Cambodia is one of those countries that doesn’t figure on everybody’s radar. And much like Vietnam, its presence in the consciousness of the average Westerner is linked to tragedy. Cambodia will, for many years to come, be associated with ‘The Killing Fields’ and the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge.
Sadly this means that when writers and programme makers focus on the country, they enjoy the sensational aspects of Cambodia; the genocide and atrocities, and the stranger aspects of the cuisine. Channel 4’s programme last night therefore predictably featured fried tarantulas, duck eggs complete with embryo (baby duck eggs), and buffalo blood. This is so unfortunate when Cambodian food offers so much taste, colour and excitement and the people who make it are so full of vitality and cheer. In my travels to this wonderful country, I had amazing food several times a day, whether from restaurants, cafes, truck stops or humble street stalls. The food is spicy, fresh and contains influences from its neighbouring countries.
Picture: Truck stop cuisine
Cambodian cuisine was badly affected by the Khmer Rouge. Food shortages were commonplace. People starved. Although Pol Pot wanted a Maoist agrarian society, his plan went badly wrong to the cost of the Cambodian people. How can you expect those with no farming know-how to grow enough to feed a country? And if you have eliminated the majority of the population who were literate, how do you preserve the culinary heritage?
Gordon explored the renaissance of Khmer food. His meetings with Khethana, Aunty Sovanna and Nina (at the Phnom Penh orphan’s cooking school) were inspiring. He was delighted with being taught how to make stuffed frog, showing his openness to new ingredients and tastes. Whole frogs stuffed with kroeng is a world away from mannered French frog's legs. Highly amusing was his attempt to make an authentic Cambodian curry, for which he was only given 8 out of 10 by Nina. Gordon stops dead for a few seconds in disbelief (his face is a picture) before he realises he isn’t an expert of Eastern cookery and tries the dish. He then agrees with the mark given and humbled, adds more palm sugar as instructed. TV gold! The young lad (Soubeg?) he meets at the cooking school shows how much he has learned in just 3 years when he helps Gordon cook on a barge for royalty and VIPs; a wonderful testament to the tenacity of the Cambodian people. The princess saying should would hire Ramsay ‘anytime’ because he is better than her cook was a wryly ironic moment.
However, there are some unforgivable problems with the show. Here are my thoughts:
Gordon talked about Siem Reap, site of the famous “Anger Wat”? WTF? Gordon, please! It’s ANGKOR WAT. It’s pretty much the 8th wonder of the world, so do try to pronounce it correctly!
The tasting of fried tarantulas was stagey and lacked authenticity. I’ve seen fried tarantulas for sale in markets in Cambodia – they are nearly always presented legs flattened out and battered. Gordon’s were deep fried as they were. And the Khmers themselves never eat the abdomen (bottom end of the body) of the tarantula as it can be full of acid or eggs. Gordon ate the thing whole – not Khmer style! Perhaps the locals were having a bit of a laugh at his expense.
Picture: Lightly battered tarantulas
Gordon visited Kampot when trying the tarantulas, but amazingly did not seek out Kampot black pepper. It is the finest in the world. When the French ruled Cambodia as part of French Indochina, the tables of the best restaurants kept Kampot pepper. This was ignored in favour of the more television-friendly tarantula hunt which had too much of a feel of ‘let’s look at how strangely these foreign people live’.
There was no real exploration of the street food scene, which is a real omission. Street food in Cambodia goes beyond baby duck eggs and fried tarantulas. There are hot woks cooking up noodle and rice stir fries, curries of varied chilli levels (hot to incendiary), and noodle soups which are sustaining and delicious. The ordinary people, regardless of background all partake of the products of this gloriously makeshift industry.
Gordon Ramsay is an acquired taste, much like some of the specialities featured on the programme. But his enthusiasm for food is undeniable. His response and interaction with the orphaned street children showed that he is a much deeper character than the ‘Big Sweary’ he is sometimes reduced to by the press. He could, however, have made more of a focus on the Khmer people who were re-establishing their culinary heritage rather than his efforts to cook for the Royal family. The ‘tough guy’ routines of jeep driving, tarantula hunting and buffalo slaughter/bleeding have all been done before. But I guess his viewers are all expecting these things, so the producers have to include them.
I’ll be interested to see what he makes of Vietnam next week, a country I have longed to visit for many years......
I’ll be making Khetana’s fish amok when I can get hold of the many varied ingredients, particularly banana leaves:
A dish not included, but is a Khmer classic is Beef Lok Lak, another one to try!