Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Cambodian Cuisine – Traditional Khmer Dishes

Anyone who knows me, or in fact has ever seen me, will know that I have a keen interest in all things culinary. I think it is fair to say that I have a healthy appetite and I am always keen to try something new at least once. As a child growing up in the UK I was used to good quality honest food and I was blessed with a mother who was able to provide the business. Slightly more exotic food was available in the form of Chinese take aways but these were only ever a special treat and enjoyed perhaps only once a year. Later I became a devotee of Indian curries but it was only in the 1980’s and 1990’s that there was a culinary reawakening in Britain. Living in London I was able to take advantage of these new openings and I distinctly remember my first experience of Thai food at a restaurant called Ben’s in Maida Vale. I found the delicate spices and different herbs an absolute delight and was hooked. Later still when I first travelled to Thailand I was able to indulge my new found passion to the full and Thai food remains a firm favourite today.

The cuisine of Cambodia is very different to its larger Thai and Vietnamese neighbours and if I am honest it takes a little longer to get used to. It is certainly less spicy (although chilies are always available at any meal to liven things up) but at its best Khmer food is up there with the best of the region. Rice is the absolute staple and will be eaten with just about every meal. Battambang is considered to be the rice bowl of Cambodia and its rice to be the best in the country. If you travel to other provinces you will notice in the markets that some rice is advertised as coming from Battambang and usually is sold at a premium.

Cambodian cuisine uses tamarind, pepper, lemongrass, galangal and ginger extensively. A typical meal will include at least three dishes which will often be very different – sour, bitter, salty or sweet. Chilies will be served on the side and added to taste so each dish is very distinctive. One important ingredient which helps distinguish Khmer food from that of its neighbours is “prahoc”. Prahoc is a kind of fermented fish paste and more than any other aspect of Khmer cuisine takes the longest to get used to – at least in my experience. It can be added in cooking to make dishes salty but it can also be eaten in its own right as a dip for raw vegetables or roasted in a banana leaf. For some reason Cambodians often translate prahoc to cheese in English I suppose because of the distinctive aroma that comes from it. As with most dairy products cheese is hard to come by here especially in Battambang and on the occasions I have bought some my family has recoiled in horror from it. They cannot understand why anyone would want to eat something that smells so bad. A touch of the pot calling the kettle black when you consider the smell of prahoc.
Psar Prahoc, Battambang/Cambodia

Just outside Battambang is Psar Prahoc – the fish paste market – and I recently took some of our guests from Bambu Hotel there. It is one of my favourite places to visit with guests or friends as I love to see the look on their faces when they arrive. You can usually smell it sometime before actually getting there – the pungent aroma of fermenting (some might say rotting!) fish fills the air. It is a fascinating place to visit with some great photo opportunities as you can watch the fish being gutted and prepared for fermentation in the hardwood vats. Get there early enough and you can see the fish being landed from boats and then being weighed and washed before being sold. Quite a sight!

Psar Prahoc Dish -Battambang, Cambodia

I suppose the best known uniquely Khmer dish is Amok which is usually fish based although other meats can be used. The curried fish is steamed with coconut milk and other herbs in a banana leaf resulting, at its best, in a mousse like consistency. Most visitors to Cambodia will come across it during their time here and I am proud to say we do it very well at Bambu Battambang Hotel. It is one of our more popular dishes and (although I have had no hand in its preparation whatsoever) I am often complimented for it! We have a mixed Khmer/Asian and Western menu at the hotel so our guests can dip their feet in the local cuisine but also be reassured by some more recognisable fare. Fish is seldom filleted in Cambodia which some visitors find difficult but here at Bambu Hotel all our fish is bone free so you can chomp away without fear of an unpleasant surprise.

Loc Lac from Bambu Hotel Battambang

Another favourite is Loc Lac which for some reason is often translated as English Loc Lac although I certainly never came across it back home. It consists of stir fried cubed beef with red onions in a lime juice and black pepper sauce. This is widely available around the country but whilst I have tasted some delicious versions I have also had the misfortune to sample some less palatable ones too!  

A dog’s dinner!

It is often said that Cambodians will eat anything and of course there are times in their history when they have had to in order to survive. A visit to the markets is always an eye opener when you see what is on offer. Frogs abound, especially at this time of year – they are often grilled and to my mind at least make a tasty snack. Rats and mice can often be found on the grill too but so far I have managed to avoid eating these although I have been presented with many opportunities. I just cannot stomach the thought of eating them. Very popular as a beer snack – and tasting something like peanuts – are grasshoppers and locusts. These are fried and actually quite moreish – I would recommend trying these out if you get a chance. Spiders and snakes – both of which I have tried – are also readily available but not something I think I would try again. Coming from a nation of dog lovers as I do I was surprised and a little appalled when I came across dog meat on the barbeque. I haven’t knowingly eaten any as it would upset my sensibilities but I have to say it does smell absolutely delicious. It is often shown on restaurant signs and menus as “Special Meat” so beware! I am not quite sure where the supply of dogs comes from as I am not aware of them being farmed as in other parts of Asia but I would imagine the large number of strays is a probable source. I think there is also some dog rustling going on too. Our much ignored but faithful old hound Kiki disappeared one night and is widely thought by my wife and mother in law to have ended up on someone’s grill. I hope they choked on a bone!