There are always stories behind stories. When we write an article for publication, there are characters we edit out, anecdotes we omit, details we cut for brevity or clarity. Much is left in the notebook for another day, another place… or never at all and nowhere to be seen. Only a smidgen of all we encounter as writers makes it from notes to narrative.
In between is everything else: the getting here and going there; the packing and unpacking, checking in and checking out, waiting for this and that.
On our most recent trip to Cambodia, Jerry and I followed in the footsteps of the 19th century French explorer Henri Mouhot. He is most famous for his visits to the Angkor temples. (And many have erroneously claimed he “discovered” these monuments. Nonsense. Cambodians always knew these temples and never forgot their ancestors who built them.) Mouhot kept detailed diaries of his journeys through Southeast Asia, and his insights still hold weight today. If you’re interested in Mouhot’s adventures through Asia more than 150 years ago, you can follow along in our story this weekend, in The New York Times. But if you want to know about some of the back matter—the in-between—about the food we encountered along the way, keep reading.
Almost nothing of food made it into that article, yet eating played a central role to the many days we spent criss-crossing the country. Of course, I took notes. I scribbled down my impressions of markets and fish. We sampled high-end dining and scrubby little cafés. So here, I offer a few (edited) tasting notes from our quest to find Mouhot in Cambodia:
We dine at Cuisine Wat Damnak and each order the 6-course tasting menu labeled #1 But first, we begin with cocktails: a basil mojito and a turmeric iced martini with just a hint of dustiness in the flavor, as well as lemon. I like.
The menu is extraordinarily delicious. I love the strong cinnamon flavor combined with peanut in the Mekong langoustine curry (though Jerry is right – it needs salt and I’d say chile).
The fish atop dry Vietnamese soup has all the sweet/tart flavors of an actual soup but little liquid. There are cubes of tiny veggies; melon that melts in the mouth with the sopped-up flavor of that liquid-less “soup.” The fish is charred ever so slightly on the outside – perfect.
The black sticky rice porridge with rich slices of duck tempered with spring onion: it’s an entrée as heavy as can be in Khmer cuisine. This porridge has acquired a consistency akin to thick gravy.
We sit upstairs in the open-air dining room with high ceilings. Downstairs is air-conditioned. We are at first seated in the back corner, beside a closed window. Why? Why do staff ever seat customers in “Siberia” when so many other seats are available? We move to a table near an open window. I later see more open tables in the front room, with much bigger windows and airiness. No one sits there all evening, though the tables are set.
At the very end of the meal is a tray of sour, mouth-puckering fruits served with a cocaine line of salt, chile, kaffir lime (or whatever you decide to call it these days) and a bit of sugar (almost imperceptible). What a fabulous idea, what immense flavors – the salt, the chile, the lime pounded so finely together, with just a tiny sweetness. It surprises the tongue. That lime leaf! Volumes of aroma.
Another day. Bayon chicken….
We tour the Angkor temples, rising early, dodging crowds, climbing towers well into the afternoon heat. We’re famished. Our driver, Visal, stops his tuk-tuk by a tourmada stall by the Bayon where a few Khmers sit on flimsy chairs and a woman directs us to her grill: charcoal burning in biscuit tins propped on stumps. Her fish is finished but she has pork skewers (bacon in cubes, really) and chicken: whole birds, splayed on sticks, $15. Or legs and pieces, $2 each.
She serves us rice on red plastic plates. Then the chicken comes – grilled with crispy skin but not charred, greasy but not too much, dark meat and light meat. This was no fat, fleshy chicken. This chicken ran around. This chicken’s legs taste of muscle. You can tell. There is something in the consistency – a tautness, a stretchiness. It’s not just a mound of flesh. I think of the interviews I did years ago with villagers in Laos who told me: you want a chicken with legs that moved. A sedentary chicken is no good to eat, they said. She serves it with little dishes of tangy sauce – thinly sliced red onion/shallot in lime, fish sauce, sugar, big oblong cloves of garlic and chile. Yum.
One morning, breakfast at the Shinta Mani….
The guava juice is such a luscious green, the color of a rice paddy in full growth. We linger over breakfast. There is a wide buffet of European pastries, congee, ham, cheese, salad, fruit, yogurt, cereal. Strong coffee. A menu of Asian noodles – pad thai, fried Chinese-style, kouey teau, nam banh chok. The description of the latter is so Eglish-ized I barely recognize it: Cambodian soft rice noodle in fish broth with mixed vegetable. But I’m delighted to see it’s the real thing; just needs a pinch of chile and dash of fish sauce.
Searching one night for a seafood dinner….
We find a pink corner spot called Hong Hout. It has the menu I want and remember from years past: hole-in-the-wall Khmer restaurants with pages upon pages of everything from the land and sea. Hong Hout has it – a page each for shrimp and fish dishes, half a page of squid options. Dozens of soups, noodles and stir fries. This goes way beyond the typical 10-item tourist menu with standard fried rice and noodles; basic pork, chicken and beef; maybe a shrimp, maybe a fish. Those menus do not offer an array of sour soups and traditional curries, and seafood and fish with “ripe” and “unripe” pepper as we find here at Hong Hout.
We order fish steamed with “lemon taste” and shrimp curry. The fish is large, a sea fish, with a cartoon-drawing rack of bones. The lemon is preserved – a tangy taste with a bit of soy. The shrimp are small, mixed with green Khmer kreung and lots of lemongrass in the flavor. Green pepper and onion, all on a plate. Rice. Hot jasmine tea. $6 total plus two free mangoes as sweet as the day is hot.
Just don’t visit the bathroom.
Dinner at Friends….
We order many things, but this dish — this dish — sticks: Curried Indian chilled & pureed zucchini soup with goat cheese = what to do next with summer squash! I’m inspired. It’s creamy. It’s curried. It’s yellow.
Dinner at Khmer Delight….
The standout: thin slices of eggplant in rice flour batter around minced pork with black beans, lots of thin sliced ginger strips, soup Knorr (could use fish sauce instead, I think), curry, green onion.
Flavors that work….
From around the country, a selection of intense pairings that should not be forgotten in the kitchen:
-grilled pork wrapped around onion
-kaffir lime/chile/salt/sugar pounded together
-rice wine infused with orange and green tea
Mouhot didn’t write a ton about what he ate. I hope, before he met his unfortunate end in Laos at the age of 35, he sampled and savored these flavors we have been so fortunate to eat.