Monday, 20 April 2009

Cambodian cuisine without borders: Web-style sandwiches

Poum Boeung (Tonle Sap, Siem Reap, Cambodia). 10/10/2002: Morning breakfast for villagers. ©John Vink/ Magnum

By Laurent Le Gouanvic

Late 2007,, the American website specialising in gastronomy, made surprising predictions about new food trends: the site announced that in 2008 Cambodian cuisine was going to topple its Siamese sister on exotic and trendy menus. More than a year later, the numbers of restaurants claiming to exclusively offer traditional Cambodian gastronomy have doubled in New York: indeed, there are now… two Cambodian eating places in the Big Apple, the latest of which, “Num Pang”, has just opened its doors and only offers sandwiches. Even though they are not as popular in international kitchens as their Vietnamese and Thai neighbours’ bò bún and tom yam, the Cambodian amok, loc lac and kroeung nevertheless start to circulate their scents on the Web as several sites now offer gourmets the possibility to discover an endless selection of flavours from the small Khmer Kingdom.

Flavours: rare and gorgeously tempting
Even though Ratha Chau is regularly congratulated by New York food critics for having managed to promote traditional delicacies, he is still an exception. Indeed, the American chef of Khmer descent runs the “Kampuchea ” restaurant, the one and only Cambodian eating place (or at least the one which dares to call itself as such) in New York City, nonetheless famed for its gastronomic diversity.

Late March, “Num Pang ” (meaning bread in Khmer) came to top up the rather slight offer, an initiative launched by the same Ratha Chau, who now proposes sandwiches filled with coriander, catfish or shrimp with grated coconut… Just enough to arouse the appetite of the New York clientele, now more and more eager for good products and new sensations. “Having been open for just under two weeks, the place is already a hit, with lunch lines 20 people deep stretching down the street.”, a food critic reported at the beginning of April in the Washington Square News , part of the media network of New York University. This was confirmed by pictures published in the “Fork in the Road ” food column, showing the small crowd standing in front of the New-York Khmer sandwich shop.

Prahok: the new magic potion?
A few weeks after the opening, Ratha Chau and his commercial partner were already selling 500 Cambodian-style sandwiches every day, from what the food website Serious Eats - New York , who interviewed the Cambodian chef on the reasons for his success. Beyond the conventional speech about quality products and the love of things when they are well-made, his explanation comes down to two syllables: “prahok”. The answer will seem somewhat daring to those who have had the pleasure of having a sniff of the condiment known for its very special scents - strong enough to make Westerners jump if they happen not to be used to preparation based on fermented fish… But the chef dares to tickle the palates (and nostrils) of customers with his compositions. And his challenge, which appeared quite risky to start with, is eventually a success. A year ago, he was invited by Food & Wine to share with readers, on the website of the prestigious magazine, six recipes of his own invention, presented as “a lesson in Cambodian flavours”.

Ratha Chau is not the only one who fights a lack of recognition – or more simply, of knowledge – of Cambodian cuisine within the international gastronomic milieus. Several internet users also set out to spread the good stuff about Khmer food in the world. Khmer dishes, most of which are neglected by most generalist culinary websites – in English or in French – including Epicurious , the one which issued predictions about the coming glorious future of Cambodian gastronomy, stating that “Cambodian food has stronger flavours than Vietnamese, slightly more subtle that Thai and is not as heavy as Chinese”, now appear without any shyness on blogs or websites exclusively dedicated to them, where they are lovingly explained by gourmet webmasters.

Khmer cuisine… Karaoke-style
This is the case of the well-named , which sports an attractive and refined presentation and look as it was recently redone by its designer Romerix Oum, a French-Cambodian young man specialised in web marketing. On top of a few recipes, including the classic amok , delicious condiments (see kroeung ) or beef noodles , the site also has a “Khmer Food TV”. It mainly focuses on cooking classes – Khmer karaoke and Angkor sunset style – patiently elaborated by another internet user, a 29 year-old Cambodian-American woman who also publishes the videos on her YouTube page alongside make-up lessons videos (the mixes are also of great interest). The different types of fried rice, dishes cooked with all sorts of sauces, soup and yummy desserts detailed step by step and image after image and presented by the young woman will hold no secret for would-be Web cooks, even if they do not perfectly master Ronald Mac Donald’s language (ingredients are detailed via English subtitles as the video plays) and only come moderately close to Khmer music hits (there is always a possibility for users to turn the volume down or switch it off)

Bread rolls, sauces and snacks
A larger choice, but presented with a lot more austerity, is on the menu of the ‘Cambodia’ page of where some sixty “Cambodia-style” recipes are displayed, among which an interesting selection of vegetarian dishes and a dozen sauces, essential assets for any Khmer cook with a minimum of self-esteem.

Other websites, like Cambodia Cooking Class – cooking classes organised for Western tourists and expatriates in Phnom Penh, leave aside the best known dishes and give away for free a few “snack” and easy-to-make soup recipes, meant to make one’s mouth water, on top of handy pages on the most commonly used products and ingredients.

An invitation to the voyage of tastes
With gargantuan appetite and a delighting open-mindedness towards world foods, the “Station Gourmande” initiated by Anne Rolland, a French national who now lives in Siem Reap and works with the Sala Baï cooking school invites the reader to travel around scents and compositions of tastes. Thus, you can find there a recipe for Breton shortbread as well as a detailed way of making a “succulent” [grapefruit Khmer salad]. The “mohop Khmer” find their perfect place on a site dedicated to delicacies from all places in the world and gladly orientated, along the spirit of Sala Baï and its elegant recipe book , towards the notions of sharing and the discovery of new colours and tastes.

A quest for identity
The choice of the authors of the Khmer Krom Recipes website is different but no less relevant for that matter: they present many recipes of traditional dishes from the region of Kampuchea Krom, now located on the Vietnamese territory and where an important community of Khmer speakers resides. Those simple cooking recipes, like those, rarer, of the Cham community of Cambodia , are incidentally or purposefully orientated towards a claim for identity. Fact is something other than the plain history of food lies behind those sandwiches, sauces and soups. One of the authors of the website Cuisine-du-Cambodge stresses that point, as an introductory note for starters: “Ancestral crowned link which remains with the wire of time and the times, at home in its kitchen, its country or with the other end of the ground and of its same origins; crowned link which links the generations, the people and the individuals of any medium. Let us share and preserve this gift which is terrestrial food”.

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