Friday, October 16, 2009

Week #7 Cambodian (Khmer)

Asian food and I are old buddies. I've had plenty of Vietnamese, Thai, Chinese, Malaysian, Japanese and Korean food, but never Cambodian. Not until now.

We trekked out to the San Gabriel Valley, the stronghold of many of LA's Asian populations, in search of a cuisine that most people don't think of first when they think of Asian food. We saw only one other Caucasian during our visit to Battambang in San Gabriel, which is always the sign of an authentic restaurant outside of the West. The menu was immense--it would take us months to sample everything, so we had to do the best we could with just the two of us. This is definitely a place we want to return to and bring a group of friends. The large round tables with giant lazy susans in the middle certainly encourage parties and sharing food.

All the dishes arrived simultaneously, which is the custom in Cambodia, an overwhelming sight. There's no easing into the meal with the beverage and then the appetizer and then the salad. It's Ta-da! time in rapid order.

 Bánh He
 Our appetizer was Bánh He, a plate of fritters filled with rice and shallots, deep fried and served with a sweet-hot dipping sauce. The combination of shallot with the sweet sauce in the rich fried coating make this the perfect food to order in large quantities with a pitcher of beer. Seriously, Bánh He should make it onto bar menus. It would be a great alternative to jalapeno poppers and those overdone fried-onion monstrosities.

Pork broth, chunky style

Among the dishes on our table was a large bowl of pork broth. We didn't order it, but apparently this is as standard to a Cambodian meal as salt, pepper and sugar would be on most Western tables. It was quite literally pig juice, with three large bones in the bowl, and some shallots and cilantro leaves stirred in. We enjoyed a sip of this broth after every few bites of food--a great digestive aid.

Fish Curry

Himself ordered a fish curry that we ladled over a bed of jasmine rice. I could have made an entire meal off this--it was fishy-salty, with some heat on the back end. No doubt, it was made with prahok, a salty fish paste that's used a lot in Cambodian cooking. I can imagine this being a great thing to eat the morning after a night out on the town. Satisfying and rejuvenative. I could use these words to describe everything on the table. (If we'd been there for breakfast, this fish curry would have been served with a baguette, a culinary holdover from the French colonial period.)

 Beef Luc Lac on a bed of jasmine rice, with pickled veggies on the side
My Com Bo Luc Lac, a.k.a. "shaken beef" was really good, too. I kept expecting to find a sweetness, but that didn't seem to be too prominent in the array of flavors we sampled. The richness of the meat was tamed by the tang of the accompanying pickled vegetables and lightened by the jasmine rice. (By the way, the method of cooking, by agitating or tossing the beef in the wok is what makes it shaken.)

An assortment of cool, green veggies: cucumber, cabbage, lettuce, green beans and one I still can't identify--the one in the top middle of the photo with all those peppery seeds.

In addition to the pickled vegetables, we had a plate of assorted raw green veggies to crunch along with our rich, cooked foods. We were surprised by the melon-looking vegetable that tasted smooth and cucumbery, but that contained seeds that were quite peppery when we bit into them. This item remains a mystery, even after questioning, cookbook perusal and internet research. It was difficult to ask too many questions, since the amount of English spoken by those working there, including servers, the manager and a busser--all of whom tried to help us--was quite limited. Even if we could speak a little Cambodian, it would probably be confined to "hello," "good-bye" and "where's the bathroom?" Questions like "What kind of bones are in my soup?" and "What is this vegetable called?" don't typically show up in basic language courses, either Cambodian OR English. Still, such mysteries are great fun. I felt like we were in good hands, so it didn't bother me at all that I couldn't identify everything I ate.

Pennywort Drink
Himself blanched when I suggested ordering the durian drink (I'm sure he'd have been able to smell it from across the table), so I opted for an intensely green beverage made of pennywort leaves. It wasn't bad but then it wasn't exactly scrummy, either. I think that if you boiled, puréed and strained a big bag of iceberg lettuce, then added sugar and green food coloring, you might have an idea of what it was like. I did a little research on pennywort and discovered that it's also known as gotu kola, which you find in abundance at health food stores as an ayurvedic remedy. It's supposed to be good for curing leprosy and helping opium addicts kick the habit. That's good to know, should my life ever change in ways I don't anticipate.

Unlike in Thailand, where dishes contain a balance of salty, sweet, sour, bitter and spicy, Cambodian food is either salty, sweet, sour or bitter, with various hot condiments that you can add as you wish. They don't typically blend these four flavors--instead, you get a separate dish with each component of the flavor spectrum.

Cambodian food reveals simplicity and adaptability. There aren't a lot of what you'd call traditional dishes in their repertoire, because culinary evolution (among other things) has suffered in this country that has been savaged and ravaged by a succession of invading armies. But the food is good, and the hospitality in abundance. We'll be back, and we'll take friends next time.


Anonymous said...

The mystery vegetable is called Thai Eggplant. You can google it for more images and details. To Cambodian we just refer to it as an eggplant but foreigner might recognize Thai more than Cambodian =)

Also out of all the item that you have order only 1 dish would be consider an authentic Cambodian dish and that is the fish curry which from the picture looks more like spiced ground pork in coconut milk? The vegetables are used to dip into the sauce. The other two items are more Vietnamese dishes. The name itself has no meaning in Cambodian but does to the Vietnamese.
I've heard of this place in San Gabriel and wouldn't mind trying it out the next time I'm in the area.

Hungry Passport said...

Hi Khatiya,

Thank you so much for solving the veggie mystery for me!

And thanks for the clarifications. Since Cambodia and Vietnam are next-door neighbors, it’s inevitable that they’ll have some ingredients, cooking methods and dishes in common—just as the borders between Indonesian and Malaysian foods are quite blurred and there’s enormous homogeneity among Middle Eastern cuisines. But of course there are distinctions that only a local is likely to know. I checked your lovely blog (I want to eat every dish on it, by the way!), and while I see Cambodian sausage and papaya salad that seem quite similar to Northern Thai dishes I’ve had, I’m sure you could enlighten me on their differences. (Likewise, I’m from Memphis, so I’m pretty picky about what people call barbecue.)

The fish curry was most definitely fish—the texture as well as the flavor let me know it wasn’t merely an issue of having ground pork liberally saturated with nuoc mam. It had the body and texture as well as the aroma and flavor of fish.

Thanks again for the info! After your visit to Battambang, I’d appreciate it if you’d let me know your assessment of the place and which dishes are the most authentically Cambodian. I’d like to go back there and try your suggestions.