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.

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