My last few weeks in Phnom Penh have been punctuated with amusing culinary episodes, which if not a reflection on the Cambodians, are a reflection of the ex-pats lives which I have enjoyed dipping into.
In my sweet flat just next to the stunning National Museum, I had 2 gas hobs but no cooking utensils so my first challenge was to go to the local market and source all manner of ingredients. While I had been to markets, camera in hand as a happy spectator, playing the role of a pseudo-local is an altogether different (and scary) process. More bustling and ‘urgent’ than other food markets I had been to, I got the feeling that patience was not flowing freely amongst either sellers or buyers.
Distracted and confused on entering the humdrum, I collided with a hardened local who was making her way in for her routine shop. She scowled at me and when I apologised and raised my hands in a prayer position (very common here to show gratitude and general respect) she gave me a huge smile and to my amazement said ‘sorry’ in her best English back. I love these people.
Encouraged, I went on to buy far too many exciting and extraordinary looking vegs (I was not strong enough to say no to HUGE quantities of fresh herbs and wild mushrooms) but did manage to refuse the ‘super-seasoning’ otherwise known as MSG. The stuff is liberally used everywhere – so sad when you think of the amazing natural flavours these guys are working with. Who needs it?
Special mention has to go to the egg stalls here. Fresh duck and chicken eggs are available in abundance but more interesting are the duck eggs that are left in salt solution for a few months until the white of the egg has dried up and the yolk resembles a big orange ‘marble’ which is pretty hard. The eggs are then left in ash to further the process and sold as a delicacy. Harder to appreciate were the seemingly innocuous chicken eggs on the market which house half-grown chicks. These are considered a real treat, especially the younger, as their bones are more brittle and give a better crunch. Hmm..
Despite (and along side) these weird and wonderful customs, Cambodians create the most delicious food for all to enjoy. “Fish Amok” is perhaps the king of Cambodian dishes and every Khmer restaurant you enter has a different version on their menu. The sadness is that the most refined elements of the culinary culture have been (at best) severely ‘diluted’ so that I suspect today’s Amoks aren’t a patch on the true Amok of yester-year. However, I was lucky enough to have a day at a cooking school learning how to make it, properly.
‘Amok’ means ‘everything mixed together’ and as we wore our arms out crushing the delicious Amok paste ingredients in their version of a pestle and mortar – lemongrass, chili, lime leaves, turmeric, garlic – we learnt that everything in this delicious dish not only has a role in the taste of the dish, it also has a medicinal quality: salt – to counterbalance sweating and to encourage water drinking, and sugar to suppress appetite in the heat etc etc. Their shrimp paste ‘smells like dead rat, looks like chocolate mousse’ was added to the carefully prepared banana leaf ‘timbal mould’, along with coconut milk, amok leafs and the delicious local fish (any protein can be used.) This is then steamed and eaten with rice. The consistency was pretty solid (thanks to the egg binder) and I can honestly say it was one of the most deliciously fragrant combinations I have enjoyed in SE Asia.
Other Cambodian delicacies ranged from deep friend tatantualars to fragrant and delicious noodles, fresh crab with local green pepper corns (in a sea side shack in the lovely, Kep) and fresh guava salads. Sweet dougnut-type fried delights are everywhere to buy on the street and the faces of their tireless vendors are now as familiar as tuk tuk drivers. But I have to admit, sharing a full and exceptionally delicious Christmas lunch on a huge terrace above 240 street (PP) with a great bunch of ex-pats was the best Christmas present I could have wished for. While tucking into roast turkey (from Australia) and pigs in blankets with bread sauce and a delicious glass of Italian Barbera, I could not help but notice that some ingredients had been easier to come by than at home in Scotland! ‘Lucky Supermaket’ – a huge and wonderful addition to expat lifestyle in Phnom Penh, had come up trumps. (So had the M & S in Kuala Lumpur, whose mince pies and brandy butter made a very welcome appearance.)
Leaving Phnom Penh has hit me much harder than I had expected. It is an extremely special place and deserves all the external help it is getting. My only hope is that NGOs continue to be well run and managed and are mindful of the long-term vision for Cambodia. I got a whiff of negativity while I was there, saying that the structure they provide (sometimes badly) is removing Cambodians of a sense of responsibility. This happens the world over but I have nothing but respect for the Westerners who are really making a difference (of which there are many) and for those Cambodians who are, in their many ways, pushing Cambodia forward.