Cambodia is a culinary chameleon

Published 12:05 am Saturday, April 30, 2011

My daughter has been traveling again, and this time, shares her area of greatest interest—Asian cooking, so enjoy – Connie Anderson

After 17 job interviews, and before going to China, where, if you are an assiduous reader of this column, you will know I have been multiple times, I decided to treat myself to something new. While winter was still trundling along stateside, I spent two weeks in February in sunny Cambodia.

Cambodia is best known from the not so distant past atrocities of the Khmer Rouge, but it has mostly come out of that horrible time to become a friendly, easy to navigate tourist destination. They have learned to capitalize on the world treasures of Angkor and to earn a solid buck out of their grisly history in the killing fields tourist sites around Phnom Penh, the capital.

Besides the must-see-before-you-die Angkor ancient temples, one of the most striking parts of Cambodia is the food.

Primarily, they are very eclectic, with a host of international foods on offer in tourist areas. The Cambodian cuisine itself is unique, yet a melange of its neighbors. Thai and Vietnamese components figure strongly in Khmer food. The pungency of Thai curries is softened and the mild sweet and sour of Vietnamese foods are punched up in the cuisine of the country betwixt the two. There were, of course, bizarre dishes and snacks on offer. I eschewed the fried tarantulas, which seemed like they would be crunchy in the teeth, yet furry going down. I did, however, like the red tree ants that were incorporated into a beef curry I had at an upscale restaurant. The undressed grilled squid I had on the beach in Sihanoukville was fine, but pulling the spine out of my mouth did nothing to improve the bland fishy flavor.

On my first night in Phnom Penh, I went to a restaurant, Frizz (terrible name), near the National Museum that was recommended by Lonely Planet. It was a nice place, but had a relatively spare menu. I started with grilled chicken skewers, which were served with a striking sauce, totally new to me. I am used to the heavy peanut sauce they serve with Thai chicken satays, but the Khmer sauce was simply ground fresh black pepper, lime, salt and hot water. I asked the waiter, because I couldn’t identify what made this sauce so good.

I have never thought deeply about umami, the illusive “fifth flavor” that supposedly gives certain foods their special “oomph,” but this uncomplicated concoction had it. After a long day viewing the horrors and traumas inflicted by the Khmer Rouge, the Frizz cooking class the next day sounded like a good idea.

After meeting at the restaurant in the morning, a random group of Dutch, Australian, German and American tourists followed our petite Khmer chef by auto-rickshaw to a local market. Our chef led us through the myriad stalls, stopping to point out vegetables and herbs that probably wouldn’t be familiar to us. Obviously a frequent visitor, he would pull bunches of kaffir lime leaves or galangal root off a vendors stand and pass it around, allowing us to smell or taste without a glance from the seller. The typical third-world country market stalls with flapping live fish, animal heads, skinned frogs bodies and fried unknowns sidetracked my camera’s eye but the fresh produce was bountiful and beautiful. After buying a bit of tofu for the lone vegetarian, we rickshawed back to our cooking base.

What I learned during that cooking course was that I can’t hope to replicate what we did that day. I have no idea where to find fresh galangal in the U.S. Even if I did, I am sure it would be an ordeal to obtain it. We did make some beautiful dishes. We started with spring rolls, which were more of a project than I would have expected. Instead of the rice paper wrappers typical of Vietnam, the Cambodians use a thin potato pancake. They also traditionally stuff their rolls with taro and root veggies. I spent 15 minutes kneading salt into the taro to take away the itchiness that taro inflicts on the diner if not properly cooked. After 30 minutes making our spring rolls and 30 minutes frying them, we enjoyed a brief, but wonderful snack, with a fantastic dipping sauce, which I will come back to later.

The highlight and focus of the cooking class was fish amok. If there is a national dish of Cambodia, fish amok is it. In its simplest form, it is a curry but it is steamed in a particularly folded banana leaf instead of stir-fried like most Thai curries. For our amok, we used mortar and pestle to grind galangal, fresh lemon grass, kaffir lime, garlic and chilles into an infinitesimally fine powder.

After 10 minutes of pounding and switching hands multiple times due to arm fatigue, the chef still found my powder unsatisfactory. This was hard work. After the physically demanding labor and intricately pinning the banana leaves, we set up our amok to steam. The result was worth the effort.

Fish amok combines the soft delicacy of white fish with the penetrating but refined flavors of a chili based red curry that becomes thick in the steaming. We ate our amok out of the banana cups with no rice. We didn’t want to dilute our efforts. It was that good. I have no words to do justice to the hearty, piquant richness of a properly prepared amok.

Though most Cambodian dishes are next to impossible to make outside of the country due to lack of proper ingredients, there is one component that can be replicated in the states. I really enjoyed the spring roll dipping sauce which you may have had a poor imitation in U.S. Asian restaurants. The sauce is not the sticky sweet pink goo shoveled out in packets by your local Chinese fry-up. This sauce is spicy, but sweet, and can be used to accompany a variety of foods as simple as skewered grilled chicken, sliced cucumbers, salad or with time-consuming spring rolls. Impress your friends and order your spring rolls or get them from the freezer section but serve them with this fresh sauce. The best part is that the sauce changes with age and has one flavor as soon as you make it but is best a day or two later.

Sweet and Sour Dipping Sauce

4 cloves garlic

1 shallot

1 fresh red pepper

1 fresh hot chili

2 tbsp fish sauce- can get in most Asian food stores (Cambodian is different than Thai but both are good)

2 tbsp sugar

1 tbsp salt

2 tbsp lemon juice

1 tbsp crushed peanuts

½ cup water

You can be traditional and crush the garlic in a mortar and then add the rest of the ingredients or just food process it all except the garnishes. Serve in small bowls with crushed peanut and julienned shallots or carrots on top.