Friday, September 24, 2010

Khmer Kitchen

Cambodian, or Khmer, cooking might not be as famous as its cousin to the west (Thai), but I like it even more.

The staple food is white rice, which is eaten at every meal (and which I hate).  But there are many influences from abroad that blend together with a dash of Cambodian ingenuity into a fusion that's quite pleasing to the Western palate.  From Cambodian's French colonial past, you'll find baguettes and strong coffee for breakfast.  From Cambodia's cultural inheritance from India, you'll find delicious mild curries (kari).  And there are plenty of noodle dishes and soups, due to Cambodia's links with China.

Khmer specific dishes include amok, made with thin strips of leafy greens, and samlor ktiss, a coconut curry soup.  I like that chilis seem to be served on the side, so you can make the dish as hot as you want.  The Khmer cooks I've chatted with seem to take a very loose, creative approach to their cooking.  If they want to make their amok more like a curry, well, that's what they do.  If they want to serve something with a creative sauce, it's on the menu.  And this is in the restaurants where meals go for $1-3 dollars.  Definitely not the standard fried noodles/ fried rice.  Pretty neat.

We've been eating breakfast and lunch at Navy Kitchen, where a huge entree plus free rice, tea, and pineapple slices will set you back a whopping USD$2.  It's located on this block (sorry, no street name or address, that's not a common thing in this town).  Eat here.  You'll thank me.

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Davo and I asked if "Ma" ever gave cooking lessons. Her surly but sweet 21 year old son, Bati, said sure. I inquired about a price, and he said, "Whatever you think." Gotta love informality.

So one afternoon, she let us into her cramped kitchen.  The kitchen itself was about as dirty as you'd expect, but everything that touched food was surprisingly clean.  And did I mention that the kitchen was tiny?  With two tiny Cambodians and two enormous Westerners, we were tripping over each other.  Ma is fast in the kitchen, and we were always in the way.

Also, I need a lesson in the proper way to stir soup.

It was a fun little demonstration.  Ma deemed my effort at hot and sour soup "eh."   But I was proud.

Cambodian Hot & Sour Soup

  • ~1.5 cup water
  • ~1/2 boullion cube
  • 1 clove garlic, smashed
  • 1 in. piece of galangal, smashed
  • a few small pieces of ginger, julienned
  • handful of onion pieces
  • handful of carrot pieces
  • handful of tomato pieces
  • handful of pineapple pieces
  • handful of shredded dark leafy green
  • juice of 2 keffir limes
  • 1 egg
  • big spoon of sugar
  • salt, to taste
  • chili, if you want
  • tamarind paste, as much as you want
  • as a garnish, minced garlic fried in oil until brown

In a little pan, heat up the water to a boil with the boullion, garlic, ginger, and galangal.  Add onion and carrot, cook for a minute.  Add tomato, pineapple, leafy greens, stir for a minute.  Add juice of limes, egg, sugar, salt, tamarind paste, and chili.  Cook for a few more minutes.  Add the garlic as a garnish.  Simple!

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