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Friday, 20 November 2009

Cambodia & Vietnam: Cuisine on the Horizon

Written by Scott Haas
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Cambodia

Siem Reap: Twelfth century Buddhist and Hindu temples, huge fruit bats flying like black clouds over city parks, and rice fields stretching for miles in all directions.  My wife and I went to see the temples and enjoy the remarkable hospitality--Cambodians we met were very curious about us and frank in telling us their life stories.  We also returned with a love of their food.

Cambodia & Vietnam: Cuisine on the Horizon, Cambodian cuisine, Prahok, Phum Stoeng Tror Cheak, The Red Piano, weasel coffee, food Vietnam, pho, caramelized pork, young ginger, Siem Reap, Scott HaasAmericans are familiar with the delicious cuisines of Vietnam and Thailand.  As a result of the war, soldiers and Asian refugees brought products and recipes from Thailand and Vietnam to America. Vietnam gave us pho, caramelized pork, and dishes with young ginger.  Thank Thailand, where G.I.’s went for “Rest & Relaxation” for fiery peppers and noodle dishes like Mee Krob, Pad Khee Mao, and Pad Thai.

 

Cambodia, located between Vietnam and Thailand, is best known for Angkor Wat, the world’s largest collection of religious buildings, and Pol Pot, the leader of the Khmer Rouge, who engineered five years of genocide.

Thirty years after the Khmer Rouge were defeated by the Vietnamese army; Cambodians are working hard to create normal lives for their families.  Central to that effort is a cuisine which offers the memories of comfort from a time when Cambodia was at peace.

Cambodia & Vietnam: Cuisine on the Horizon, Cambodian cuisine, Prahok, Phum Stoeng Tror Cheak, The Red Piano, weasel coffee, food Vietnam, pho, caramelized pork, young ginger, Siem Reap, Scott HaasThe singular ingredient, the one that is utterly unique to Cambodia, is Prahok, which has been used for centuries.  Prahok is added to stir-fried dishes, soups, stove-top braises, and noodle dishes.  On its own, it has a gray or dark brown color and a strong, musty taste like pungent cheese.  But as a condiment, used in small amounts, prahok creates a depth of flavor accenting what is on the plate or in the bowl rather than overwhelming it. Due to the many lakes in Cambodia, fish is their chief source of protein.

Cambodia & Vietnam: Cuisine on the Horizon, Cambodian cuisine, Prahok, Phum Stoeng Tror Cheak, The Red Piano, weasel coffee, food Vietnam, pho, caramelized pork, young ginger, Siem Reap, Scott HaasEach day my wife and I went with our guide and a tuk-tuk driver to see temples just after dawn.  Sixty square miles of buildings combined with the early visits meant that we never had to face big crowds.  The guide and driver charged a total of $30 a day.

After each visit, we asked our guide to take us to good, local restaurants.

At a restaurant called Phum Stoeng Tror Cheak, we enjoyed soryor (deep fried spring rolls), tom yam fish soup, mjou kreung moun (chicken soup with galangal, kaffir lime, and tamarind), chrouk char mreas prov (stir fried pork with hot basil and red chili), and treay char chou chee (stir fried local fish with curry, shallot, and kaffir lime leaves).

Food at Cambodian restaurants is plated in ways familiar to Western diners, but is meant to be shared.  Forks and knives are used to eat and dollars are the currency to pay for everything including food, hotels, guides, and museums.

The variation in menus and prices in Siem Reap are minimal: Each place serves essentially the same great food using the same delicious ingredients.  Lunch or dinner at local restaurants is about $15 a couple.  Hotel restaurants cost between $20-$75 per couple depending on wine and cocktails.

So how do you choose?


I decided to follow the trail of Angelina Jolie, who filmed “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider” in Siem Reap.  Hooray for Google!

Angelina stayed at FCC Angkor where a room and breakfast for two was about $130.  Her crew ate at “The Red Piano” in the center of town--on a corner, shaded and protected by big, potted palms, this terrific bar and grill offers delicious Cambodian beef dishes, Western pasta, and even a very good version of a club sandwich for those, like me, who need to mix up the exotic with the familiar.  The draft beer is first-rate, too, and “The Tomb Raider” cocktail--gin, lime juice, club soda--is a good antidote for the stress of travel.

Local restaurants--Khmer Kitchen and Neary Khmer are two of the best--are plentiful.  No tourism?  No Siem Reap.  But now and then it was good to treat ourselves to places more refined.

FCC Angkor has a bar and lounge with views of the Siem Reap river--you really should not miss the “Happy Hour” here with half-price drinks and hot peanuts.

One of the best restaurants in town is at Heritage Suites, a Relais & Chateaux property, where the French cuisine (using meat flown in from New Zealand and Australia) and upscale wine list are served with alacrity in a palatial setting that help you to imagine you are in France.  I’ll admit that being in Cambodia, a so-called Third World country, was jarring--a quiet French meal was a real treat.

So don’t pass up the prahok, but don’t forget to balance the diet.

Vietnam

My wife, a family physician with Boston University Medical School, was asked by the Vietnamese Medical Association to teach medical didactics in Haiphong.  I traveled solo to meet her, through Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) and Hanoi.

A new city is a great pleasure to explore on foot, but that simply was harrowing in Vietnam.  Thousands of motor scooters zoom by and their riders take traffic laws as suggestions rather than commands.  You cross streets religiously, praying not to be hit; hoping the vehicles coming towards you will stop or go around.

Cambodia & Vietnam: Cuisine on the Horizon, Cambodian cuisine, Prahok, Phum Stoeng Tror Cheak, The Red Piano, weasel coffee, food Vietnam, pho, caramelized pork, young ginger, Siem Reap, Scott HaasThe markets were accessible, however, and here it was possible to enjoy extremely delicious bowls of noodles with fried garlic and bits of sautéed beef and scallions.  The flavors everywhere were deep and subtle.

Among the most enjoyable gastronomical experiences in Vietnam is the coffee, which is a legacy from the French years of colonial occupation.  Strong, dark, rich, and subtle, Vietnamese coffee gives a jolt, but nothing that makes your nerves shudder.  It is a wake-up call and one that refines the senses.


Cambodia & Vietnam: Cuisine on the Horizon, Cambodian cuisine, Prahok, Phum Stoeng Tror Cheak, The Red Piano, weasel coffee, food Vietnam, pho, caramelized pork, young ginger, Siem Reap, Scott HaasAt the markets, vendors sell whole beans.  The best of these is so-called “weasel coffee,” which--although it sounds yucky is not yucky at all—it’s made from coffee berries eaten by weasels that cannot digest the fruit.  After the berries are excreted, they are dried, like ordinary beans, and cleaned.  In the U.S., this rare coffee goes for $350 a pound.  In Vietnam, it’s only $40 a pound.

Comforts of Home

Cambodia & Vietnam: Cuisine on the Horizon, Cambodian cuisine, Prahok, Phum Stoeng Tror Cheak, The Red Piano, weasel coffee, food Vietnam, pho, caramelized pork, young ginger, Siem Reap, Scott HaasTo escape the hubbub, in both countries, it is essential to find the best rooms you can afford.  You will need to escape the turmoil on the streets and in local restaurants.

Siem Reap has plenty of great places, from the FCC Angkor Wat to Heritage Suites to Raffles.

In Saigon, the Sheraton downtown, the Caravelle, and the Park Hyatt are good choices.  The two restaurants--Opera and Square One--at Park Hyatt are first-rate.  Square One is simply the best restaurant in the city with beef from Japan and Australia and tanks of exceptional fish and seafood.

Hanoi has the Sheraton that overlooks West Lake.  The interior is straight out of the Midwest--old-fashioned plush armchairs in a branded lobby.  It is a great relief to be in a place so familiar after dodging scooters all day.

And from each room you can look toward West Lake where, in 1967, John McCain nearly drowned after being shot down while bombing Vietnam.  Nowadays, the lake is surrounded by beautiful hotels, condominiums, and upscale restaurants all worth fighting for, I reckon.

©Scott Haas

Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012

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