Posts Tagged ‘Cambodia’

Road Trip Cambodia: Itsy Bitsy Spiders?

August 20, 2010 2 comments

This is the post many of you have been eagerly anticipating.  I mentioned in a previous post that deep-fried tarantulas are sold as a roadside snack in Cambodia, but I was not about to try those in particular after seeing the layers of dirt that coated them after vehicles went flying by.  In Phnom Penh, I was able to find them on the menu at Romdeng, a reputable restaurant that I wrote about before, which serves fried tarantulas in a more sterile environment.

We didn’t see fried tarantula being sold everywhere in the country.  Our guide in Siem Reap told us that they are the local delicacy of Skuon, a town about 45 miles outside of Phnom Penh near where he grew up.  They appear to be abundantly available there in the local forests, although people also breed them.  While no one really knows how fried tarantulas became a food source in Skuon, many believe that the starvation faced by millions of Cambodians during the dark era of Khmer Rouge rule has something to do with it.

So what do deep-fried tarantulas taste like?  I found them rather tasty and would definitely eat them again.  The chefs at Romdeng cover their version with a savory/sweet coating, almost like a watered-down barbecue sauce, before frying them to a crisp.  The tarantulas were served with a pepper and lime dipping sauce that added heat while enhancing the savory/sweet coating with brightness from the citrus.  The tarantulas themselves were very crunchy on the outside, while the inside was somewhat neutral in flavor (akin to chicken) with a nutty aftertaste.  I think they would pair nicely with some cold beer while watching football.  Spiders don’t scare me, so I had no trouble eating them.  As a young child, I was already eating a variety of animals and their various parts long before consuming unique foods or offal became popular with foodies.  Edna Krabappel had a little more trouble, but I give her credit for trying a small bit of the leg before giving up.  Although Edna is usually an adventurous eater, the look and feel of the giant spiders were just a bit too much for her to fathom ingesting.


Road Trip Cambodia: Road Side Treats

July 27, 2010 1 comment

One of my favorite things about road trips is snacking.  Usually, in my regular life, I try to eat somewhat healthy and stick to three square meals a day — very little snacking allowed and when I do, it’s usually something healthy like fruit or a granola bar.  When on vacation, however, I allow myself to (over)indulge, which includes snacking on whatever catches my eye at the moment.

In Cambodia, snacking appears to be very popular.  Most snacks sold are cheap and fulfill impulse needs.  On most streets and in the local markets, you are likely to find vendors hawking everything from a can of Coke to durian to snails.

The snacks that intrigued Edna Krabappel and I the most were the ones sold at road side stands near bus stops.  These stands exist because of a conveniently available market: people traveling throughout the country via buses, cars, minivans, motos, and tuk-tuks stopping in designated towns (usually at some designated restaurant) to use the bathroom or refuel.

On our way from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap, we saw the above items for sale.  On the left is a large pile of deep-fried grasshoppers with green onion and chilis.  I won’t deny that the smell from the deep frying (like perfectly cooked french fries) made me want to buy some, but I thought better of it once I saw the cloud of dust that graced the grasshoppers after a bus went by.  On the right are what I believe are deep-fried waterbugs.  While the grasshoppers didn’t scare me, the sight of the waterbugs were less than appealing.

At a different bus stop, vendors were selling a variety of other deep-fried products.  In the picture to the left, starting in the foreground, you can see some sort of bird-like creature.

Edna and I debated whether they were bats or maybe some other flying creatures, but we couldn’t figure it out (and the ladies who were selling the goods weren’t very fluent in English).

Behind the birds/bats/whatever sits a pile of tarantulas (more on them in a later post).  Behind the tarantulas were frogs and behind the frogs were more grasshoppers.

While I was once again tempted to give one or all of these a try, Edna reminded me that being on a bus for many hours with a tummy ache and no bathroom may not be in my best interest.

Regardless, these products appeared to be pretty fresh as demonstrated by one of the nice vendor ladies and her “friend.”

Road Trip Cambodia: Amok

July 26, 2010 2 comments

One of the national dishes of Cambodia is amok.  The most common type is made with fish (amok trey) although other versions made with beef, pork, chicken, tofu or vegetables are readily available in most restaurants.

Amok is, essentially, a coconut-based curry steamed or baked in a banana leaf.  When most people hear “curry,” they think spicy, but amok is very mild compared to the curries of India, Thailand and Indonesia.  Depending on the cook, amok usually includes kroeung (the aromatic paste commonly used in Cambodian cooking) as well as galangal and kaffir lime leaves.

Two of the best amok dishes Edna Krabappel and I tried are pictured above.  On the left is fish amok in its most common form from Romdeng in Phnom Penh (74 Street 174).  The fish was firm yet moist.  The curry itself was thick but still liquid enough to mix well with rice.  Edna and I agreed that it was flavorful and very well balanced.

Romdeng is a restaurant that is a part of Mith Samlanh (“Friends” in English), a local NGO working to empower street children by preparing some of them to work in the growing hospitality industry in Cambodia.  It is one of two restaurants run by the street children and their teachers.  Romdeng focuses on traditional Cambodian dishes while its sister restaurant, Friends, focuses on Western and Asian dishes.  If you’re going to eat and spend your money in Cambodia, you might as well do it for a good cause.

On the right is fish amok from Sugar Palm which is also located in Phnom Penh (19 Street 240).  In contrast with the version from Romdeng, Sugar Palm’s fish amok was baked in a coconut shell and the texture of the curry was much firmer, almost mousse-like.  It was, however, equally flavorful and well-balanced.  Edna and I tried to pick which one we liked better, but one was just as good as the other, only the textures differed.

Sadly, I can confidently attest that the worst amok in all of Cambodia can be found at Kep Lodge in the small beach town of Kep on the southwestern coast of the country.  While Kep Lodge provides great views of the Gulf of Thailand from its relaxing salt-water pool and pampers you with a lovely and attentive staff, Kep Lodge also embarrassingly serves the nastiest looking and tasting amok we encountered on our trip.

Carrots, bell peppers and cabbage were mixed into what appeared to be some sort of amok-like sauce from a can, no real coconut to be found anywhere.  The entire dish was then baked until the edges were crispy (similar to the edges of a fried egg).  The result was a tasteless, rubbery concoction with overcooked fish and mushy vegetables.  While most of the dishes on the Kep Lodge menu were fine, even if not culinary masterpieces, one should avoid the amok at Kep Lodge at all costs.  Stay for the view, but don’t order the amok.

Road Trip Cambodia: All The Fruits

July 23, 2010 2 comments

Brooklyn Heights has streets named Cranberry, Orange and Pineapple, but maybe we can convince Marty Markowitz to change them to Rambutan, Durian and Mangosteen.

My travel companion (aka Edna Krabappel) had never been to Southeast Asia prior to this trip, and I was determined to introduce her to some of the native fruits.  Ever the sport, Edna agreed to at least try the more uncommon fruits, regardless of what she had heard about them prior to the trip.

We started off with an easy one: rambutan.  Rambutan is the hairy cousin of lychee and longan, and it is eaten in the same way as its less spikey counterparts.  After delicately getting past the leathery outer portion with a knife, all you have to do is pick out the white fleshy inside and eat around the inner seed.  It’s sweet with a slight hint of tart.  Edna really liked rambutan and said it was better than both lychee and longan.  All three can usually be found in your local Chinatown or Asian market.

J. Frankfurter is a fan of durian.  Not so long ago, he bought one to try and then proceeded to make a durian cheesecake, much to the chagrin of his wife.  With respect to this trip, J. Frankfurter adamantly requested that I get Edna to try durian.

For those unfamiliar, durian is a large, thorn-covered fruit known for its distinctive odor and flavor which people either love or hate.  I neither love it nor hate it.  Honestly, I’m not really bothered by the odor and think it smells somewhat sweet.

Many people, however, are so bothered by the odor (which has been described in terms that are not re-printable here) that numerous establishments, including hotels, forbid people from bringing in durian.  Edna had been forewarned by many about the horrors of durian, but she didn’t find the smell offensive either.   Now, on to the taste test.  I previously told Edna that durian tastes like a sweet custard that has an onion-like aftertaste.  If one is a fan of stinky French cheeses, durian is pretty manageable.

After paying $3 for the smallest (1.5 kg) durian we could find (note: durian is very heavy and, therefore, usually very expensive here in the U.S. due to shipping costs — usually around $8-10/lb. — again, you can buy durian in your local Chinatown), we had our fruit stall lady expertly cut through the thick, spikey husk to reveal the cells that hold the yellow flesh.  After finding a park bench far away from the masses, we proceeded to dig into the flesh.  Edna’s reaction?  “I was surprised by how pleasant I found the taste to be.”  While Edna liked durian overall and ate her fair share of that particular durian we bought, she shared my similar view that, while not repulsed by it, durian is not a favorite that should be sought out.

Last but not least is my favorite: mangosteen.  Mangosteen looks like a little purple eggplant with a giant green top.  After cutting through the dark reddish-purple outer rind, a white flesh is revealed.  The taste can only be described as magical — both sweet and slightly tart, as if a Meyer lemon mated with a peach.

Edna quickly declared that this was her favorite after trying it for the first time.  We ended up buying another kilogram (for a mere $2) the next time we saw a fruit vendor, and I’m sure Edna will have a few more before she leaves the region on her extended stay.

Unfortunately, it is very hard to find fresh mangosteen here in the U.S.  The fruit is known to harbor fruit flies that are dangerous to U.S. crops and, thus, imports are severly restricted.  Those mangosteens that do make it into the country are extremely expensive (can you say $25-45/lb?) and not as good.  Irradiated mangosteens from Thailand are usually bruised from shipping.  Some importers have started bringing in mangosteen grown in Puerto Rico.  For most of us here, we have to resort the canned and frozen variety, which just aren’t the same as the fresh ones.

Holiday in Cambodia

June 30, 2010 2 comments

As J. Frankfurter mentioned earlier, we have been somewhat delinquent in posting as of late.  Not to make excuses, but life has been very busy for both of us these past couple of weeks.  I’ve been preoccupied with trying to clear my docket because I will soon leave for a two-week vacation in Cambodia.

With my trusty cameras (yes, plural) and shiny new netbook in tow, I plan to blog parts of my trip — focusing on the culinary portions, naturally.  Keep your fingers crossed for WiFi.

Just to give you a sneak peak, I will now provide a primer on Cambodian food.  Khmer cuisine is similar to the cuisines of Thailand and Vietnam but often characterized, rightly or wrongly, as less favorful and less spicy than that of its neighbors.  Khmer cuisine has also been influenced by India (see: curry), France (see: baguette, coffee and pâté) and China (see: noodles and/or everything in Asia).

Rice is, of course, a staple part of the Khmer diet.  Many Cambodian dishes are flavored with prahok, a pungent fermented fish paste, as well as kroeung, a spice paste that blends ingredients such as lemon grass, kaffir lime zest and leaves, galangal, tumeric, ginger, garlic, shallots and chilis.

National dishes that use prahok and kroeung include samlor kako (a soup heavy on the vegetables), samlor machu (a sour soup flavored with tamarind that is similar to Vietnamese canh chua) and amok (some protein — likely fish, chicken or tofu — steamed in a coconut curry in banana leaves). 

Here in New York, where we can pretty much get whatever we want, whenever we want, there is a striking absence of Cambodian restaurants in comparison to the numerous Thai and Vietnamese options.  Is it because Cambodia lost an entire generation due to the Khmer Rouge, leaving few to pass on the knowledge of Cambodian cuisine to the surviving generations?  Or is it because Americans are not familiar enough with Cambodia in general to accept its food?  Matthew Fishbane has an interesting article over on Salon about the lack of Cambodian food in the U.S.

My travel companion for the trip (hereinafter, “Edna Krabappel”) has never been to Southeast Asia.  In addition to write-ups about Khmer cuisine as prefaced above, future posts will also include her reaction to trying certain fruits native to the area including jackfruit, rambutan, longan, sour sop, mangosteen and the ever infamous durian (J. Frankfurter’s favorite; his wife has a differing opinion).  Let’s just see if Ms. Krabappel is brave enough to try the deep-fried tarantula!