Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Running Amok in Phnom Penh

Cambodia was once home to one of the most magnificent civilizations ever seen – the Khmer empire of Angkor, its story one of glorious conquest and savage defeat. The Cambodian dish amok, a coconutty fish curry cooked in banana leaves, is a reflection of the myriad influences that have swept over this small but charismatic nation: an echo of the ebb and flow of empire.
Until war and tragedy, in the shape of Pol Pot’s genocidal Khmer Rouge, overtook the small kingdom of Cambodia, its modern capital, Phnom Penh, was known as the “Pearl of Asia” and was acknowledged to be one of the most elegant of all the colonial French-built cities in Indochina. Then, it was often called “sleepy” – but no longer. Phnom Penh today is frenetic with bustle. But while the beautiful but decaying French colonial architecture may be battling now with 21st-century sprawl, at the heart of the modern urban jungle still remain magnificent ocher-walled villas and wide, tree-lined boulevards, around which delicate Khmer temple and palace buildings and colorful food markets can be found.

One of the greatest pleasures of being in Phnom Penh is spending time on the riverfront. Lining the river is a series of small cafés and restaurants housed in pretty French colonial buildings. It is a great place to relax and watch people promenade – “da leng” as they say in Khmer – and to sample the local fare.
Cambodian cuisine shares much with its neighbor Thailand, but it’s less spicy and has its own aromatic and distinctly lemony character. It is defined by two factors – rice in abundance from the fertile plains of the Tonle Sap Basin, and fish from the teeming lakes and rivers that bisect Cambodia and are its lifeblood.
Amok – a creamy fish curry served with fragrant rice – is close to being the Cambodian national dish. Its base is coconut milk, to which are added galangal, kaffir lime, lemongrass, shallots, garlic, and chili peppers, with a touch of shrimp paste, palm sugar, and fish sauce. Egg yolk is also added, to set the sauce during steaming, and then the firm, white fish itself.
The mixture is steamed in a banana leaf “bowl,” then served with a touch more coconut cream poured over the top and garnished with shredded lime leaves and a little red chili pepper. The resulting dish is both rich and sweet and also spicy, fragrant, and salty. It is not only a distillation of the subtle flavors that define Khmer cuisine; it is also, with its bright reds and greens, something of a visual feast, perfectly in tune with the lovely buildings that still grace this busy city.

Beautifully firm, translucent chunks of  fish are suffused with  subtle flavors in  Cambodian amok

The Best Places to Eat Amok

Frizz Restaurant 

This unpretentious and airy little restaurant is in the heart of the city’s boutique shopping district and not far from the Royal Palace. Many claim it serves the finest amok in Phnom Penh, with real care taken over both preparation and presentation. The atmosphere is cool and breezy with plenty of white soft furnishings, ocher floor tiles, and rattan furniture. In addition to amok, the Frizz offers a huge range of other Khmer dishes, including the hard-to-find saik ko neung teuk kroch – thinly sliced beef stir-fried with herbs and spices, served in an orange sauce on a bed of coleslaw. One can also order light Western food such as Mexican burritos, delicious baguette sandwiches, and healthy breakfasts. The Frizz runs a small cooking school that inspires respect from chefs both Khmer and foreign. The one-day classes come at a very reasonable price, and are fast becoming a “must-do” for foodies intrigued by the tangy mysteries of Khmer cuisine.
No. 67 Street 240, Phnom Penh; open 10 AM–10 PM daily;
Also in Phnom Penh
Khmer Kitchen (+855 12 712 541; inexpensive) is a traditional Cambodian restaurant offering indoor and outdoor seating beneath a grass-and-shingle roof in a wooden house set in leafy garden surroundings. If you prefer to be indoors, you can take an upstairs table and dine in comfort while reclining on silk cushions. In addition to the magnificent amok, the Khmer Kitchen serves numerous sour soups, including a variety with water spinach and a pleasing balance of sour tamarind with a hint of prahok (fermented fish paste).
Also in Cambodia
Any visit to Cambodia usually includes a visit to the spectacular ruins of Angkor Wat. When staying in the nearby town of Siem Reap, Viroth’s Restaurant, behind La Résidence Hotel on Wat Bo Street ( restaurant.php; moderate), provides a perfect venue for sampling traditional Cambodian amok in a sleek boutique environment.
Around the World
Ties between Cambodia and France remain strong, and there is a noticeable Khmer presence in Paris. La Mousson (; moderate) on Ave Emile Zola, in the 15th arrondissement of the city, specializes in traditional Khmer dishes, with amok in its original form or with scallops rather than white fish.
What Else to Eat
Bok l’hong is a green papaya salad made with string beans, roasted peanuts, cherry tomatoes, tiny, savory crabs, and smoked fish, pounded in a mortar and pestle and flavored with chili pepper, lemon juice, and fermented fish paste. Kralan is a cake made from steamed rice, beans or peas, grated coconut, and coconut milk. Loc lac is a popular dish: cubed beef with red onions, served on a bed of salad with a dipping sauce of lemon juice and black pepper. Pleah is a grilled beef salad, flavored with fermented fish paste and tossed with onions and fresh herbs. Khmer meals usually feature at least one soup: samlor machu is a sour soup with a tamarind base and includes chicken or fish, tomatoes, lotus roots, water greens, and herbs.
A Day in Phnom Penh
In addition to enjoying Khmer food, Phnom Penh is a great place to sample all things delicious and Gallic. Start the day with filtered coffee and fresh croissants or baguettes in one of the French-style eateries in and around Sisowath Quay on the Tonle Sap riverfront.
MORNING : After breakfast, cross the road to the river bank and stroll down to the Central Esplanade in front of the glittering campus that is the Royal Palace. Then walk next door to the National Museum.
This important storehouse holds artifacts and statuary from every region of Cambodia, including much from the glorious era of Angkor.
AFTERNOON : Take a cyclo (bicycle rickshaw) ride to Psar Thmei (Central Market) – a magnificent, French Art Deco behemoth built in 1937. Head back to the Tonle Sap and enjoy a gentle river cruise as the sun sets behind the ocher of the city’s buildings.
EVENING : Finish the day with a display of classical Khmer Apsara dancing at the Bopha Penh Titanic Restaurant on Sisowath Quay.
Getting to Phnom Penh
Phnom Penh International Airport is about half an hour from the center of town by taxi. One can navigate the city by motorcycle taxi (risky but fast) or by three-wheeled “tuk-tuk.”
Where to stay in Phnom Penh
Goldiana (inexpensive) is a spotlessly clean and well-run Chinese hotel popular with visiting journalists and aid workers.
Villa Langka Hotel (moderate) is a stylish boutique hotel in a quiet and leafy setting.
Raffles Hotel Le Royal (expensive) is a glorious old French colonial hotel with real history and charm.

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