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

Friday, May 25, 2012

Pepper Crab

Pepper Crab with Steamed Rice

Black, Brown and White Kampot Pepper for sale in Kep, Cambodia

The bottles in the centre contain green Kampot pepper in salt water.  
A recent post by David Lebovitz reminded me that I need to write about possibly the most delicious crab dish I have had in my life. The Pepper Crab on the coast of Cambodia. 

I was in Cambodia for about three months in the summer of 2011, and visited Kep, on the coast of Cambodia, three of four times during that time. I discovered pepper crab only on my second visit. 

There are a series of little shops along the coast for perhaps half a mile, where you find little restaurants tucked away selling all kinds of sea food deliciousness. While I will talk about another delicious seafood find on another day in another post, the pepper crab is one of these. 

The views from these restaurants are spectacular. They are built literally jutting out into the sea itself, like piers, and as you eat, the sea is swishing beneath you under the floor boards. 

When we ordered crab, we saw the owner cum chef cum maid of all work, go out into the sea, and literally pick out our crab from rattan baskets that were floating in the sea. The freshness of our crab was beyond compare. To say we were excited is to understate things by a mile. 

By the time the crab reached our table, it had been sauteed with garlic, salt, pepper, and a first for me, young pepper corns, still attached to the stem. I had never been confronted with these before on a plate. I ventured to tentatively taste these, and whoa, explosion of taste. They were peppery but so mild, and they imparted such a delicious flavour to the crab. Really, that crab deserves a michelin star, all on its own-some. 

Before we left, I bought a bottle of "preserved" green pepper from the vendors that dot the street. And they actually stayed fresh and green for quite a while, though they were only preserved in plain old salt water. The ones kept out of salt water turned black pretty quickly. 

They were also selling a garlic-soy sauce-chilli reduction which they use for grilling fish (which will be my next post), which I should have bought, in retrospect. Anyhow, I found a few culinary geniuses under those thatched roofs, and though we kept going back to the same restaurant in our subsequent visits, I think all of these Cambodian chefs are equally adept a producing this type of truly delicious, juicy pepper crab. 

The shops in Kep, where you find delicious fresh, Pepper Crab

Prawns and garlic, I think preserved in salt water. I was not brave enough to try these
I used the pepper in scrambled eggs (a la Sri Lankan style, which I make with diced tomatoes, onions, curry leaves and now, cambodian green pepper from Kampot) and it was delicious! Really, who would have thought. They impart a truly unique flavour that the dried black pepper does not. In fact, there are four types of pepper; the young green pepper, fresh off the wine, the brown pepper, which is medium dried, the black pepper, which is fully dried, and the white pepper which is black pepper (or brown, I'm not sure which) with the skin scrubbed off. You can see it all in the pictures.

It was inevitable that as we ate crab, we talked about pepper. My companions were from France, Spain, Italy and USA respectively, and it appears that since the French colonised Cambodia, way back when, the pepper from Kampot made it to French tables. It has apparently also received geographical indication status in 2009. Just like fine wines, for example Champagne, Kampot pepper is supposed to be unmatchable in quality and taste, which is imparted by the geography of Kampot. I have to say, I agree. And even though three decades or so of civil war had almost destroyed these plantations, it looks like the pepper is making a comeback. Its even being marketed now for its unique characteristics. All I can say is, I'm 100% behind the initiative. After years of suffering, Cambodians deserve a break. 
The beautiful coast off Rabbit island, in Kep, Cambodia

More about Cambodian food adventures on another day. Now that I am back in Sri Lanka, where we have our own pepper (in fact my husband's garden has not only pepper vines but also cinnamon trees, where the leaves are so fragrant, I'm wondering why no one ever uses it in cooking), I have high hopes of using tender green pepper in my cooking in the near future. 

And people, if you ever see Kampot pepper in a store, buy it. Its the best pepper in the world, and it helps Cambodia. You can't lose. 

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Sri Lankan Ribbon Cake

Those of you who hail from Colombo, you know what I'm talking about. The ribbon cake that you had for every birthday cake since infancy. The ribbon cake your mum makes. The ribbon cake that Fab (sorry I can't find a link for their website) is famous for (at least in my books). And you can't get it anywhere else. 

So when I wanted to make a cake for a very special little girl (my cousin's two year old daughter), I looked no further. And the recipe wasn't too hard to come by (I used the recipe on Malini's Kitchen, which you can find here, they have called it a butter cake, but in my books, its the same recipe. I used more butter and less icing sugar for the frosting, other than that, I followed the recipe and it came out perfect)

Its basically a cake made using the creaming method, so the cake is rather dense, but not too wet, like dessert cakes. Its really easy to make, and its called ribbon cake because you use three different layers (usually blue, red and green, but really, any colours you fancy), and layer the cake with butter cream icing. I hate sugary sweet icing, so I reduced the sugar and increased the butter. This made decorating a bit of a pain because I had to keep chilling the icing, given the heat wave we are suffering with these days. And the fact that my tiny kitchen was really really hot because I had just baked the cake. 

You know how it is, you are all organised and decide to make the cake the previous day and decorate it on the day. So you start making the cake on friday (night, at 11 PM when all the shops are closed) and realize you don't have an essential ingredient(s) like flour, and eggs. Oh, and butter. And you then wake your husband up at 7.30 am the next day and have him scour the open shops for these ingredients. And the sleepy shop keepers in Colombo open up at 10. And you have a couple of hours to bake, hyperventilate, decorate, hyperventilate, shower, spruce up and get yourself to the destination. Yeah. Life is so complicated when you are organised. 

I seriously cut things rather close that day, I started baking at 12 and had to leave by three; I had three separate layers to bake, and the cake refused to cool. I even stuck it in the freezer at one point in desperation. Luckily one of my besties was home that day (we did brunch as well, to add to the complications), and she willingly helped me. She even offered to tie me to a chair with an extension cord if I didn't stop poking the cake every five seconds to see if it was cool enough. What with melting icing and a hot cake, it was rather a stressful day. 

But the result was worth it. The little girl I noted above was thrilled, and insisted it was her birthday and even blew out candles after we obliged. I tried to recreate the 'rose cake' of i am baker fame, but since I didn't have the 1M tip, the result was rather, well, not rosy. Not very much. But I like it. And the two year old liked it. So it must have some artistic finesse. And I think the adults invited to tea also enjoyed the flavor if not so much the looks. Really, the Sri Lankan Ribbon cake cannot be beat when it comes to afternoon tea. Try it and you'll realise what we are talking about. Absolutely five stars. I even found a blog named ribbon cake, written by a Sri Lankan. I know Sri Lankans who live abroad, who refuse to have any other type of cake for their birthdays. They find a Sri Lankan, somewhere in the vicinity, who can bake and decorate a ribbon cake, a la Sri Lankan style, for them. 

Word of caution, this type of decoration takes a lot of icing. Make extra. You can see the gaps in the picture below. Luckily, when you are 2, you hardly notice these things. The candles take up all your attention. 

Friday, May 18, 2012

Strawberries and Cream

Is there anything in the world better than fresh strawberries and cream? On our honeymoon last October, my husband and I headed for the local strawberry spot, Humbugs, close to Hakgala gardens, to indulge. And indulge we did. Though they offer all kinds of strawberry (and other) goodies, we stuck to the basics- strawberries with a generous dollop of cream, sprinkled with sugar on top. We decided to eat it out in their garden, overlooking the hills, despite the tendrils of mist that was fast enveloping the landscape. It was truly a magnificent tea time treat, with a magnificent view and climate. . 

We even made two friends, a dog and a cat. The dog kept a safe distance while wagging a friendly tail, while the cat became more familiar, rubbing her chin on our feet quite comfortably. We thought we were naturally cat-people, until we discovered her true intentions; the cream. See the hilarious pictures below, for a pictorial account of a cat on a mission.

If you look closely you can spot the tips of two grey ears, popping up surreptitiously in the middle of the picture.

 Here we are. She has now ventured to take a closer peek at her quarry, the cream. Having made friends with us, she has clearly thought its time to make a move.

And volla, thats one pissed off cat. She is like "what the ...?, where did the dishes go???" Despite her clearly thieving intentions, we felt sorry for her, and afterwards, we divided a bit of cream between the cat and the dog. Despite nature dictating otherwise, this cat was clearly a bit of a dictator, and we had to make sure she didn't attack the dog.

Oh for the love of strawberries and cream :). The strawberries were fresh, from their fields, and the cream, was well, fresh and creamy. Such simple ingredients, such a decadent dessert, these things never cease to amaze me.

Monday, May 14, 2012

The Best Sandwich in Town

                                                                                                  I have had many sandwiches in my time. Some have been good, some have been average, and some have been very bad. But the one sandwich, which has consistently been upto mark, hands down, is the submarine offered by Dinemore. Seriously. This sandwich is the sandwich of all sandwiches, and I'll tell you why. 

Imagine a lovely, thick curried prawn. slightly overcooked, to be sure, but in this particular case, I never quibble about that. Absolutely hits the big Sri Lankan curry spot bang on. Then doused with a creamy maiyonnaisse-y sauce. I say this with responsibility. Its creamy, with less of the tartness of mayonnaise. Its cheesy. Its melt-in-your mouth goodness. I suspect its made in the house (and I bet its a secret recipe). Its stuffed with rings of sweated onions. Then the slices of cheese. All encased between two, slightly sweet, ever so slightly crusty, baguette shaped (but definitely not a baguette) bun. With toasted sesame seeds on top. And crunchy french fries on the side. I loved it when I was fifteen, and I love it now - lets just say more than a decade - later. 

The picture doesn't do it justice. This is my go-to comfort food in Colombo. I missed it in New York. I missed it in Phnom Penh. This is one of the reasons why I decided I need to live in Colombo. The Dinemore Shrimp Submarine, take a bow. I have since then tried many other submarines in Colombo, and there is nothing -yet- to beat this sub. I just hope that it will stay the same, and not get smaller, or cheesier, or shrimp-ier, with time. 

I first visited Dinemore when its only location was in Kollupitiya, with the beautiful yellow walls, and limited seating. It has since expanded to other locations as well, but the Kollupitiya location holds nostalgic memories of when I first met that shrimp sub. The stuff that memories are made of *sniff*.

Dinemore offers other food too, but I can't comment on them. I have never moved beyond the shrimp submarine. Possibly I have gone as far as the chicken submarine, which I have if they are out of shrimp. If.

NB. Dinemore did not pay me with a truckload of shrimp submarines for writing this (I wish). As is my policy, if I like it, I write about it. If I don't, I won't. 'Til next time, happy eating! 

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Egg Drop Soup

So I am usually not a fan of buffets. Too much food, kept close together, just assaults the senses. And I (and most people I know) hardly ever taste anything properly since I am too tempted to pair my food properly. Its just a matter of 'oooh, this looks good, and this, and this, and this...' and before you know it, you have a market worth of food on a plate.

So when I went to a wedding last saturday at Blue Waters Hotel, Wadduwa, I headed straight to the soup section first. We Sri Lankans like our soup occasionally, but at a buffet, not everyone is interested. The stampede is usually for the rice. So I had the soup station, with the soft dinner rolls and cubes of butter, all to myself. And they had my favorite soup, egg drop. And then I shocked all my friends and relations and had only a bowl of soup and several dinner rolls for dinner. Sensational. One of the best dinners I've had recently. My mother even had a 'talk' with me for not eating properly (for more information on how Sri Lankan mothers like to 'talk' to their offspring, check out JehanR's viral youtube video here. I can totally relate).

Why this egg drop soup turned out to so good, was because of the Chef's superb timing. The corn was tender, but the egg, oh the egg! It wasn't the bits of rubber that you usually find at buffets. This was proper, tender, just cooked egg. With the flecks of red chillie flakes that we Sri Lankans always appreciate in anything we eat, seasoned perfectly. Cheers to the chef. (And in case you are wondering, no, I have no commercial interest whatsoever in Blue Waters Hotel. It was just a delicious egg drop soup, that I would go back for). Looking at the picture now, I wish I could go back right about now.