Sunday, 23 May 2010

Food, glorious food

Cambodian food is, as you’d expect, a cross between the chilli and lemon grass flavours of Thai cookery and the oyster sauce stir fries and herb filled spring rolls of Vietnam.

My favourites are the eye wateringly hot soups, clear broths for the most part, usually fish based and filled with lemongrass, lime, chilli and garlic. I also like the herby fresh spring rolls – mint, basil and coriander mixed with bean sprouts, prawns and rice noodles and dipped in a garlic, chilli and fish sauce dip. Yum, yum and yum again.

Yesterday I had the chance to take a day’s cookery course with Siolahn, a local woman who teaches westerners Cambodian cookery. She’s in her 30s, plump and round with dimples in her upper arms and sturdy short legs. Entirely capable, she can chop, pummel, twist and style an entire dish in the time it takes me to tidy the corner of my first spring roll.

Siolahn watches our attempts with much the same look that you have when you watch children learn something. Every now and then she can’t help herself and pops round to fix and improve our sorry efforts. You can see that she makes these simple dishes every day and still can’t comprehend that we struggle to cook them and, even more incomprehensibly, that we offer to pay her for her help.

She tells me she comes from a farming district in the country’s east. Until three years ago she worked in the fields and looked after her family. ‘We didn’t see any tourists there and it is a very hard life, very hard to earn money,’ she says. ‘My friends told me that there were a lot of Westerners in Sihanoukville and good jobs with good money, so my husband and I moved down here.’

And for once it seems the stories of a city paved with gold have turned out to be true. When I ask her if she likes it here a huge smile spreads over her face. ‘I will never go back. There are so many tourists here.’

It was a fun day and at least in theory, when I get home I’ll now be able to host a Cambodian dinner party. The menu? Seafood soup followed by summer spring rolls, then Lok Lak, a peppery beef stir fry served with rice and a fried egg for main and sticky coconut rice with mango for dessert.

For those who’d rather make something themselves than wait for a dinner invite from me, here’s the recipe for the seafood soup. It takes about 15 minutes to make from start to finish and is a great way to blow the cobwebs away with a hit of chilli, garlic and lemongrass.

Seafood soup with lime and fresh herbs (serves 4)
-White fish – any type but ideally one that doesn’t break up too easily, 400grams, cut into 4 pieces
-Squid and prawns (at least a couple of pieces of each per person)
-Fish stock (about 1 litre, make up as you prefer)
-1 small tablespoon rice
-2 stalks lemon grass, crushed
-Thumb size piece of Galangal, peeled and crushed
-2 kaffir lime leaves
-4 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
-1 ½ teaspoons salt
-Basil (a small handful, torn)
-Saw mint (8 long leaves) – if not available use coriander, a small handful
-Spring onion or two cut finely
-2 red chilli (reduce if you prefer less heat) finely chopped, including seeds
-Juice of two limes
-2 limes, quartered, for serving

-Add the tablespoon of rice to the stock and bring stock to boil.
-When boiling add crushed lemongrass, garlic, galangal, lime leaves (torn) and salt.
-Simmer for five to 10 minutes.
-Add fish. Cover pan, reduce heat and simmer for 5 minutes (fish should be cooked).
-Add seafood and simmer for 2 minutes (or until cooked).
-Divide torn herbs (basil and saw mint), spring onion and chilli between 4 bowls
-Ladle soup (including lemon grass etc) over the herbs, season generously with lime juice and serve with half a lime (add to taste). Cambodians don’t eat the lemongrass or galangal but it’s perfectly acceptable to chew and suck on them for taste and then leave them in the bowl.
Note: if you’re making this for fewer people you can halve the ingredients for two servings but not quarter for one as you’ll lose taste. My advice: make two servings and eat it the next day!

1 comment:

  1. Sounds delicious and I thought I might have to use some inventive sourcing methods to find a couple of those ingredients.... but of course found that Waitrose in Chiswick does all of them! Doncha just love a store that caters to middle-class, guardian-reading, travel-dreaming foodies? xxx