Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Hot 'n' Cold

Oh Cambodia. If I wrote an ode to Cambodia it would probably start off by praising the joys of Siem Riep and the Angkor Wat, then the joys of Sihanoukville and some heavenly beaches (albeit with some dodgy dogs), and a more reserved line about Phnom Penh. The real lowpoints though would be the roads and the food. I tried, I really did. I ate quite a few Khmer dishes (read lots of) and I got excited about one. And it was a salad.

There’s nothing wrong with the food, it just doesn’t really do it for me. When a burger is the food highlight of your week, you know there is something not quite right. It was a heavyweight burger though, even by international standards. Extra bonus points came in the form of blue cheese. My dining partner was a little freaked out by the amount of enthusiasm I had for that blue cheese, I still maintain it was within the normal limits. Whatever.

And when your food doesn’t excite you, all kinds of bad things start to happen. I went on a date with a guy I’d met in a bar the night before in Siem Riep. The conversation had been amazing – zip, zap, boom – we never stopped talking all night. We talked about everything, I’m sure in our partially ginned minds we had put the world to rights, no subject was too large or too small for our beady-eyed attention.

I was so excited when I woke up, convinced this was going to be the date of a lifetime. But then, when the time actually came, with a plate of bland food in front of us, the conversation and our interest in one another died such a sad little death I was tempted to have a funeral for it. My seafood was rubbery and in a sauce that was a cross between a curry and a sweet and sour, but strangely lacking the merits of either. His was some kind of instant noodle confection, peppered with a few vegetables here and there for authenticity.

On a good note though, the salad incident took place in Phnom Penh and though it still sported instant noodles as one of the main ingredients, somehow it worked. It was a simple combination of shredded red cabbage (I TOLD you it was all about the cabbage, see previous post), white onions, instant noodles, lettuce leaves and chicken broiled and served with dried garlic and sweet chilli sauce. I think the chef probably just made it up, though it bore the name of Spicy Khmer Chicken Salad. Sounds rather dodgy but it was actually heaven. I’m looking forward to the day when we can be reunited in my kitchen.

Plus, what Cambodia lacked in food for the stomach, it more than made up for in food for the soul (retch but I had to use that phrase, just once). Here’s a selection of the shots I got while I was there... There are more on the camera that I haven’t uploaded yet so these will have to do.


There is no denying it. I have been a BAD blogger. Over the last couple of weeks I’ve been so caught up in trying the food as I move from place to place that I’ve forgotten to actually write about it. I am suitably chastised and promise it will not happen again.

After Hanoi, we got on a train to Hoi An where we had another cooking class at the Nam Hai, this time learning how to make fresh spring rolls (i.e uncooked ones). As with most fresh spring rolls, the secret lies in the dipping sauce. Which, for me, is a little bit pointless. Surely anything can taste pretty nice if you have it with a nice dip?? I’ll eat practically anything with guacamole but I wouldn’t claim that my breadstick was a work of art because it tasted good with the guac. Know what I mean?

So yes, the rolls were tasty, but on their own, they are just carrots, cabbage, mint, coriander and other herbs rolled up with a piece of fish or prawn for a touch of flavour. The photograph makes the recipe pretty self explanatory.

Take a handful of each ingredient, mix it up with a bit of sesame oil, wet the rice paper, put the filling on a third and roll it up. The dipping sauce was the same as the one we made in Hanoi for the Nem rolls with a little bit more chilli.

We did get to go to the market though, that was pretty fun – the rain meant that everything had turned into a bit of a mudfight and people were scrabbling to get their food and go in the shortest time possible. There were several factors against them – one that the walkways had all turned into muddy deathtraps ready to catch anyone who didn’t walk with the most tentative of steps and two that there were so many people and the place was so packed you couldn’t get anywhere in a hurry anyway. I did love this woman blithely smoking her fag in the midst of the hustle, a perfectly unflappable oasis of calm.

Much more exciting culinary fare was found on the corner of the Perfume River (before you get carried away with thoughts of Chanel no.5 or Jo Malone, I should mention that the only perfume I could smell was eau de dog waste). Paul and I hunkered down after a hard day’s sightseeing at Mr Linh’s food stall. I had sweet and sour pork (not remotely Vietnamese but I live on the edge like that) with rice. It was good – huge chunks of pork married with plump tomatoes pineapples and peppers in a flavoursome sauce.

Though those women might not look so cheerful, they serve up some more than decent grub. Who needs to look happy when you are feeding the world’s hungry, your actions speak for themselves, your face doesn’t have to.