Saturday, July 16, 2011

Arcane Cambodian Cuisine

I can honestly say that I had no idea what Cambodian cuisine consisted of prior to visiting the country this summer. I wasn't particularly surprised by the ingredients used or the dishes favoured by locals, but there were many popular main courses that I had simply never heard of before. While I (usually) believe that it is a cop-out to describe something by simply comparing it to something else, I must say that Cambodian food is like a fusion of Thai flavours and Vietnamese robustness. The chili pepper is not used very much in Cambodian cooking. Heat is often added to a dish through the preparation and use of a paste called kroeung, which is commonly composed of kaffir leaves, pepper, cinnamon, ginger and garlic. This "curry" paste provides many dishes with a dark, murky character that is bold and quickly identifiable. There is also less coconut milk used in Cambodian cuisine, when comparing it to Thai cooking.

While simple noodle and rice dishes are popular throughout Asia, there are certain recipes that are famous in Cambodia. I met-up with a Cambodian friend-of-a-friend while I was in Phnom Penh and she was great in describing these recipes. She also took me to a fancy Khmer restaurant so I could sample some of the dishes. Here is what we tried:

Loc Lac
This is a stir-fried beef dish that is always served with rice. It is easy to recognize because the beef is normally cubed and served on a bed of lettuce. It is a beef party, and few vegetables are invited. The sauce is gravy-like and is composed of garlic, red onion, ginger, tomato,  black pepper and a smidge of ginger. The cubes of beef are traditionally dipped in a paste made from lime juice and black pepper before being eaten or applied to rice. After looking online, I found some reliable sources stating that this dish is Vietnamese in origin, where it is known as Bò lúc lắc or 'Shaking Beef'. However, it is now part of Cambodian culture, and attributing Loc Lac to the country's neighbour probably isn't the best idea when dining in the company of the Khmer. 

I had this dish twice while I was in Cambodia and really like its simple, fragrant character. Although catfish from Tonle Sap Lake is primarily used in Cambodia, any white fish with a flaky consistency and medium density (such as Tilapia) could be the base for this curry. Similar to Loc Lac, this entree is easy to spot because it is steamed and served in a banana leaf. The fish is mixed with coconut milk, red and green bell peppers, basil leaves and kroeung. It is served with sticky rice.

Samlor Kari
This soup took a little getting used to because it is fairly sour, but the complex flavours and the addition of a neutral meat such as chicken or pork result in a brilliant, stimulating dish. This soup is created from a tamarind base, which provides the tartness, and the broth also contains fish sauce, tomato, garlic, and chilis.

Vancouver has many Thai restaurants, and it even has a good number of Vietnamese/pho restaurants, but options are limited when it comes to Cambodian food. The appropriately-named Phnom Penh Restaurant at 244 East Georgia has received acclaim for its Cambodian-style chicken wings and its Butter Beef dish. While I have heard that prices have increased with its popularity, the Phnom Penh is one of the only places you will be able to sample unique Cambodian flavours outside of...well...Phnom Penh.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Two Drams from the Motherland

I went to university in Aberdeen and Edinburgh, and one of the things that I ended up missing most about Scotland once back in Vancouver was the range of single malt whiskeys available. Before I returned home from Caledonia in 2007, I figured that I would be able to buy - or at least order - a great number of the malts available in the UK. I was wrong. The BC Liquor Control Board is very selective regarding the whiskeys that they regularly stock, and one must pay for a case (plus shipping fees, plus an administration fee) if one wishes to order an atypical whisky. 

I recently spent two weeks in Scotland and appreciated the vast array of single malts at my greedy little fingertips as much as the many reacquaintences and nostalgic activities that were completed...well, almost as much. In addition to visiting the Oban Distillery with my sister and speaking with several whisky vendors, I made a point of patronizing several of Edinburgh's more comprehensive, established bars to sample some rare single malts. 

One of the single malts that I tried was Glengoyne 10 Year. There are many things to like about this whisky and distillery: it is only one of two distilleries that still use rotund Golden Promise barley, it is distilled in the Highlands but aged in the Lowlands (which is unheard of), and it is very drinkable. I noted, however, that this last trait also detracted from the overall quality of the drink. Glengoyne's slogan is "The authentic taste of malt whisky untainted by peat smoke" and I definitely found that the lack of any peat results in a really flat finish. Like the inclusion of hops in beer, the use of peat smoke in whisky production results in flavours that compliment the bready, straightforward characteristics of barley-based alcohol. I do not enjoy peaty whiskeys, such as the Islay malts, but Glengoyne truly lacks cojones. The bouquet is wonderful, with delicate apple and grass aromas, but the whisky has zero finish and zero complexity.

Another single malt Scotch that I tried was Inchgower 14 Year. This whisky surprised me because it has a humdrum history and is the major contributor to Bell's, the vin ordinaire of blended whiskeys. Although Inchgower is owned by a corporate conglomerate and is closely linked with disgusting Bell's Whisky, it is a decent dram that I would much rather drink over any of the common single malts found in most bars and restaurants (Glenfiddich, Glenlivet, Balvenie, etc). It has subtle nose, offering hints of nectarine and cardamom, and it provides a super typical Speyside flavour. With a full-mouth feel, bright copper colour, and lightly peated finish, this malt offers the drinkability of a daily Scotch and just enough complexity to keep your tastebuds engaged. 

Now the important question: will I be able to find Inchgower in Vancouver? D'oh.