Meal 29: Cambodia

Having grown up in the Bay Area, I had more than my fair share of many southeast Asian cuisines, including Thai, Vietnamese, even Burmese. But I’d never really encountered Cambodian until this meal. The core ingredients are pretty similar to those of its neighbors, especially the triptych of galangal, kaffir lime leaf and lemongrass. Yet as the Wikipedia page observes, the country is full of wetlands and floodplains, a geography which is reflected in a culinary style where solid and liquid frequently coexist.

We were super fortunate to have two Cambodians on hand, Navin and Melanie, who suggested what to cook and swept in to correct flavors — which involved a lot more fish sauce! — and finish up the presentation. Also attending were Christen, Nikki, J.P, Tennessee and Bill.

Somlor machu kreung ktih sach chrook | Sour pork rib and lemongrass soup | Recipe

For both this and the amok, I made a kreung, a paste with fresh herbs and roots including turmeric, galangal, garlic, shallots, and very notably lemongrass. With a long and slow stewing of the pork ribs, and later on some tamarind, this soup had a super rich flavor. Melanie added a few limes at the end, probably because I got sweet tamarind rather than sour. In the end, it was rich and tasty and appropriately spiced, and with rice below and greens on top, it did indeed resemble those wetlands, so far as I can surmise.

Trokuon | Water spinach

This plant is known by so many different names, including morning glory, swamp cabbage, Chinese spinach, and ong choy. Despite the fact that I bought it at one of Chinatown’s biggest supermarkets, it turns out that this plant is classified as a “noxious weed” by the USDA due to its ability to spread quickly out of control, and is technically illegal to sell or purchase. Anyway, it’s a novel plant for me: the stems are hollow, and are more prized than the leaves. Our friends wanted to sauté it with oyster sauce, but since I didn’t have that, we improvised with garlic and fish sauce.

Amok trei | Steamed fish custard | Recipe (and observe comment below, and add a few eggs)

Most recipes I read for this, commonly called Cambodia’s national dish, mentioned that it’s traditional to steam it in leaves but the recipe author usually just steams it in a bowl. Well, how often are we gonna make this? Let’s do it right. Our guests very creatively crafted these boats out of banana leaves and toothpicks, which were perfectly watertight for holding the mix of fish in coconut milk and spices. Although the recipe doesn’t call for it, Navin advised adding a few eggs to make it firm up, and that was great advice. The final product was very soft and tender, with a lovely flavor, and just firm enough to quality as a custard.

Num pa chok tari trey | Fish curry noodle soup | Recipe

Like much of Southeast Asia, curries swept east from India into Cambodia. This version puts a local twist by adding lemongrass and the like to a yellow curry paste, and the noodles were a good contrast from the rice of the rest of the meal The recipe called for fish but I subbed shrimp just for variety.

Fruits

Luckily it was a good day for fruit in Chinatown! Up and down Canal Street, vendors were selling beautifully exotic dragonfruit, musta been a shipment that just came in. One website I found accuses them of being the “Wonderbra of fruit” in that they promise so much but deliver so little, but I’ll be darned, these were just as subtly tasty as what I had in Vietnam many years ago.

The star of the show was durian, the famously spiky and pungent fruit. Note how Navin used a garden glove to hold it, and after making a few slices from top to bottom, she peeled back the ridiculously sharp skin to reveal pods that look somewhere between raw chicken, half-molten ice cream, and alien larvae. And the taste? Well, the Cambodians enjoyed it, a number of us really didn’t like it on first taste, and J.P. ate two of them and still couldn’t decide if it was repulsive or alluring.


 
To round out the fruit course, we had a ripe and tart mango with salt and chili for dipping, and segments of jackfruit, whose pods look like smaller durian segments but are unambiguously delicious and far less mushy. But let’s admit it, while the flavors are fun, it’s really the crazy colors and shapes that bring the most enjoyment:

Now attention turns to Canada, for which we’ll be throwing a big party celebrating Laura’s birthday. Can’t wait to report on poutine and much more!

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