Day 49: Battambang food

I had a proud moment today.
One of the most famous Thai chefs is this Australian guy, David Thompson*. He wrote this incredibly beautiful and encyclopaedic cook book on Thai Street Food. Dad and Shirl* have a copy at their place. I used to dreamily waft through it, imaging eating all the ingredients in one glutinous journey.

I found a copy in a Battambangian restaurant today and I excitedly ploughed through it. I wanted to find out how many of the things I had tried. At the beginning I would flip every new page and rabbit my head over to Alice.

“I’ve tried this!”

She’d nod and I would do exactly the same thing on the next page until I realised I was, despite my oogly* excitement, becoming frustratingly repetitive – I had tried pretty much everything.

Travel success! A pokey somewhere in the universe grinds out from a radical spin. BING BING BING. Three big gaudy gold motherfuckers. I have conquered you all You are now my poo.

If I was planny and clear-eyed enough to make goals for this trip – one of them would definitely have been to try everything in that book.

The other reaction I had to David Thompson’s bright army of poops-to-be was disappointment. I’ve been in Cambodia for six days now and I still have no idea what the street food tastes like. Daisy and her friends don’t eat it – none of the foreigners seem to. There are enough relatively cheap and delicious restaurants serving pizza, Northern Chinese noodles and dhaal for them to bother worrying about ingesting a tape worm, some ear wax or a congealed ball of rat hair. I’m not as concerned about those things myself but I spend all my meal time with Daisy so I haven’t really had the opportunity yet.

I set out yesterday afternoon in search of the local snack conglomerate. Cambodia hasn’t witnessed the same ferocious street food colonisation that Thailand has – Snacktowns are much rarer and quieter here. The closest thing Battambang has is Snackalley.

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Two to three restaurants and five or so stalls, each of them serving up only slight variations on their neighbours’ fare. Thick bean fish soups, glistening clear pork hock stock, snake bean and pork belly stir-fry shrivelled by a day’s inactivity, pepper stuffed eggs par-boiled and roasted, sun dried fish, pork, beef and chicken sweetened by sesame marinades and BBQ skewers of meat full of colour but sapped of moisture. Everything looks like it’s been carted through the Sahara desert on the back on the warm camel. The market here simply doesn’t have enough daily hustle to recycle it’s ingredients, so freshness and wetness are rare commodities.

After translating ten minutes of symbolic nods and knocks from a camel-back old woman with eyebrows dark and crisp like flattened leeches, I ordered her recommendation – a bowl of pork bones stewed with what I think was tapioca, cabbage and carrot, with a side of pork jerky and some spicy vinegar to dip it in. They were both delicious. Neither of them were unique or particularly distinct with any kind of noticeable Khmerness. I leave Cambodia in three days. I wonder if by the time I’ve left I’ll know whether Khmer food is simply not that interesting or whether I’ve been missing out on trying a whole lotta delicious interesting stuff.

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I have been drinking a lot of coffee. Through Malaysia and Thailand coffee consisted mostly of nescafe-instant smothered in a swamp of sweetened condensed milk and then bagged in ice. You can get the same here but cafes have real beans! Not the kind we’re used to in the West. The coffee beans here are grown at a low altitude and end up very strong and very bitter. What do they do to counteract this? Roast them in butter or pig fat. It’s fucking great. I’ve always had an awkward relationship with coffee language, citrusy, velvety, fruity, tastes like lemons, tastes like a lemon meringue pie tastes like a lemon meringue pie made with Tasmanian lemons, duck eggs and fucking activated almond meal and biodynamic sheep’s milk. Anyway, occasionally I have a moment that gives me renewed belief in the accuracy and necessity of those descriptors. The other day I had an iced long black so nutty and chocolatey I could scarcely believe it was pure coffee, no additives, syrups, squat, just delicious.

*His Bangkok restaurant Nahm was voted best in Asia and I heard he’s received honours from the Thai king.
*My step-mum – an amazing chef and even better woman.
*made up word. Someone can ogle something but you can do something oogly? Oogly – enthusiasm and intent characterised by poppy eyes.

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5 thoughts on “Day 49: Battambang food

  1. I don’t know much about Khmer food except that in California 90% of all doughnut shops are run by Cambodians. There was an article I read that was about this guy going to Cambodia and seeing if he could find some sort of doughnut link, but the closest he got was chavay (that fried bread stuff that I think you’ve eaten). Apparently it’s kinda good with bobor which is a bit like a congee. All breakfast foods but yeah. He got it takeaway and they just out it in a plastic bag and tied a loop in it so he could put it on a bike or whatever

    • They love that shit here. There are doughnut pastry treats everywhere. I just had two with lotus paste filling with my breakfast. One of them I fried again in sugar and lime juice.

      I’ve tried the fried dough with congee (joke in Thai) in Thailand but I haven’t seen it here yet – I love it, I want to eat it for breakfast at home.

  2. I remember it being hard to find Khmer food in Cambodia. We did a cooking course in Battambang at a place called the Smokin’ Pot (note – this is about 10 years ago) with a Khmer guy who talked to us about the demise of Khmer food post Pol Pot and with US/UN arrival. The latter made lots of people switch to cooking western food, and the former wiped out a massive proportion of the adult population (when we left Cambodia for Vietnam we were stunned by the number of elderly people there – we didn’t really register until then, but we hadn’t seen any old people in Cambodia). The other thing I remember is that the boat trip from Battambang to Siem Reap is amazing.

    Well done on the Thai food eating achievement!

      • Yes, a lot can change in 10 years! (Except not Smoking Pot – wow!) I only vaguely remember the stat but it was something unbelievable like 80% of the population being under 18, post Khmer Rouge. I believe there was also a lot of migration into Cambodia thereafter (particularly from Vietnam), so maybe old people now but probably not Khmer old people.

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