Friday, June 8, 2012

Week Twenty-Two: A Journey to Cambodia

Before this week, I knew nothing about Cambodia, except that it is a country in Southeast Asia near Thailand.  As I anticipated a week of discovering its cuisines, I expected to find a hybrid influenced by nearby Thailand, Vietnam, China, and India.  While I was not altogether incorrect about its influences, I was completely off-base in my assumption that it is merely an amalgamation of other nations’ cuisines.  Cambodian cuisine, also known as Khmer cuisine, is actually one of the oldest cuisines in the world with a tradition dating back to Angkor Thom’s reign as the largest city in the world during the 12th century.   The Bayon Temple, which was built during that time period, includes bas-reliefs depicting everyday “food life” of Khmers hunting, fishing, and even preparing kebabs over a fire.  (Rambling Spoon has a posting with severalphotos of these reliefs.)  While food as cuisine played a major role in the development of Khmer culture, food as industry served as an even greater influence.  While other civilizations were successfully harvesting rice one time each year, the Khmers grew their wealth by designing and building a state of the art water reservoir and canal system that afforded them three rice harvests per year.  Unfortunately for the Khmers, the 14th century was not such a success story as they experienced a significant loss of territory to the Siamese and Vietnamese.  In the mid-19th century, France’s interest in Vietnam and Cambodia piqued as a result of its rivalry with Britain and resulted in more struggles for the Khmer people.  Infringing neighbors, influences of the French colonial empire in Southeast Asia, and inspiration from Portuguese and Spanish travelers in the 16th century have contributed to what is today called Khmer cuisine. 

As I planned this week’s Cambodian dishes, I had to control my urge to have a full-fledged all Cambodian BBQ week.  Steven Raichlen’ s Planet Barbecue! includes several recipes for Cambodian dishes, and his description of its history within the country, as well as its presence today in almost the same manner as the 12th century, inspired me to focus on Cambodia’s grilled dishes.  In addition, the week would not be complete without at least one example of a dish that includes fish and rice, as these ingredients play major roles in the everyday cuisine of Cambodia.  So, I selected a popular rice noodle curry dish to explore those flavor profiles. 

Friday Night Steak Dinner

In the United States, the idea of a steak dinner summons the image of a thick, juicy ribeye, mashed potatoes, and creamed spinach.  In Cambodia, that single steak would feed a table of four to six people as its thin slices are served alongside an array of vegetables with lettuce leaves for wrapping and a dipping sauce to enhance the flavor of those delectable bundles.  I followed Raichlen’s recipe from Planet Barbecue! for creating this feast.  First, I marinated thin slices of sirloin steak in a sauce of garlic, ginger, scallions, Serrano chiles, fresh lemon juice, fish sauce, vegetable oil, finely chopped dry-roasted peanuts, fresh tumeric, and black pepper.  I marinated the steak for about two hours, and when we were ready for dinner, I grilled it just a few minutes per side and served it alongside a platter of vegetables, which included lettuce leaves, watercress, napa cabbage, basil, green beans, carrots, cucumber, and tomatoes.  I loved the presentation of the dipping sauce.  In the same way that the Vietnamese offer bean sprouts, chiles, fresh lime, mint, and basil with an order of Pho so that one may flavor the broth to his/her liking, this dipping sauce is served with sugar, lemongrass, scallions, chopped dry-roasted peanuts, chiles, and limes so that each individual guest may personalize the sauce.  The sauce is traditionally made of pra hok (a fermented fish paste) mixed with water until a thin sauce forms, but when I stopped by the Asian market in my neighborhood, they didn’t have pra hok or even shrimp paste that I could substitute, so I used fish sauce as an alternative.  The combined flavors and textures of the warm, spicy meat and cool, crisp vegetables with the pungent dipping sauce created a deliciously balanced bite.

Sunday Night BBQ

In Planet Barbecue!, Raichlen paints a picture of parking lots around Ankgor Wat full of vendors selling street-food specialties, such as skewers filled with grilled chicken and rows of grilled corn.  On Sunday night, we turned our backyard into a little slice of Cambodian BBQ heaven and grilled up those very dishes.  By far, this was our best “Y’all Taste This” grilling night. 

For the chicken, we cut out the backbone so that it could lay flat on the grill.  Then, we marinated it in garlic, sugar, salt, soy sauce, and fish sauce for about five hours.  Thirty minutes before we were ready to begin grilling, the hubs started the charcoal grill while I made the annatto glaze for the chicken.  The recipe calls for whole annatto seeds to be simmered in vegetable oil and offers an alternative use of ground paprika.  I used ground annatto seed, because I had it in the pantry.  We grilled the chicken directly over the coals for about thirty minutes turning it every ten minutes.  We began glazing it at the twenty minute mark, which is also when I employed the use of our digital thermometer to ensure that we cooked it to just the right temperature (160-165 deg F).  Unlike those who fear that they will not cook a chicken enough, I’m more fearful that I will overcook it and end up with dry, tough chicken.  We let the chicken rest for about five minutes...really just long enough to take a picture of it.  We served it with a simple dipping sauce of freshly squeezed lime juice, sugar, salt, and black pepper.  Perfection!  By far, this is the best chicken we have ever grilled.  The meat was so tender and moist.  The brightness of the dipping sauce complemented and brought out the smoky flavors developed from the charcoal grill and the annatto glaze.  And just when I thought our dinner couldn’t get any better, the hubs asked if I had tried the corn yet....

Imagine an ear of exquisitely charred sweet corn with a hint of salted caramel glaze.  That’s the best way I can describe our Cambodian-style grilled corn.  The glaze is simple, and I will be making it again and again.  In a saucepan, I heated 6 tbsp unsweetened coconut milk, 1 tbsp turbino sugar, 1 bay leaf, and a pinch of salt just until the sugar melted.  Then, we basted the corn and grilled it over direct high heat for about 2 minutes per side, basting it each time we turned it, too.  For anyone who loves a salty-sweet treat, this is the perfect summertime grilled vegetable!

Monday Night Fish Curry

I procrastinated about making the fish curry all weekend long.  Normally, I am really excited for any curry dish, but for some reason, I just could not get in a curry mood.  By Monday, I knew it was time to either put the catfish in the freezer or make the curry.  I’m so glad I decided to make this dish, because it turns out that Num Banh Chok (commonly referred to as Khmer noodles) has a delightful subtlety that is addicting.  This popular Cambodian dish is sold by street vendors, in restaurants, and even in local markets.  After reading several different recipes online, I found one posted on Rambling Spoon excerpted from From Spiders to Water Lilies, which seemed to be the most authentic as it included exotic ingredients, such as water lily root and banana flowers.  Like Rambling Spoon, I also had to make some substitutions, but all in all, I managed to stay true to the essence of the flavors.  To begin, I made a lemongrass paste of fresh lemongrass, galangal, tumeric, lime juice, lime zest, garlic, and ginger.  (This was particularly exciting for me, because I love an excuse to buy an ingredient that I’ve never used.  In this case, there were two:  fresh tumeric and galangal.)  I poached the catfish in salted water and let it cool for a few minutes.  Then, I worked it and into the lemongrass paste along with ground dry-roasted peanuts to function as the base of the curry.  To make the final curry, I mixed the leftover broth from poaching the fish, coconut milk, coconut cream, and shrimp paste (I didn’t have prahok) in a saucepan and brought the mixture to a boil.  I added the lemongrass/fish paste, fish sauce, salt, and brown sugar to the mixture and simmered it for about ten minutes while I cooked rice noodles.  To serve the final dish, I filled the bottom of a large bowl with julienned cucumbers, shredded cabbage, bean sprouts, and rice noodles.  I poured the fish curry sauce over the vegetables and noodles, and I added a garnish of sliced Serrano peppers.

The nicest part of this dish was its contrasting elements:  crunchy vegetables and soft noodles, sweet coconut milk and salty fish paste/sauce, cool vegetables and hot curry broth.  Another interesting aspect to this dish was the way that the curry separates when poured over the noodles and vegetables leaving a layer of the fish and lemongrass mixture on top of the noodles with the thin flavorful broth below to slurp up with the noodles.

This week of Cambodian dinners afforded me a better understanding of the cuisine’s subtle profiles and its use of fresh ingredients to create balanced flavors.  If nothing else, I can say with certainty that the grilled chicken and corn will definitely play reprisal roles in my backyard this summer.

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