, and garlic also play heavily in most Cambodian dishes.

The two staples of any Khmer meal are of course rice and fish. Even the murals of Cambodia's ancient temples attest to the importance of fish to the ancient Khmers. Jayavarman VII, who had Banteay Chmar built in the late 12th century, had many murals featuring fish carved on the walls of his holy city which would have been surrounded, as it is today, by fields of paddy growing that other most important food, rice. Today, the Cambodian people have a reverence for rice that borders on religious. As a country that can remember famine, it is no wonder that this staple of the country has such regard.


The signature dish is surely amok, traditionally a delicate coconut catfish curry similar to the Thai dish hor moke talay but thinner. It has none of the heat one might expect of a curry but its flavors instead are lent from lemongrass, galangal, tumeric and hints of paprika and fish sauce. Slightly sweet, this wonderful treat is usually served in a banana leaf bowl. The fish should be tender and the sauce thick enough to stick to your rice. Now one also finds other fish and even chicken being prepared in this distinctly Cambodian dish.

A good introduction to Khmer cuisine can be found at the award-winning Angkor Palm (Psar Chas area). This restaurant, started by a Cambodian with decades of experience as a cater in France, specializes in making Khmer food accessible. In order to do so, it offers a "Discover Khmer" set menu. While perhaps not the very best place to get to the heart of Khmer cuisine, it lets one know what one is looking for. It includes fresh spring rolls, amok, green mango salad, chicken curry, spare ribs, and a glutinous rice dessert with, of course, the omnipresent serving of rice.


For spring rolls, however, one cannot beat Khmer Taste (there are several restaurants named Khmer Taste. This one is behind the Noon Night Market next door to the Red Piano). With a remarkably attentive staff, this fine place offers many tasty dishes, but as far as fresh spring rolls go it is King of Angkor. Fresh rice wrappers and bursting with lettuce, shredded carrots, cucumber, tomato, rice vermicelli, stir fried onion, and green beans served with a delicious sweet sauce with peanuts. The freshness of the rice wrapper and the produce inside define the care and attention that the Khmer Taste staff put into their food. Also worth trying is the "pig stay in globle," another delicate dish of ground and daintily seasoned pork in raw tomatoes, and their very generous banana flower salad. This last dish consisted of bits of chicken in a salad of onions, basil, whole chilies, carrots, green bell peppers, iceberg lettuce, cabbage, bits of feta cheese, fresh banana blossoms and peanuts served with a sweet lime-fish sauce dressing.

Other resturants offer something closer to street food. One such place is Navi's Khmer Kitchen (458 Komdibun Steet, not to be confused with the Khmer Kitchen in the Phasar Chas area), another little eatery situated behind the Noon Night Market. Cook Honc Ku Hoy and mother to the restaurant's namesake began Navi's about four years ago. The idea of her son who wanted to deliver good food for a primarily foreign audience, the restaurant was started after Navi skipped out on furthering his studies to help bring his mother's home cooking to the rest of the world. Without the presentation or pretensions of some of the other places serving up Khmer cuisine, Navy's offers a more sanitized version of many of the common street foods found around Siem Reap. The secret to most of their dishes? Oyster sauce, sugar and "Gold Mountain Sauce," a sweet chili sauce ubiquitous in Cambodia.

More refined tastes, though, can sample some of the other dishes that further delight the palate perhaps seared by the chili heavy dishes of Thailand or greasiness of many Vietnamese foods. The Khmer Kitchen in the Psar Chas area offers a Khmer menu featuring all of the best dishes and care is put into them to ensure they hold up despite dainty herbal flavors but also to the growingly fierce competition emerging in Siem Reap as restaurants try to position themselves as having that "authentic Khmer taste" and "genuine Khmer cooking." One such dish is pumpkin coconut soup and further shows off the versatility of Kroeung as a flavor combination. It is not a sweet soup, with no sugar added to the coconut milk, but is instead savory, flavored with the usual Kroeung flavors, but the combination of pumpkin and coconut is particularly pleasing. Even on a hot monsoon afternoon before the rains biting into the warm chunks of pumpkin was delightful.

The real adventures in Khmer cuisine won't take you just into the kitchens of these restaurants. For adventurous eating, Cambodia is without parallel and its street foods push the limits like nothing else. There are also "rules" to eating street food if you don't want to spend the rest of your vacation in bed or on the toilet. The first rule is eat where locals are eating. While they have a much hardier immunity to some of the potential local food pathogens, even they get food sick from eating bad food. The second rule is eat hot and never raw. Foods that have grown cold have a much more likely chance of doing something nasty to you, and raw foods may be washed with unsanitary water. Having said that, I do break all of these rules, sometimes simultaneously, for the pursuit of something that might just be delicious. Of course, most cooking starts not in the kitchen but in the market, and a trip to buy your food can be as adventurous as eating it! The markets are awash with scenes that are subtly beautiful but perhaps not for the squeamish. It is a feast for the eyes even if at times an offense to the nose!


Psar Chaa
video
Wet Market, Psar Chaa, Siem Reap, Kingdom of Cambodia



Street Vendors

Perhaps the cuisine of street food is also a testament to the hard history of the Khmer people, the blackest period of course being in the late seventies when famine claimed thousands of lives under the oppressive regime of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. With many of the members of the regime now on trial for genocide and crimes against humanity, Cambodia seems ready to face its dark past and face a brighter future of wider prosperity. While poverty is still rife in the kingdom, today for those who can afford it there is an abundance of food ranging from buttery baguettes to what the Western palate would find exotic and perhaps even unpalatable.

Frogs feature prominently in street vendors smörgåsbords from small whole fried ones to chunks of hot roasted frog flesh. Duck eggs are also common sights as well as catfish roasted on a splint. Snack foods include a variety of roasted meats as well as fried arthropods like grasshoppers, water beetles, and even enormous spiders. Fortunately or not, most of these treats simply taste like crispy (or gooey) bursts of oil. The snakes pictured (like the chicken legs and organ meats) are not meant to be eaten as is, but are used in a variety of Khmer dishes from curry to soups. More heartier street food includes a seemingly numberless range of soups, fried rice and noodle dishes, as well as curries and even fish head souffle. Many of the vendors go through some lengths to make their food displays appealing such as the carefully arranged platter of tongue and other organ meat pictured below.





If you have the nerve, try the spiders.  They are something like a riteof passage for many backpackers--a rite through which only a few pass. I have to say it was a bit like eating a fried potato, only . . . more oily and juicier. And by the way--the legs are very crunchy, and quite delightful.

With love from the Kingdom of Cambodia,

Indigo



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