Saturday, March 04, 2006

Amok Time*: Khmer Cuisine for the High Maintenance

Besides almighty rice, we weren't sure what would be on the menus in Cambodia. And when we first walked the streets of Phnom Penh and saw giant, deep-fried cockroach-cricket-bug things, stuffed frogs and small, freshwater mollusks that people snack on like smelly-fish candy, I was extremely frightened. Frogs mean one thing to me and it's Kermit, not dinner. But, we got brave and entered our first Khmer restaurant as culinary adventures are definitely part of this trip.

Andy by far and away has an easier time eating off a menu than I do. And that's in the States, not just here! Okay, fine -- some might call it high maintenance but I work in marketing, so I like the word "selective". Regardless, being mostly vegetarian, save for a deep love of sushi and wild salmon (the Oregon girl in me), I can leave all four-legged, cute-faced animals for tofu. However, there hasn't been a soybean in sight in Cambodia, and once the arthropods and amphibians entered the menu, it got really interesting.

So, why not fresh-water fish, you say? After all, Cambodia is on the Mekong and that's a mighty river. Two words: giant catfish...which scared the hell out of both Andy and I. In the ubiquitous markets that proudly sell anything on land and water in the open air and sunlight, we've seen some of the Mekong catfish featured on menus and they are whiskered giants that measure over 4 feet in length!!! Their glazed sludge eyes still look mean lying there and, besides the fact they're bigger than a small child, you just know the catfish scavenged the bottom of that brown river for anything -- from mercury to mini vans~> read more

 -- to make a good meal. Neither Andy nor I, who aren't big on fresh-water fish even when it comes out of a Coors crystal-clear stream, can make the mental jump here to block out that image so, for us, fish is "off the menu".

Luckily, two dishes saved me time and town again: Squid Salad and Amok. I honestly never imagined I'd be eating so much squid in a non-calamari form, but this Khmer salad created with sliced cabbage, chopped lemongrass, fresh mint and basil, scallions and grilled squid, all spiced with a dressing of lime juice, chili, palm sugar, prahoc (Khmer fish sauce--salty!), garlic and black Kampot pepper is outrageous! So fresh and zesty, crunchy and spicy, sweet and salty -- and totally bug free!!! Defintely unlike any other salads, even Thai versions that include green mango and green papaya, and something that I'll be perfecting upon my return so we can enjoy in the US.

And, to be fair, I want to explain the legacy of exotic, desperate eating in Cambodia. Frogs, bugs and other bizarre things here are neither delicacies nor tribal foods eaten for magical, virile powers -- these foods are simply the legacy of vicious famines and even more vicious government reigns. The Khmers have suffered greatly, mostly at the hands of their own unstable, ever-changing governments, and these constant battles for power and control resulted in burnt rice fields, severe famine, isolation from the outside world and aid groups, and a drastic measures for finding nourishment and survival. Thus, bugs, frogs, fish skin, tiny river creatures and other suspicious mammals became edible options and make the Cambodian menus, even today.

Most other Khmer dishes are a gentler version of Thai food, albeit to those of us who like spice a less flavorful one, but Amok is a concoction all its own. In many ways, Amok is a sauce not far from the Pina Colada base of exquisite coconut creme, but takes the Colada to a deeper, non-cocktail side with the inclusion of a vivid spice paste with echoes of lemon grass, ginger, chili and kaffir limes. Oh my gosh!!! Amok is the most delicate, delicious coconut creme curry in the world, and when paired with vegetables and steamed coconut rice, you have something so rich and delicious that it doesn't matter what else is on the menu...because you're having Amok, again, for like the third night.

For me, the signature notes of Khmer cuisine are lemongrass, kaffir lime and black Kampot pepper. Cambodians use lemongrass more subtly than Thais, and from what I can taste (and learn from puzzled waiters that I ask in a mix of Khmer and English with the help of the Southeast Asian Phrase Book), they often saute it and blend with ginger, garlic, onion and chili to mellow its flavor and texture. This unique fusion of spices is their "masala", and it's then mixed with kaffir lime -- which is the most limey, abmrosial version of lime ever; it tastes like key lime pie and lime jell-o powder smell, all in one bite -- for balanced, savory-yet-sweet citrus notes. To add bounce and zing to anything from cabbage to coconut milk, Khmer cooks sprinkle in freshly-cracked black pepper, sometimes even whole peppercorns, straight from the Kampot province. When mingled together in what could be a just simple dish of vegetables or salad, this citrus-with-a-kick taste makes for flavor and food that even the most high maintenance eater can savor with delight!

*: For any Trekkies on our blog, the title of this post is an homage to one of my favorite episodes, "Amok Time". My dear friend Matt "educated" (though looking back now, I'm not sure that is the right verb for the job) me on Star Trek in high school by screening key episodes. I couldn't resist the play on words for this post. Who knew I could fuse cult scifi and cuisine...Aren't you proud, Matt?


Anonymous Mommy Moore said...

Oh Ick! Ick! Ick! Those catfish look and sound gross! What a great description you gave! Loved your comment about them feasting on mini vans and mercury at the bottom of the brown river! We do take all our efforts to "not pollute" as the "norm"--and this is sure not the case worldwide, is it?

I'd just stick to rice and fruit if I were you!!!

10:57 PM  

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