new Things I Ate in Cambodia: November 2011

Monday, November 28, 2011

Romdeng Again: Excellent Stuffed Squid, Still Don't Try The Spiders

#74 Street 174
Telephone: +855 092-219-565
Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Romdeng is the Mith Samlanh street kid's charity Khmer training restaurant, affiliated with the more Western accented Friends, near Riverside. Set in an old colonial building, it's a salubrious place to try authentic Khmer dishes for a pretty good cause. The waitstaff, cooks, and I believe at least some of the management are all former street kids enrolled in hospitality training programs conducted by Mith Samlanh. It's a good idea, and, thankfully, the food is good too.

Both Romdeng and Friends do excellent frozen drinks, and I enjoyed this lychee/passionfruit/mint mixture. Would have been better with a little vodka, but this was a lunch-break-from-work type affair so I was forced to hold back.

Khmer food is reliant on grilled or roasted eggplant. Especially popular is eggplant served with ground pork and, in some cases, chopped mushrooms, as can be seen here. This dish had a pleasingly smoky flavor from both the eggplant and the oaky shitake mushrooms - definitely Cambodian and something I would order again.

Chicken stir-fried with basil and chili is one of those dishes that most Westerners would consider Thai. This is a point of enormous contention in Cambodia, of course - Khmers maintain that the Thais stole their cuisine many hundreds of years ago and added their own flourishes. A culinary historian with more free time (or a larger stipend) than myself might be able to sort this one out without igniting (another) border incident, but I'll just stick with calling it a "dish that straddles borders." Chicken with basil and chili may also be subject to contention because it's pretty darn good: fresh holy basil, some garlic, not-too-hot red chilis and some boneless chicken. I'd prefer it with bone-in chicken, though. What's with Westerners fetish for dark meat?

Cambodians also love grilled squid stuffed with things (usually's usually pork). These small grilled cephalapods were stuffed with pork stir-fried with a touch of ginger. Pretty good stuff, and not too chewy, as is the unfortunate fate of many of our underwater friends. Sniff.

This is Khmer curry with potato, green beans, pumpkin, carrot, and coconut milk. Khmer coconut milk curries taste quite different from Thai coconut milk curries. They're usually more subtle, considerably less spicy, thicker, and a bit less complex. This is often good news for those suffering from dodgy stomachs. You are unlikely to be seriously injured by Khmer food, whereas I was pretty convinced a couple times in Thailand that the chef was actually trying to kill me by means of tiny, tiny chili pod.

I don't like desserts much, with the exception of sorbet and ice cream, which can be ideal in a tropical, comically sweaty climate. (Fairly convinced people who eat warm chocolate brownies here are insane, possibly criminally so). I may or may not have forgotten what the flavors involved here were, but I know one scoop involved pineapple and the other passion fruit. I will devour anything with passion fruit in it, so the choice was easy. No, I don't care that passion fruit resembles alien brains.

The more adventurous, or at least more masochistic, can also order Cambodia's infamous fried tarantulas at Romdeng. I haven't tried em' before (no one wants to share with me, it's not my fault) but I've heard they taste pretty much like shrimp. The tarantulas are becoming an endangered species since every tourist seems to want a Facebook photo of them eating one, or at least pretending to eat one, which I believe is one of those unanticipated environmental disasters.

More accessible may be beef stir-fried with ant larvae, a Khmer dish that's often served with beer. "Ant season" tends to fall in the dry season, which stretches roughly from November to April. No, haven't tried that either. I guess I need braver family members. That's my excuse.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Touich Again: Awesome Family Owned Joint in Siem Reap; Free Jeep Ride

Touich Restaurant
3 km outside center of town center: call ahead at 092 80 80 40 - 012 99 57 83 or email @
Siem Reap, Cambodia

Touich, a small Khmer restaurant set in Siem Reap's back alleys, has gained something of a cult following since I was last there in February. Owned by an English speaking and charmingly eccentric Battambang family, this surprisingly hip little joint is probably my favorite in Siem Reap. If you call ahead to make reservations, the restaurant will send a 1940's era military jeep to pick you up at your hotel, which is all kinds of fun.

Touich specializes in sea bass baked with salt and stuffed with ginger. Although fish is often suspect in Siem Reap, they know where to source it, and it's fresh and good. The waitress will skillfully fillet the fish then serve it to you at your table, after cracking the salt crust - it's served with a spicy chili sauce. Beware bones, as is the case in Asia.

This grilled pork rib with barbeque sauce was excellent and tender. So much so that my Southern father had to ask about the provenance of the pig from whence it came. "It was a very big," the restaurant co-owner said. "It won an award, actually. I think it was around 500 pounds." Well, that explains a lot. One enormous pork chop. He told us that super-size pigs are often raised in Buddhist pagodas here and raised until they attain truly monstrous proportions, when they are sold off. Both spiritually sound and delicious, I suppose.

Stir-fried squid with Kampot pepper is a perennial Cambodian favorite (in a country amply blessed with both tender cephalopods and fresh pepper) and was very good here, in a slightly sweet sauce with the very unique bite of fresh green pepper. I will miss fresh green pepper very much in the event of my leaving Cambodia. There's nothing quite like it.

Westerners who aren't from the Deep South usually are highly disinterested in eating frog, but you should really give the Cambodian frogs a try. These fat, placid beasts really DO taste like chicken, and it's worth navigating around the small, delicate bones.

Touich stir-fries the frog with ginger and some herbs. Frog is also good barbecued on a skewer. Don't knock the local protein source. Further: my mighty Louisiana ancestors have been noshing on these things straight out of the swamp for many generations right alongside Cambodia, so I'm the last to get all snooty.

Chicken soup with lemon is Cambodian comfort food, and something I eat a lot when sick, not-super hungry, or just feel like a simple meal. The tangy broth is accented with ginger and some very subtle fresh herbs, and is really refreshing after a long, hot day of touristing around the temples. I like to toss some white rice into mine for extra texture.

There's a pretty impressive wine list and a "wine rack" presided over by the Wine God. Mostly French stuff - we went with a fruity French white.

Sidenote: Touich plays awesome music. Bob Dylan, Beirut, Sinatra and Delta blues were all on the playlist when we visited.

Don't miss Touich for a fun dinner experience in Siem Reap. Scorn the massive tourist restaurants, and come for the free jeep ride and a good meal instead.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Angkor Palm: How to Sample Khmer Food Without Any Awkward Commitment

Angkor Palm
Psaa Chas (near the Old Market)
Siem Reap, Cambodia

The Angkor Palm is an attractive Khmer restaurant on the main drag of Siem Reap's backpacker ghetto. The restaurant's primary draw is its Khmer sampler platter, a convenient and cheapish way to sample a bunch of Cambodian dishes without the need to fully commit to a single one. I like to bring visitors here as a nice intro-to-Khmer food - and the fish amok and morning glory are pretty good by themselves, as well.

So what's on the plate, anyway?

Fish amok, a Cambodian baked dish of fish and coconut milk, with aromatic spices. A perennial favorite and one of Cambodia's not-so-numerous distinct dishes. Backpackers tend to eat little but if they take to it. I've almost overdosed, but I need to learn how to make it in the event of leaving Cambodia. Great stuff.

Stir-fried morning glory with oyster sauce, garlic, and chili. A Cambodian mainstay, this slightly chewy and delicious green vegetable is grown in small ponds and patches of standing water across the country. Aggressively good for you and surprisingly tender.

Deep-fried pork spare-ribs. Cambodians love their pig, as evidenced by any journey through the Cambodian countryside, where scary-looking pigs upwards of 400 pounds root about in the undergrowth until their time is up. A fried sparerib is a fried sparerib, but they're certainly something Cambodians LIKE.

Fresh vegetable spring rolls are another perennial favorite here, stuffed with vermicelli noodles, carrots, cucumber, peanuts, and a lot of fresh herbs. I like most Southeast Asian herbs but find fishwort - an herb with a small, almost gingko-shaped leaf - to be absolutely abhorrent. Your mileage may vary.

Green mango salad with small smoked fish and chili. It's a lot like papaya salad, with a slightly more sour, slightly more fruity flavor. The smoked fish are quite chewy and may be an acquired taste.

Khmer green curry is in essence a less spicy and more vegetable-heavy variant on the Thai stuff, with pumpkin, onion, green beans, chili (small quantities), coconut milk, some meat, and whatever else was hanging around the kitchen. I suspect the Khmer curry philosophy is fairly similar to that of gumbo: if you've got it, toss it in the pot. It's a good comfort-food dish and something I find myself ordering quite often. Will not blow your face off like the Thai stuff, as is usually the case with Cambodian food.

We also had some slightly too breaded fried squid, while my boyfriend and my mother had fried rice. I'm not even sure if it's really possible to rate fried rice. You only really notice if it's really bad or really good. Maybe I'm wrong - I mean, I love fried rice - but it's basically the Staff of Life in this part of the world.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Really Really French Food at The Wine Restaurant - in Phnom Penh

The Wine Restaurant
Street 19 (Right off Street 240)
Telephone: 023 223 527
Phnom Penh, Cambodia

The obviously named Wine Restaurant is a popular oasis for French expats, who enjoy the large wine selection, highly French-ified menu, and nice, open dining area. Most Phnom Penh residents hit up the Wine Restaurant for its high value $10 three course lunches, which I can verify are very nice: goat cheese toasts with salad, boeuf bourguignon, and strawberry sorbet, all nicely prepared and at a rock-bottom sum.

A very pleasant amuse bouche of puff pastry filled with shrimp in cream sauce.

Things get a lot more expensive at night, which is when my visiting parents charitably took Phill and I to the restaurant. Everything is both ala-carte and exceptionally French, although Kampot pepper sneaks into the menu. There's an emphasis on steaks, cream sauces, fresh seafood, foie gras, and cheese - and, obviously, the wine accompaniments to such delicacies. Good news is we were feeling hungry.

My father and I shared an appetizer of seared foie gras with fruit compote, over a salad. Foie gras is an elemental, slightly perverse dish in its all-encompassing richness - you love it, you hate it, you think it's cruel, whatever. I love it, at least in somewhat reasonable quantities, and this was very nice with the slight sweetness of the jammy fruit. It was served with somewhat unpleasantly bitter greens with balsamic, which actually made a nice counterpoint if eaten in tandem with foie and jam. This stuff ain't good for you, but it's certainly warranted every once a while. Well, except for you PETA types. Sorry.

I selected the seared scallops with mushroom sauce. They were presented very attractively, in a circle around a subtle balsamic reduction and a bit butter lettuce with mustardy dressing: the creamy mushroom sauce was served in a small cravet on the side, which I thought was rather clever. A scallop is easily overwhelmed, and allowing the diner to select how much sauce they'd like is a good idea. The sauce itself was a nice, vaguely boozy cream sauce and very nice: it would also suit a steak.

My father, ever the meat lover, ordered a simple rare strip steak with a side of frites - a classic French dish - with a side of red wine sauce. My dad, who knows his way around a steak, reported that it was good, and the red wine sauce was also a serviceable effort. Worthy of particular note are the fries, which are crisp, thin, nicely salted and generally good. Pretty much a requirement in a French restaurant that's actually trying.

Suspicious of Cambodian beef (although I believe they import everything here, as do most expensive restaurants in Phnom Penh - Cambodian beef is stringy), Phill and my mother both ordered the seared duck. This was a seared breast of duck served with a Kampot pepper sauce, some salad, and the aforementioned Good French Fries. Accolades all around: nicely cooked and high quality meat. Duck isn't ultra common in Cambodia, but the good stuff is easy to get: duck herders sell their plucked, fresh off the farm wares on the road to Siem Reap, while duck herders move their charges about in many areas of the countryside.

We finished with fresh passion fruit sorbet with a small wafer cookie in it, perhaps the ideal dessert in Cambodia's climate. Some other French desserts are on offer. I can't remember what they are. Sorry.

The Wine Restaurant is a fine choice for a high-end Gallic meal - with a formidable wine selection - in Phnom Penh. Especially relevant if you have finally tired of fish amok, loc lac, and fried rice, and would really like to eat something incorporating a cream sauce. The dining room is respectfully hushed, while service is on-point and well trained.

All the actual French people seem to filter into the restaurant from 8:30 onwards, so you may have the place to yourself if you come early. An added plus for those with kids: there's an outdoor play area with a totally bitchin' dragon-themed play car. It's been hard to resist the urge to jump into it many times myself. Mostly when drunk.

Sunday, November 06, 2011

Palm Beach Seafood: Giant Ass Crabs And Devouring Them in Singapore

Palm Beach Seafood
One Fullerton Road
Tel: +65 6227 2332

I went to Palm Beach Seafood for my first Chili Crab Experience in Singapore last year, had a nice meal, and figured it would be fine for us to go back again. It's one of the chili crab emporiums that gets regularly recommended to out-of-town types willing to pay for the experience, and it's also in an indisputably enviable locale at One Fullerton Place, within post-dinner stroll distance of the Merlion and many, many high-end shopping opportunities. (Like all of Singapore).

Palm Beach is a standard Chinese seafood house and you can tell by the dining room, which has white tile floors, fake foliage-adorned walls, a bunch of large bubbling fish tanks at the back of the room, and is pitched at a very, very high volume. Chinese seafood houses are roughly the same everywhere insofar as I can tell.

The menu has a range of fresh seafood dishes, along with some non-seafaring specialities to even out the menu. The standby is of course crab, and there are a number of different species and sizes on offer, priced by the weight, and with a number of different cooking styles. You can pick your own victim from the tanks. Most people get the Singapore classic chili crab, which is cracked crab stir-fried in a sweet and spicy red sauce, served with bread rolls for sopping purposes.

Palm Beach really does do an epic chili crab, and this supposedly "medium" stone crab was an impressive specimen of the species. It was roughly as big as my head, in fact. Staring down a gigantic crustacean at dinner time is one of my (many) definitions of a good time, and once we were given Palm Beach branded seafood-bibs and some implements of destruction (crab crackers), we were well on our way.

The demise of Pinchy.

I don't really remember much about digging into a good crab, as I tend to enter what is commonly known as a fugue state, but it was tasty, really tasty, and there was a lot of it. I must say that I prefer my family's home-made chili crab to the restaurant stuff - the sauce is too sweet - but this was pretty excellent all the same. They didn't overcook and undercook the crab, which is an occasional complaint. Chili crab is in essence a fairly simple thing, or it should be.

We also tried some very good milk-fried prawns: bursty little beasts fried in hot oil then served with buttery crumbles mixed with fried curry leaves and a touch of garlic. Curry leaves are a favorite of mine, rarely encountered in the West, and they gave the dish an exotic, subtle South Indian flare. I am not sure where the "milk" part comes in, but maybe it has something to do with the buttery crumbles. They were very good, and an interesting departure from the stand-by of salt and pepper shrimp.

We ordered some fried duck to go with the seafood, which was a mistake at a restaurant that specializes in seafood: overcooked and too tough, except for the drumstick, which naturally I got when my parents weren't looking. Skip it. A better side dish is spicy fried morning glory, which was very good the first time I was here, and is a natural, nutrient-rich accompaniment to seafood dishes in Southeast Asia.

Palm Beach does nickle and dime, as many Chinese seafood places do. Being charged extra for a supposedly complimentary plate of prawn crackers and pineapple sambal is a bit tacky: if something is on a table in front of you at most restaurants, it is a tacit agreement that it's free, or at least it is in my book.

The place was chock-full when we arrived and the hostess put us in a rather lame seat right next to the door, which incensed my father since we did arrange through the hotel concierge and called in advance in the morning - and a walk-in group got a nicer table immediately upon arrival.

After some poiteish posturing on the matter (well, polite as posturing about table location gets, I guess), we were put somewhere nicer. If you book far enough in advance, you can also be seated outside with a view over Marina Bay while you do horrible things to innocent sea creatures, which does sound pretty salubrious.

Addendum: I have always wondered why human beings love to gaze wistfully over the sea from whence the creatures they are messily devouring came from. Maybe it makes us feel like we are the brave fisher-people our ancestors hailed from. Maybe gazing over the sea makes us feel like conquerors of what lies beneath, never mind that the vast majority of the under-sea species we eat really aren't much brighter than, well, a lobster. (Exceptions made for octopi and whales. I'm sorry, guys. Real sorry.)

Or, maybe people just really dig a sea-view and like to assume that what they are eating was pulled wriggling and feisty from the very ocean they are looking at, even if in reality, dinner came from somewhere far away and was (if it was lucky) dumped into a holding tank before the inevitable end. This is rarely the case, of course - except in Cambodia, where crabs, fish, and prawns are kept in wicker boxes tied to over-the-water restaurants, and are fished out as need desires. Convenient enough in its way, except for in a typhoon.

Sup Tulang: Singapore's Most Obscene Food (And Possibly The World's)

Haji Kadir & M Baharudeen Sup Tulang
Address: 505 Beach Road, #B1-13/15 Golden Mile Food Centre, Singapore
Tel: +65 6294 0750
Opening Hours
Daily: 12pm – 1am

This is a blog post about Sup Tulang, which is one of the more viscerally carnivorous things I've ever eaten, and in the incredibly civilized locales of Singapore, to boot. It's a Malay-Indian dish of beef or mutton bones, which are cooked in a spicy cumin and chili infused (and BRIGHT red) stew until the marrow inside gets soft and spreadable. You may have seen Anthony Bourdain slurping down the marrow with a plastic straw on TV, which is where my Dad got the idea from.

Hell bent on consuming sup tulang in his lifetime, my father put me to the task of finding out the best place to eat it. The Internet food oracles told me that would be the Golden Mile Food Center, closeish to Singapore's Little Arabia district. After an Indian breakfast and a morning spent wandering Little India and buying all manner of counterfeit shirts, we headed for the food court and the Haj Kadir food stall.

The stall, thankfully, is easy enough to find - bottom floor of the shopping center, to the right of the entryway - and is advertised with big, slightly green-tinted pictures of gory looking marrow bones. The elderly stall-men took our order, we sat down at a picnic table, and ordered fresh lime juice and lemon tea, as well as a serve of chicken-rice for my mother, whose sensibilities are more delicate than those of my father and I. Soon enough, a plate of four marrow bones for 7 Singapore dollars were plonked down on our table. We were given plastic straws for the marrow and some bread for the sauce.

It's a pretty obscene food. Tasty enough, but pretty obscene. The sauce is delicious: it's got some gamey, mutton infused, smoky flavor, with chunks of chopped chili floating in it. The bones don't have much meat on them, but the meat isn't the point, really, it's the marrow inside.

I decided to go for the marrow first - the sounds you make when sucking marrow out of a big-ass bone in a public place, well, I'll leave those to your imagination. Then, I picked up the bone, which was really very slippery, and gnawed off the meat. I don't think I made any growling sounds while I was doing this but I also can't say I didn't.

It was a very happy experience for me, as I am a dedicated carnivore and everyone who knows me is pretty sure I retain ancient race memories of Stone-Age ancestors. In that I'd be super happy crouching by a fire tearing big chunks off a mammoth haunch while snarling and snapping at the semi-domesticated wolf pack that might bother me for scraps. Napkins, what are those?

The old men who ran the stall sat at the table next to us and watched me eat the marrow out of the bones while talking animatedly to each other in Malay. According to my mother, they appeared to be somewhere in between profoundly disgusted and impressed by the enthusiaim and verve with which I went at the marrow bones. Probably more disgusted.

Two cute little Singaporean ladies were eating sup tulang at a table near us, wearing cute little clothes, and they were somehow eating sup tulang *delicately*. I have no idea how but am fairly certain whatever dark magic they had been trained in to pull this off is far, far beyond my meager powers.

The real problem with sup tulang is encountered after you're done with it, when you realize that the red dye they use to color the sauce doesn't come off your fingers, even if you scrub them really hard with liquid soap in the cleanish dining hall bathroom sink. It sort of comes off your face, but only sort of.

Therefore, every Singaporean will know for the rest of the day that you have eaten sup tulang. This is not exactly embarrassing, but few foods we encounter in the Western world actively mark you for the rest of the day. I ended up taking a long bath with a lot of intensive scrubbing, and my fingers were still stained red for a couple days. Although at least it took care of the facial Marks of Doom.

Anyone even vaguely squeamish about eating meat should probably steer well clear of both sup tulang and the people who are willing to eat it, is what I'm getting at. I suffer from no such moral compunctions and think most cute animals are preferable roasted on a spit with a nice marinade, but I know I'm not speaking for everyone.

Thursday, November 03, 2011

Some Thoughts on Singapore Food Halls

You can't go to Singapore and not eat at food halls. This is both because it's a cultural touchpoint and a Quintessential Experience, and because it is practical: Singapore is an expensive-ass place and food hall meals tend to be at least cheapish.

There are a lot of them, and some are renowned for a certain speciality, some are beloved by tourists, and some you stumble across in little back-alley neighborhoods. I am of the opinion that you can get pretty good food in all of them if you've got a nose - and a cursory Google hunt are all you need to find the good stuff.

Further, as insofar as I can determine Singaporeans don't actually cook, food halls are usually great spots for people watching, as people of every imaginable ethnicity chat, bicker, and pontificate over large portions of....just about everything. You can get anything from Mexican food to Bengali food to New York cheesecake at the largest of these institutions, but it's the street dishes you should be looking out for.

We paid a visit to the Lau Pau Sat Festival Market nearish to Raffles Quay, which is set in a gracious old building and is a big favorite with power-lunchers from nearby high-rises and office buildings who are the mood to slum it. I was looking for a couple specific Singapore dishes and zeroed in on the Char Kway Teow hawker stand roughly in the middle of the hall, which had a couple of classics on tap....

I would like to disabuse the general public of the notion that Singapore carrot cake has anything to do with carrots or cake, or cupcakes, or dessert. This curiously named street food dish par-excellence is in fact sliced radish cake, stir-fried with sweet soy sauce, egg, and onions, in the "black" variant - a soy-sauce free variant exists that is called, shockingly enough, "white." It's a bit odd at first to the Western palate, but I've developed a real liking for the stuff and consider it a first-rate breakfast meal.

This is a Singapore-style oyster omelet with a bit of onion, and it's a nice greasy, salty, slightly funky bite - perhaps best avoided if you're not already the kind of person who goes nuts for oysters (me) and to be sought out if you are (me). Singapore has a way with grease for a place with such an at times noxiously squeaky-clean reputation.

Oysters have a dodgy reputation just about everywhere in Asia - my family had to stare me down from eating one the other day in Cambodia, but I like to live dangerously. However, Singapore is a place with food safety standards, and, even more pleasingly, graded ratings placed in prominent positions behind every food stalls counter, which makes your choices easier.

Then there's Singapore chicken rice, a classic breakfast in these parts, and really quite fiendishly simple: rice cooked in chicken stock served with boneless chicken (boiled or fried, most often boiled), a sweet soy sauce of some type and a hot chili sauce of another, and a bowl of chicken stock soup. It's just about the best thing possible for a weird stomach (and it will happen to you in Southeast Asia) and is available just about everywhere, usually at reasonable prices.

I like to get fresh fruit juices or sliced fruit for snacks on ridiculously hot days in Singapore. Thankfully, food halls are fully aware of how goddamn hot their homeland is, and getting a nice fresh electrolyte-loaded beverage is an easy matter. They'll mix your fruits for you or blend in some ice if you ask nicely. I also have a real thing for sweet fresh lime juice - they call it nimbupani in India, which is a delightful word - and it is easy to obtain here. Sugar cane juice is a bit cloying for my taste, but someone will happily press you some for a buck or two at the stalls: look for the guy with the sugar cane stalks. (I know, I give such useful, specific advice).

Finding out what is good and what is not at food halls is easy: who is being mobbed by hungry Singaporeans, and who is not? Rocket science, it isn't.