A tasty mess

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Crab catching in Kep

Even though I love crab and lobster meat, I’ve never been a big fan of eating either straight from the shell. The whole business of cracking and shucking, slurping and mess-making just doesn’t appeal to me, especially since I’ve always felt that crustaceans are basically insects of the sea (and might I remind you, I don’t do bugs).

But while I was in the seaside town of Kep in Cambodia last month, I put all of that aside and had one of the best meals of my whole trip. Part of me going to Cambodia was to venture out of my comfort zone, and with a seafood cracker in hand and slippery bits of crab all over the place, I was definitely there.

During my stay in the sleepy riverside city of Kampot, a place famous for its pepper production, (fun fact: all of the pepper in Cambodia comes from Kampot… or so I was told. Fact check if you will.) I took a day trip to Kep, which happens to be famous for its crab market. Located right at the water’s edge, the Kep crab market is both a large open air market selling heaps of crabs and other seafood, and a collection of small restaurants that prepare the crab to be eaten right then and there.

Fried crab in Kampot pepper sauce

Fried crab in Kampot pepper sauce

My guide for the day, a funny little tuk tuk driver I hired to show me around, brought me to Kimly Seafood Restaurant, what he said was his go-to spot for cheap and delicious crab. I asked him what he thought was the thing to get and without a moment’s hesitation he said the fried crab in Kampot pepper sauce. He opted for the boiled crab, instead, which came out in all its freaky, underwater bug glory.

Boiled crab, creepy looking but tasty

Boiled crab, creepy looking but tasty

Both plates came out we each attacked our foods, one of us successfully and with all the finesse of a seasoned pro and one of us like a hot, wasteful mess. I don’t need to tell you who was who, but I’ll add this much: my guide turned parent when he had to crack all my crab for me, pulling out chunks of tender crab meat and tossing the empty shells aside, like I was big, dumb child.

The Kampot pepper sauce was creamy, and spicy, and a perfect match to the soft, sweet crab meat. It ended up almost up to my elbows, all over my face and on a thousand and one napkins littered across the table. It was an absolute mess but every bit as delicious as it was sloppy.

The one thing I won’t eat

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Cambodian rest stop grub

As a reasonably adventurous eater, I’ve had, and will continue to try, a lot of questionable, sometimes gross stuff. Bull testicles, I’m lookin’ at you. (Yes, I’ve eaten them.  As a kid, at an Argentine family friend’s barbeque, my mother let me load up a plate full of different kinds of meat, only explaining what was what after the plate was clean. Thanks, mom.) But the ONE thing I won’t eat, won’t even try a tiny smidge of, won’t even touch, are bugs. Insects. Creepy crawlers. Call ‘em what you want. This girl right here is NOT eating them.

And in Cambodia, I saw lots of them… as food. During a bathroom break on a bus ride from Siem Reap to Battambang, for example, I saw them being sold as a snack at a make shift rest stop. Not a vending machine or Burger King in sight.

I wasn’t sure what the woman was peddling and thought it might’ve been nuts, but when I leaned down to look closer, they were unmistakably creepy little bugs, looking just as crunchy and disgusting as I’ve imagined in my nightmares.

Nope, not doing it.

Nope, not doing it.

I looked on in horror, but another hungry, far more adventurous traveler next to me, a young guy from Canada, didn’t think twice about buying a whole bag of them. He tossed a couple into his mouth while I fought back the urge to projectile vomit.

“Mmm, not bad,” he said, chewing his mouthful of bugs like a horse with some hay. “Kind of salty. They’re actually pretty good. Here, try one!”

Obviously, I did no such thing.

Cambodian cooking class

Chef Boyardork

Chef Boyardork

Even though at the ripe old age of 30 I’m still not showing signs of improvement when it comes to cooking (just last week, I burnt—no, charred—turkey bacon to a black crisp) I still keep hope alive for learning.

When I saw an ad for cooking courses in Siem Reap I figured I’d try my hand at Cambodian cuisine, and see if I fared any better.

There were several to choose from, but I went with one at Le Tigre de Papier, a restaurant on the city’s buzzy Pub Street. Instead of everyone making the same thing, each of us was handed a menu and asked to choose an appetizer and first course we wanted to make and later eat. I went with mango salad (in hopes that I might easily replicate it at home) and fish amok, because I couldn’t get enough of it while in Cambodia.

Scenes from Psar Chaa (Old Market) in Siem Reap

Scenes from Psar Chaa (Old Market) in Siem Reap

First, we headed to the market where our instructor bought our ingredients, stopping at the different produce, meat and rice stalls to explain what the different ingredients were. Sanitation standards are waaaay more lax in Cambodia so I had to keep telling myself everything would be ok when I saw heaps of fish and chicken laying exposed while flies buzzed around, and not a single person handling food with gloves. Not ONE.

So many smells...

So many smells…

We headed back to the restaurant and upstairs to an open cooking class, where we donned red aprons and chef’s hats. I looked pretty dorky in mine, don’t you think?

Next, we were given the ingredients and instructions for our appetizers. In my case, green mango, carrots, and Thai basil leaves and lots of peeling and grating, something the instructor made look effortless but had my arms sore after 15 minutes.

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Our instructor, who said everything was easy. Everything was NOT easy.

After the arm workout came the ingredients for salad dressing (fish sauce, lime, soy sauce, some other good things), which we made for the table since it worked for my dish and a couple of other ones, like papaya salad, which several other people in the class were making.

Next, some of the ingredients for the amok came out and with them, more chopping and dicing. So. Much. Dicing.

I've decided I don't enjoy chopping.

I’ve decided I don’t enjoy chopping.

But the arm workouts weren’t done. We each got our own mortar and pestle, which the diced amok ingredients went into, and then a serious pounding. I was sweating and my arms were achy, and when the instructor came by she said I still needed to pound harder.

Using a mortar and pestle might as well be a new workout trend.

Using a mortar and pestle might as well be a new workout trend.

After making some edible garnishes and the banana leaf holder for my fish amok, I massaged the dressing into my salad (yup, with two hands to really get in there), sprinkled it with some salt and crushed peanuts, plated it and put it aside.

Will you look at this beaut of a salad!

Will you look at this beaut of a salad!

Then over to the oven, where I was given a pan to toss my pounded paste of amok ingredients into along with water, coconut milk, palm sugar and chopped fish. Over what felt like pretty high heat, I stirred and mixed until everything started to come together into a delicious looking, golden creamy sauce.

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Now these, THESE were delicious smells!

 As we each worked on our different dishes, a giant serving of mango sticky rice was made for dessert. I can’t say I paid much attention to the process but I know it involved rice, condensed milk, diced mango bits and coconut milk.

sticky rice

The mango sticky rice had a face… made of mango, because why not

A little mound of white rice came out to go with my piping hot amok and after some quick plating and garnishes, voila! A beautiful mountain (because it easily could have fed two) of colorful, zesty, bright mango salad and a thick, chunky and absolutely delicious fish amok, just bursting with the flavors of lemongrass, chili pepper, cumin and other ingredients.

BAM!

BAM! I did it,  I did it!  The final, delicious result!

I like to think my morning at Le Tigre put me one step closer to being a better cook, but the real challenge will be making this at home. Wish me luck!

Cambodia’s national culinary dish

Cambodia’s Khmer cuisine has some delicious food to offer (sorry, fried tarantulas, you guys are NOT included on that list) and my favorite was unsurprisingly their most popular, the one you can find on pretty much every menu at every restaurant in every city in the country: amok.

My favorite fish amok

My favorite fish amok at Rumduol Angkor Restaurant, after a day of temple touring.

Pretty much the national dish of Cambodia, amok is a curry made with coconut milk, peppers, carrots, ginger, basil (probably a bunch of other magical spices, too) and most commonly, either fish or chicken. It’s served with white rice and usually either comes in a banana leaf container or as I had it one time in Siem Reap, inside a coconut.

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Admittedly, not the most aesthetically pleasing, but let me tell you it was goooooood! Especially scraping out the coconut meat

Amok is thick and chunky, with a great balance of sweetness from the coconut milk and hot, spicy exotic flavors from the peppers and spices. This, to me, is absolute comfort food. Even times when it was hot and muggy and I had sweat rolling down my face (so basically, every single day of my month-long stay in Cambodia), I loved ordering fish amok (which I preferred over chicken) and now that I’m back in the frozen tundra that is New York, I reeeeally wish I had a piping hot plate of it. I kind of, sort of, learned how to make it (stay tuned for that story…) and this frigid weather might just be all the motivation I need to relive this delicious bit of Cambodian comfort at home.

Little bits of heaven

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These prices are in good ol’ AMERICAN dollars

Without much exaggeration, the gorgeous beaches of Koh Rong, a small island off Cambodia’s southern coast, are a tiny bit of heaven sent down to earth. Stunning stretches of clear, turquoise water, powdery white sand and an untouched, laid back, breezy vibe that soothes the soul and forces you to relax, are the obvious reasons you’d call this place paradise but really, the fruit salads are a big part of that as well.

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Delicious fruit and beautiful scenery

All along the main stretch of “town,” right when you get off the boat, vendors sell fresh juice and fruit salad, made with pineapples, mangoes, bananas, oranges and dragon fruit (that’s the white, seed-speckled one) chopped right in front of you. And the kicker? A huge heap of this perfect deliciousness costs only ONE dollar. One freakin’ dollar.

Koh Rong, you were downright magical. You and your crazy cheap fruit.

Kids eat the darndest things

I’ll be honest, I don’t know a whole lot about kids or what they’re into these days. I don’t really hang out with many and the few that belong to my friends are still babies and toddlers. But I’ll tell you one thing, I learned all sorts of things about Cambodian kiddies in the two weeks I volunteered teaching them English.

One of the things I found most fascinating was the snacks they ate during recess. I’m used to kids at home eating candy and cookies, or if they have health-conscious parents, fruits like apple wedges, grapes and bananas. But not the Cambodian students I had. They ate all manner of unusual snacks and super sugary, brightly colored energy drinks (which for the record, turned the portion of class after recess a wild rumpus room.)

No idea what you call this thing-

No idea what you call this thing.

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Apparently, you pop out the little seed balls and then eat them. Yum?

A few times, the kids ate strange fruits purchased from bicycle vendors and the ramshackle shop across the street. I didn’t know what they were and the kids weren’t much help either in explaining what they were. The couple of times I tried what they were nibbling on, they were bitter or sour, and not anything I could imagine my 8-year-old self eating.

Spicy chili mango strips.

Spicy chili mango strips.

One snack I was able to identify was green mango, a tart version of its sweet, juicy, ripe counterpart. Cut into wedges and strips, my kids dipped it in a salt and chili pepper mix that made them pucker their little faces and fan their mouths from the spiciness. Again, how many little kids do you know that would pack ask for that in their lunch boxes?

Just another break time snack.

Just another break time snack.

One kid made me laugh one day when he pulled out a whole corn on the cob and chomped away at it during break. I feel ya, little guy, I like corn on the cob, too.

Another snack they couldn’t really explain— but I was able to figure out once I got my hands on it— was sweet sticky rice. Adults eat this too, though, and street vendors sell it from little push carts pretty much everywhere. Sometimes it comes wrapped in palm or banana leaves, or in the case of the little girl I saw eating it at school, in bamboo, which then gets peeled back and the rice inside pushed out, kind of like a Push Pop.

Sweet sticky rice

Sweet sticky rice… in Push Pop form

Travel’s great like that, in that it opens your eyes to all the things you don’t know, in this case not just what another group of people eat but what its youngest eaters enjoy as well.

And I’m back!

Monks eat pray love too, y'know?

Monks are out here trying to eat pray love too, you know?

I just came back from a badly needed, very much restorative and absolutely amazing month-long trip to Cambodia. I spent the first two weeks volunteering teaching English to little kids in Phnom Penh and the second two traveling around the country, all on a journey my friends dubbed an “eat pray love trip.” (Eye roll.)

While it wouldn’t be entirely inaccurate to call it that, for the sake of this ol’ food blog of mine, I’ll focus on the eat portion of things. Over the next few posts, I’ll write a bit about the many delicious things I ate, some of the odd eats I saw along the way, and even the Cambodian cooking I attempted.

It really was the best trip ever. You’ll see.