Sunday, June 3, 2012

To Market, To Market, to buy a fat pig

Halved Dragon Red Dragon Fruit on display, Central Market, Phnom Penh

Permanent Photo Exhibition at Central Market, Phnom Penh, Cambodia
I love markets. I love the smells, the sounds, the freshness of ingredients. But living in a tropical country, you also find extremely unpleasant smells, unpleasant sounds and, lets just say, naturally recycling ingredients, usually underfoot, in the fresh markets. So fresh markets are not for the faint of heart. Proceed with well covered feet (not your favorite sandals or stilletos), and take a deep breath of fresh air before you enter. Prepare for an assault of your senses, both sight and smell, with all kinds of arsenel. But once you get over these initial defenses, the market offers an absolute mad scientists' laboratory for the amateur cook. And Cambodia's markets were some of the craziest places I have been to, and I visited so many, so many times.
Fruits on display at Central Market, Phnom Penh. From bottom left to right is dragon fruit, salakka (or snake skin fruit) and delicious mangostines. Above the mangostines are delicious juicy Rambutang (similar to Lychee in taste)

The fruits were amazing. For example, the dragon fruit, the rambuttan and the mangostine. The dragon fruit is delicious, its soft, its full of edible seeds, and I can finish one in a sitting. You just peel off the skin with a knife, and the inside is surprisingly soft given its scary exterior. You can then cube it and just eat it up.

I had never eaten Salakka (or snake skin fruit) before, and I'm not sure I like it, but it was amazing just discovering it for the first time. Although I have lived all my life in South Asia, somehow, Salakka never made it to Sri Lanka. The taste can't be explained, just like Durian (again, another fruit I'm not sure about. People say you either love it or hate it, I'm still trying to decide). You have to eat it yourself to decide what it tastes like. If you ask me, I'd say it tastes like Salakka, which is not very useful. 

Another highlight of the Cambodian fruit scene are the mangos in Cambodia, especially during the season around May and June. They are amazing, almost as good as the Sri Lankan Kartha Kolomban (which comes from the northern regions and drier areas of Sri Lanka).

At the top are vietnamese spring rolls, and bottom, fried spring rolls, at Central Market, Phnom Penh
The open fresh markets also had a section invariably displaying food for sale with many Cambodians sitting and enjoying a bowl of noodles or spring rolls or other Cambodian delicacies at these stalls. Unlike Vietnam and Thailand I feel that Cambodian food is less complex, but just as unique in its own way. While it is very much influenced by Vietnamese food (or the other way around, as I suspect many Khmer would argue), Cambodian food is healthy, rich in vitamins and so fresh. When I was working in Cambodia I often started my day with a big Cambodian breakfast, either steamed rice with various accompaniments or soup with noodles, and these delicious little pork meatballs that I still lust for. I would go back right now to Cambodia just for those little meat balls. 
Fresh vegetables and fruits on display at a market in Siem Reap

I think perhaps the war killed the development of cuisine in Cambodia. Perhaps I should talk more about Cambodia's war ravaged emotions, but somehow, there are many other forums for that, and I spent three months thinking, breathing and writing about it. This forum is about their food, and I will keep it that way. 

Baked goods and eggs on display in Siem Reap
I have talked about Cambodia's french influence, and especially their french baguettes, before. Here you see a basket of not-so-fresh baguettes for sale in an open market in Cambodia. I am happy to say that I preferred to buy my baguettes in bakeries which were probably slightly more hygenic, and definitely more fresh. You can also see a cake like thing in a plastic bag sitting on the eggs in the picture above. That is a type of tea cake that Cambodians bake and sell along the roadside in tea shops and fresh markets. They are quite nice. Not five star, but nice. 

Market in Siem Reap
And this is what a typical market looks like. The Central Market in Phnom Penh is more of a sterile, television show version of fresh markets in Cambodia. The Russian Market in Phnom Penh and this market in Siem Reap, are the more authentic version. This reminds me of the Wellawatte Market in Colombo, the Nuwara Eliya fresh market etc. Hot, steamy, smelly, and full of fresh ingredients. Hey, I said its not for the faint of heart.

Spices on display in Siem  Reap

Spice mix for the famous Cambodian dish Fish Amok, displayed for sale, with other spice and goodies. The Peanut candy on the top right is one notably delicious snack.
And talking about markets, I can't not talk about their sweets. Cambodia has all kinds of delicious sweets, with all kinds of influences, Chinese, Vietnamese, Thai, and probably even American. The peanut candy pictured above, comes from somewhere in Asia, and we find it even in Sri Lanka- and it is DELICIOUS. Its basically peanuts in a sugar-honey syrup which is heated and then hardened into a candy. Yum. And the fish Amok? I shall talk about it another day. 

I will leave you with this thought- fresh markets in Asia are a far cry from the farmers markets in Union Square, New York City, and possibly any other farmers market. If you want to see a glimpse of Asia in any Western state, get yourself to the nearest china town and hope to find one there. Before the city health inspectors find it. Until next time, happy shopping!

Friday, June 1, 2012

The World's Best Grilled Fish

If you ever happen to want to taste the best grilled fish in the world, there is one place in the world which produces exactly that- Cambodia. Seriously, once you eat this, you will not want to eat fish made any other way (which may or may not be a good thing). Again, I found this in Kep, Cambodia, and as promised in my previous post, I will post the recipe today. I have not made this myself (yet), but I did manage to get the recipe from the ladies who grilled the fish for me, since they seemed to share my enthusiasm for the Cambodian grilled fish. It just keeps you coming back for more. Someone should franchise it- CGF, Cambodian Grilled Fish, available at every street corner... (this is why I am not a successful entrepreneur with my own chain of restaurants).
Grilled 'Bird Fish" at Kep, Cambodia with Angkor beer

The fish is delicious for two reasons. The outside is crusty, sweet, chillie, salty, a heavenly fusion of taste for the tongue. The inside is moist, white flesh, not overcooked, but perfectly done. It had thin small bones though, so be careful when swallowing. I had a bone get stuck in my throat (in such a situation, just make a ball of the accompanying plain steamed rice, and swallow. It generally takes the bone along with it. If that doesn't work, go see a doctor. Though if you are in Kep, Cambodia, you might want to try more rice, and then perhaps drinking a huge gulp of water etc. before you decide to visit the local doctor. Just say'n).

It is best accompanied by a can of ice cold Angkor beer (as pictured), steamed rice and perhaps pepper crab, eaten in a restaurant which offers a thatched roof above, and a swishing ocean beneath the floor boards. This can be found in Kep, Cambodia. If Kep is too far away, I suppose you can substitute with your local beer and your kitchen table, but I'm telling you, atmosphere is everything. 

The preparation is simple. Too simple, in my opinion, for fish tasting that good. In fact I'm sure they have some secret that is as yet, hidden from me. But conspiracy theories aside, if you follow the steps in the right order, you should be presented with a fish as depicted in the picture.
  1. Descale a "bird fish". When I asked the grilling ladies what fish they used, they translated the khmer words, and said "bird fish". Any help identifying the genus and species of this fish from any of the pictures, would be greatly appreciated. 
  2. Split a bamboo stick, and insert fish, fins upwards (so that the stick reaches almost up to the head), into the stick. It should be firmly held by the stick on both sides so that it will be firm while grilling. 
  3. Liberally brush both sides of fish with a mixture of soy sauce, oyster sauce, a little bit of sugar to taste, chopped garlic, red chillie flakes, salt (to taste, be careful with salt since soy sauce is generally salted as well).
  4. Place over grill, and turn, brushing it again with the mixture ever so often, until done.

Ladies at work grilling squid, and one of them enjoying a cool splash of fresh sugar cane juice at Central Market, Phnom Penh, Cambodia

I have seen this grilled bird fish both in Kep and Phnom Penh. They usually have squid prepared the same way, but I didn't taste that since I couldn't move on from the fish. Unfortunately I have not seen it in Siem Reap, possible because of a lack of access to ocean fish? I don't know. But Siem Reap has other wonders to keep you occupied, both culinary and otherwise, so the lack of bird fish should not trouble you.

Oh, and if ever you do go to Central Market, in Phnom Penh, just after the grilling ladies, in a corner of the food area, you will find a lady with a sugar cane juice extracting machine. HAVE IT. It is the best thing in the world to sip while you wander through that heady world of consumer goods. I know people who go to Central Market just for the sugar cane juice with ice. It is DELICIOUS. I wonder why we don't have it in Sri Lanka. We certainly grow our own sugar cane. Hmmm, now thats an idea. 
Grilled fish and squid on a stick, displayed in Kep, Cambodia