Monday, July 16, 2007

Tales from Kampuchea, part I


I know i have not blogged in a long time. For the first time in a long time i am not feeling half dead and completely unaccomplished. But less about that and more about food.

Last year when i went to Cambodia, i tasted many wonderful things. Unfortunately I had been relieved of my camera by unscrupulous baggage handlers upon arrival, so I never had a chance to take any pictures. Fat juicy barbecued squid, rice noodles with hot gravy and fresh herbs, sweet chewy fatty grilled beef washed down with plenty of beer are just some of the memories that i brought home with me from Cambodia. As with travelling however, there is only so much time to try everything, and try as i might, many things were left unexplored. On the other hand, some things were so fabulous that I made sure i got to have them one last time before i left.

My kind hosts G and P took me to a lovely Cambodian restaurant. Housed in a double story wooden structure surrounded by the lush greenery of potted plants all throughout the compound, the restaurant managed to bring me back to a feeling of south east asian hospitality with its simple homely feeling. Lounged cross legged on the straw mat in front of the low dining table hearing the fans whirring gently overhead, the madness and anxiety of the streets of Phnom Penh fades away quickly.

The first meal consisted of a beef soup flavoured with tart fresh young tamarind leaves and lemongrass, a steamed spicy seafood dish almost like otah otah*, except it was steamed and had whole chunks of squid and other seafood. There might have been something however, but the most outstanding was the mango salad. Fresh and lightly tart, the ingredients were simple yet produced complex flavours and textures that made me fall in love right away. Crisp but chewy bits of dried shrimp and dried fish added salty umami to the sourish sweet of the julienned mangoes. Chopped roasted peanuts added a nutty flavour with a giving crunch. Lastly, thinly shredded laksa leaves, also known as vietnamese mint, added an inimitable herby spicy fragrance to the tossed salad.

Needless to say the second visit just before i left Cambodia for home included a requisite order of mango salad. Sadly, the second experience was nowhere near the first. This time the salad was coarsely prepared, the cook seemingly more inattentive. The mango julienne was too thick and the fish bits not crunchy enough. The flavours were still exquisite and i left with a firm determination to make the salad myself.

After endlessly quizzing my lovely cambodian host as to all the ingredients that were in it, i established that most could be easily obtained here in Singapore. Except for the dried river fish which was either toasted or fried in oil before becoming an institutional part of the cambodian mango salad. Thus another visit to the very exciting wet market was necessary before I left, and with confidence i picked some lovely dried river fish to take home with me.

I made a huge mistake when i got back to Singapore. My host's husband, so worried that the dried fish would stink up all my luggage, he wrapped it in newspaper and masking tape and a plastic bag. Being a busy busy Singaporean, i just out the entire package on a kitchen shelf when i got home and left it there. A few weeks later when i unwrapped the package, a huge** black bug ran out. I could not throw it away fast enough. And thus i thought it was the end of my mango salad dreams.

Fortunately for this patient cook, my host decided to visit Singapore as a christmas gift from her husband and asked me if i wanted anything from Phnom Penh. Shameless to the core, I not only asked her to buy me some silk shawls, but also 2 wonderfully cambodian items, namely some dried river fish and some oh-so-smelly-and-disgusting-to-everyone Prahoc***

I love how the fish are made to look like they're still swimming upriver or something...

Nice big plate for 3, it is important to know the serving at the restaurant was 1/4 this size. For some people, mango salad is a starter.


Thus all ends well, my story of how Cambodian mango salad graced the foldable dining table in my humble home one hot afternoon near Christmastime last Year, told more than 6 months after the delectable dish was completely devoured, a mountain of mango salad for three hungry people, two Singaporeans and one lovely Cambodian.


*Otah Otah, a spicy fish paste cooked in coconut leaves over hot charcoal.
** Only about 10 times the size of a rice weevil, but still wayyyyy too big for me.
***Fermented fish, Cambodian style.

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