OT - Food in Cambodia:)
I love food - all aspects of food. I love eating. I love buying food to prepare a beautiful meal. I love attempting to grow some of my own food. I love the sight, smell, and sounds of food (the thump of a ripe melon, the sound of a sharp knife slicing through raw meat, the sizzle of food in a hot pan). I enjoy exploring what is fresh and local wherever I am. I love eating and I love feeding others. I love food.
My trip to Cambodia was a chance to explore new worlds of food. I was familiar with some flavors from other SE Asian cuisines. But, of course, food changes once it's transported to a new country. Asian food in New York is different than in Asia. In Cambodia there were new flavors and ingredients, and also new combinations of flavors.
One of the best culinary surprises came in Siem Reap, at a restaurant called Cuisine Wat Damnak. Chef Joannès Rivière uses fresh, locally sourced food to create beautiful Cambodian food. His inspiration is not only traditional Khmer food, but also the diverse culinary influences found throughout Cambodia, including Cham, Vietnamese, and Chinese. The beauty of his food comes from combining these flavors with flawless technique and balance.
Joannès came to Cambodia 8 years ago to teach cooking at the Sala Bai hotel school. The Sala Bai school is an NGO-funded school which fights poverty and human trafficking by providing training in the restaurant and hotel business for underprivileged youths. While working there, Joannes also wrote the school's cookbook, which I bought - all proceeds go to the school. (I had the chance to eat the food of one of his students when I visited Bantaey Chhmar, a small village near the Northwest border. It was quite good.) Joannès was Executive Chef at the Hotel de las Paix in Siem Reap for several years after leaving the school. Earlier this year, Joannès and his wife Carole opened Cuisine Wat Damnak.
Highlights of our meals there would have to be the braised pork shank and trotters with star anise, the frog legs with wing beans, fish soup with fish from the Tonle Sap lake, roast chicken with fire ant sauce. Oh, and I can't forget the roast eggplant, or the perfectly cooked scallops. The flavors of his dishes are bright and clear, and perfectly balanced.
I was interested in trying to get some cooking classes while in Cambodia to learn more about the ingredients and flavors. Unfortunately, Joannès does not offer classes, but he did invite me to join him for his morning trip to the market. Even better!! A trip to the market, getting to follow a terrific chef around, is much more useful and interesting to me. In a cooking class, I would watch someone else cook one dish, and write down a recipe (which I could easily read in a cookbook). But this way, I would get to know the local ingredients better and get a glimpse of some of the ways he thinks about food.
So the morning after our second meal at Cuisine Wat Damnak, I rode my bicycle to meet Joannes for coffee, and then we were off to the market. The souvenir stalls had not yet opened, but the market was bustling with food - all kinds of food. I followed along as Joannès bought his supplies for the day and checked for new items that might spark his interest.
I learned that a lot of the pork in Cambodia is imported. I was surprised to learn that almost all onions and cabbage are imported; it's not grown locally. The same is true of tomatoes. We visited the sellers who had local pork and the ones that had real, free range chickens (they're the ones that look like real birds, with legs large enough to walk on). We looked at vegetables and herbs. It was fun to match produce with flavors I had tasted the night before. I saw the wing beans I had eaten with the frog, and the local fish, which is actually just a bycatch, that had been beautifully grilled and offered as an amuse-bouche.
We looked at fish - lots of fish. There were fish imported from the coast. There were local fish from the Tonle Sap. There were bottom feeders and middle water fish, eels and shrimp. I saw buckets of tiny fresh-water shrimp which are washed and eaten whole, including the shells. I would have a chance to taste them a few nights later when we returned for our third and final meal at the restaurant. I also saw a large bowl filled with small turtles, not be eaten, but released at the temple for good blessings.
After shopping was finished, we sat down for breakfast - rice with fried pork, some lightly pickled vegetables, and soup. Delicious! And we continued talking about food and Cambodia, past and present. It was a fabulous morning - so much better than a cooking class.
When we said goodbye, I headed back in to the market to buy some fruit and some lovely young cauliflowers for snacks later while Ron and I visited more temples. And all the while, I wished I had a kitchen. I wanted to taste, smell, and feel all of that food. I wanted to feel the textures. I wanted to smell it cooking.
I am not in the habit of writing restaurant reviews here, but this is a very special place and a very special chef. I continued to think about each meal, the flavors and combinations, for days after. If any of you find yourself lucky enough to be traveling in Cambodia, please visit Cuisine Wat Damnak in Siem Reap.
- BY Julie Goodale | 11.21.2011
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