Category Archives: Travel

Pansy for a day

Jack Scott

Today I’m guesting over at my friend Jack Scott’s hugely succesful blog, Perking the Pansies, the everyday tale of “two openly gay, recently ‘married’ middle aged, middle class men escaping the liberal sanctuary of anonymous London to relocate to a Muslim country [Turkey]”. Jack writes mainly about the ups and downs of expat life which set me wondering about the foods [and drinks] I’d miss from home if ever the Shopkeeper and I were to skip off for good – you can read the piece here.

Please note – if you enjoy your excursion to Pansy land the blog is set to spawn a book which is due out before Christmas.

Fish Amok

 Fish Amok

‘Fish Amok’ is not a verbally economical headline trailing the story of a school of barracuda gone berserk, but the best known of Cambodia’s national dishes. You can also make Amok with chicken, pork or tofu for a vegetarian version, but fish is the most common and can be found everywhere from market stalls to the menus of Phnom Penh’s best restaurants. It will also be the centrepiece of your day on the Cambodia Cooking Class run by chef Heng of Frizz Restaurant [a must for any foodie visitor] where you’ll make not only the ‘kroeung’ [the paste at the heart of the dish] from scratch, but even the banana leaf bowls in which to cook it. It seems that others are catching on to foodie tourists’ desire to roll up their sleeves, with a couple of new courses now appearing in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, but it would be difficult to beat this, the original, for value – US$20 buys you a day of tuition in the rooftop classroom, all ingredients [and therefore ultimately all your food] and the market visit I described elsewhere. To say nothing of the fact that Heng is a thoroughly affable and very patient teacher. You’ll also get a recipe booklet to take home at the end of the day, though I’d recommend making your own notes too as you go.

If you’re going to do this on a regular basis you might want to consider investing in a serious pestle and mortar, perhaps whilst in the country – suitcase permitting. The ones we used had deep wooden bowls [at least 20cm] and big wooden pestles with the weight and heft of a squat baseball bat. My typically puny English version, which in any case normally sits on a shelf looking pretty and holding the garlic, needed three times the effort produce a smooth paste. And whilst you could feasibly steam your Amok in small ceramic bowls you really should go to the effort of making the traditional banana leaf cups. All in all something of a labour of love, but then if a job’s worth doing, it’s worth doing properly. Isn’t it?

Like traditional dishes everywhere you can find any number of variations to the recipe. The good people at Romdeng Restaurant produce a pared down, simple version with minimal spicing. Whilst Luu Meng of Malis, as you might expect from this rising star of Cambodian cuisine who recently played host to Gordon Ramsey, finesses his dish with smoked fish roes. Prahok [a paste of matured, fermented fish] is often included, but we didn’t use it on the day and I have not included it here as you’ll not find it easy to come by outside of Cambodia. It’s also something of an acquired taste if you haven’t grown up eating it at every meal.

The quantities I’ve given here are for one portion of Amok, simply scale as required.

For the kroeung

  • 1.5 cm galangal, peeled and chopped
  • A thumbnail sized piece of kaffir lime zest
  • 2 cm fresh turmeric root, peeled [or half a teaspoon of powdered turmeric]
  • 1 clove garlic
  • Half a small shallot
  • 4 cm of the thinner parts of lemongrass stalks, finely sliced
  • 1 or 2 mild red chillies [to taste] finely minced
  • A pinch of salt

For the rest

  • 120 g firm fleshed fish such as cod, sliced or diced as you prefer
  • 70 ml coconut milk
  • 1 tbsp fish sauce
  • ¼ tsp shrimp paste
  • 1 egg yolk
  • 1 dsp roughly crushed roasted peanuts
  • 1 tbsp coconut cream
  • Red chilli and kaffir lime leaf finely sliced to garnish

For the bowls

  • Enough banana leaf to make 2 x 25cm circles for each bowl
  • Cocktail sticks or toothpicks, cut in half

Begin by pounding the lime zest and galangal until breaking down. Next add the lemongrass and pound again. Then add all the other kroeung ingredients and pound until you have a smooth, thick paste. As you can see there is much pounding to be done, but this can be very therapeutic and with the right kit should take no more than about ten to fifteen minutes. Once smooth add the finely minced chilli and stir to incorporate.

Kroeung with chilli

In a separate bowl mash the shrimp paste into the coconut milk until dissolved, then add the fish sauce, egg yolk and peanuts. Combine this mixture with the kroeung and the fish and mix well. Pour the resulting mixture into your banana leaf cup, top with the coconut cream, and place in a steamer for twenty minutes. The end result should still be moist but slightly set by the egg, like a wobbly, spicy, fishy custard, yet infinitely more pleasant than that description sounds! Serve with plain boiled rice, and garnish the Amok with finely sliced chilli and kaffir lime leaf.

To make the banana leaf bowls

I managed to buy banana leaves at a local Thai mini market and they can usually be found without too much hassle. Wash and dry the leaves. For each bowl cut two circles about 25cm in diameter – a saucepan lid and a craft knife will come in handy.

Chef Heng, cutting disks of banana leaf

You need to soften the leaves slightly which can be done by blanching in boiling water. Alternatively [Heng’s way] light a gas ring and using tongs lay on a leaf circle, quickly flip over, and remove. You’ll see the leaves soften almost instantly, and they should not burn or colour. Lay one disc on another, placing the rough sides of the leaves together, shiny surfaces facing out. Fold up the sides to make a pleat in four or five places, securing each pleat with a half cocktail stick ‘pin’, to make a cup shape. This can take a bit of practice, so the first time you try it you might want to arm yourself with a few extra leaf circles.

The – frankly poor – example pictured below [my own] is clearly not a masterpiece of the genre, but is offered merely as a visual example of the techniques described!

Banana Leaf Cup

Salad of Banana Blossom

Banana Blossom Salad

If you plan to go shopping in the smaller local markets of Phnom Penh my two top tips are 1) do so with a local guide and 2) plan things such that you don’t go with a hangover. My one day Cambodian cooking course began with a nine o’clock tuk-tuk ride to Kandal Market and being accompanied by our teacher and chef Heng took care of number one. A thorough and comprehensive introduction to the bars of the Cambodian capital the previous evening however is why I am able, with some authority, to offer the second piece of advice.  Cambodian markets are lively, colourful, noisy places and there is no shortage of stimulation for all the senses. Most Cambodians will make daily visits as fridges are a rare luxury, but some of the sights and smells can prove something of a shock to an unsuspecting westerner who’s had one or two too many the night before. Fruit and vegetable stalls will be piled high with produce both familiar and not, with herbs like fresh caraway a real revelation, and shouldn’t overly challenge the constitution, unless of course you’re surrounded by a large quantity of ripe Durian on a hot sunny day.

Cambodian Market Stall - Vegetables

Venturing further into the narrow alleyways [and avoiding the motorbikes which people will ride down them] the atmosphere ripens amongst the stalls selling poultry, pork and fish – alive, dead, dried, or despatched to order – until you come across the highly prized ‘Cambodian cheese’, Prahok. Prahok is crushed, salted, fermented fish which is allowed to mature for up to three years. It is added to soups and sauces, or just eaten raw as a dip with vegetable crudités. It’s a rich, heady brew, and is your first real reason to avoid this trip whilst worse for wear.

Cambodian Market Stall

After the Prahok baskets of sulphurous charcoal aged eggs [similar to a Chinese century egg] will barely raise a nostril. My first visit though was rounded off by a visit to a frog stall. A steel tray held deep layers of frogs, all freshly skinned, beheaded and shining in the morning sun. It turns out that a recently skinned and decapitated frog doesn’t need any encouragement from Mr Volta to flex its muscles, and two of the beasts leapt out and onto the street and began hopping blindly about. A lady intent on her morning shop didn’t notice and stepped on one – the headless frog of course had precious little chance of seeing her coming. This is when you really wish you’d gone to bed early with a cup of tea the previous evening.

Cambodian Market Stall

Whatever else you stumble upon one thing you will find is banana blossoms in abundance. They resemble purplish brown elongated cabbages around 45cm in length. The tender creamy white inner layers are the edible parts, and as you strip away each layer to get to them you’ll find little proto-hands of bananas between each. The petals are rolled and thinly shredded, but discolour quickly so need to be immersed in water acidulated with lime juice as soon as they are cut. Whilst they’re slightly less abundant here they are by no means impossible to come by; my local Thai supermarket has them in stock ‘from time to time’ and recommends that if you see one you should buy it, but they also stock a tinned version which I had to buy but am yet to try. If you absolutely cannot track one down then use finely shredded hard white cabbage instead.

Flowers of the banana plant on a Cambodian market stall

You will need around half a large or one whole small petal layer per person.

Serves two

  • Banana Blossom
  • 2 tablespoons of roughly torn mixed herbs including mint, basil and coriander [Asian varieties if available]
  • A handful of torn spinach leaves
  • 1 large mild red chilli cut into thin strips
  • 1 tablespoon of roasted peanuts, slightly crushed
  • Juice of 1 lime added to a shallow bowl of cold water
  • 150g to 180g of poached chicken or any leftover poultry

For the dressing

  • 1 or 2 mild red chillies
  • 1 small birds eye chilli [optional]
  • Juice of 2 limes
  • 3 cloves of garlic.
  • 1 shallot finely chopped
  • 1 tablespoon Cambodian fish sauce [or two thirds that amount of Thai Nam Pla]
  • 1 tablespoon palm sugar
  • Pinch of salt
  • 4 tablespoons water

The dressing can be made a few days beforehand and stored [covered] in the fridge. Chop the chilli finely and crush the garlic, then smash together a little with a mortar and pestle but do not reduce to a paste. Mix all the other ingredients and stir to dissolve the sugar, then add the chilli and garlic.

To make the salad roll the banana ‘petals’ into cylinders and slice finely across to produce strips about 1mm wide. Place these into the cold water with lime juice to prevent browning. Drain after five minutes. Tear the meat into thin strips with your fingers. Toss everything together in a bowl and add the dressing bit by bit until you are happy with the balance of flavours. It should be sprightly and fresh, lively with herbs and with a kick from the dressing.