24. Cambodia and Laos

I’ve long held a desire to visit this part of the world, partly because it’s not far from Australia, partly because of its natural and historic beauty, but mostly because I love the food. The use of liberal quantities of herbs in everything makes the cuisine incredibly fragrant and tasty, no matter what the basis. One of the major staples of Laotian cuisine is sticky rice, in fact, Lao inhabitants often refer to themselves as “the descendants of sticky rice”. Lao cuisine has had a massive influence on the typical Thai food that we know and love, as there are more ethnic Lao in Thailand than in Laos. Cambodian meals are highly influenced by rice and freshwater fish, and often consist of a variety of dishes served together and intended to be eaten communally. Cambodian food is also often very watery, adorned with reeds and vegetables, supposedly to mirror the surrounding landscapes of wet rice-paddies. Both countries draw influences from neighbouring Thailand, as well as China, India, Portugal, Spain and France.

Plea sach ko

Plea sach ko.JPG

Plea sach ko is sometimes described as a “beef ceviche”, where raw or very rare strips of beef are cured with lime in a salad. If you know me at all, you know I’m nuts for ceviche, so I was excited to give this a try. I included red onion, cabbage, bean sprouts, green beans, carrot, roasted peanuts, coriander and mint leaves in my salad, and seared the outside of the beef very lightly before cutting it up and smothering it in lime. I made the dressing with fish sauce, lemongrass, galangal, chilli, garlic, and more lime. This dish is very popular at Cambodian weddings and other celebrations, perhaps because beef is a relatively expensive commodity. I think it’s the perfect food for big parties personally – fresh and light, giving your guests energy to dance the night away. The mint leaves might even counteract the garlic and onion and freshen everybody’s breath? On second thoughts, perhaps not with the quantities of garlic that I use…

Laotian chicken larb and green papaya salad

Larb and green papaya salad.JPG

Larb is a classic Laotian dish, consisting of spiced mince meat, herbs and sometimes vegetables. Many types of meat can be used, including chicken, beef, fish, pork or duck. The mince is typically flavoured with fish sauce, lime juice, roasted ground rice, herbs (especially mint), chilli and padaek, which is a fermented fish paste. Green papaya salad purportedly originated in Laos, where it was called “tam som” which means pounding sour ingredients. The original salads were more flexible in their ingredients, using numerous fruits and vegetables like unripe mangoes or cucumbers. However, the papaya variety has become the most exported and famous, and is now eaten in many surrounding countries such as Thailand and Vietnam. The green papaya is typically peeled and then a large knife is used to quickly hack into the fruit lengthways. These pieces are then peeled away and the process is repeated, created long thin strands of papaya. I suppose you could achieve a similar effect with a cheese grater, but this way is much more fun, I guarantee it. The papaya is mixed with lime juice, chilli, fish sauce, padaek, green beans, cherry tomatoes and sugar, and everything is pounded together forcefully in a mortar and pestle. It’s truly a dish that’s more than the sum of its parts – the perfect balance between salty, sweet, bitter, sour and umami is glorious.

Bai sach chrouk

Bai sach chrouk.JPG

Bai sach chrouk is a Cambodian breakfast dish sold by roadside vendors early in the morning to sustain the people commuting to work. I’m a big fan of substantial breakfast foods, and strongly believe that, if there were vendors selling fresh aromatic food on my way to work, I would have a much easier time getting out of bed in the morning… The dish consists of thinly sliced pork fillet marinated in a mix of garlic, soy sauce, sugar, lime, fish sauce and coconut milk, then slow-grilled. I also reduced the remaining marinade and made a sauce, which was exceptionally delicious. The grilled pork is served over white rice and also commonly with pickled vegetables. I made the pickled vegetables by slicing thin strips of carrot, cucumber and daikon, then sealing them in a jar full of rice vinegar, sugar, chilli, ginger and hot water. The sour and sweet flavour of the crunchy vegetables was an ideal accompaniment to the rest of the dish. Apparently all of the vendors who sell this dish offer to serve it with a massive hit of chilli and also sell extremely strong iced coffee from the same stall. If that didn’t wake you up in the morning nothing would!

Amok trey and sticky rice

Amok trey and sticky rice.JPG

Amok trey is a typical Cambodian fish curry, traditionally made with catfish, although more recently made with any firm white fish available. An aromatic paste is made with kaffir lime leaves, lemongrass, galangal and garlic. This paste is then combined with coconut milk, fish sauce, chilli and shrimp paste and simmered for a while. The fish is then added and portions of the mixture are wrapped in banana leaves and steamed. I also served mine with some sticky rice steamed in banana leaves. Amok trey is commonly served at the Water Festival, which is typically held in November and celebrates the reversal of the flow of the Tonle Sap River and the end of the rainy season. Boat races and concerts are conducted as part of the three day festival, and many people stop work to celebrate together. I could vividly imagine the smells of amok trey infusing the frivolities of the festival as I cooked it!