Food for thought part five – Cambodia

On our last day in Cambodia, Simon and I embarked on a quest to learn more about Cambodian cuisine and enrolled ourselves on a cooking course at Le Tigre de Papiere in Siem Reap. After a trip round the market familiarising ourselves with some of the ingredients we donned our chefs hats and aprons, and knife in hand began to discover the hidden secrets of some of the Khmer dishes that we’ve enjoyed over the past few weeks…

Probably the best known Khmer dish, Amok is a coconut curry flavoured with lemon grass, ginger, turmeric and chilli, the meat of your choice (most commonly fish), shredded vegetables such as Chinese broccoli, cabbage, onion -and in the case of our cooking class even oyster mushrooms. Traditionally Amok is served in a banana leaf bowl with a side of puns from Simon about “running Amok”.


Monkfish Amok, made by Laura

Lok lak
Lok lak is another popular Khmer dish, comprising beef, pork or chicken marinated and stir fried in a peppery tomato sauce, served on a bed of salad.


Lok Lak, made by Simon

Saraman Kari
This curry differs from most others in South East Asia as the predominant flavour is peanut rather than coconut, this delicious curry also tends to come up a bit thicker than most.

Kep crab
Whilst in Kep why not find yourself a platform strung with hammocks and relax, taking in the fresh sea air and ocean view whilst waiting for your blue peppered crab to be cooked? The fresh crab is cooked in a flavoursome sauce with spring onions, pak choi and fresh green Kampot peppercorns. A tasty seaside treat, but hard-earned as you struggle to prise the meat from the shells, evolution certainly did a good job with the crab!


Peppercorns. Sorry, we were too busy trying to break open the crab to take photos!

A few surprises…
Whilst in Kampot we considered it our duty to visit as many dining establishments in town as possible and to my surprise discovered both the best ribs and the best scones I’ve ever eaten! The pork ribs served up by the Rusty Keyhole are absolutely huge!! You only get 3 ribs in a ‘half rack’ portion but they are the meatiest, best cooked three ribs you’ll ever eat, smothered in the Rusty Keyhole’s own barbecue sauce. The second surprise was the scones produced by Epic Arts, big, freshly cooked (served still warm), with the perfect soft yet slightly crumbling texture and served with delicious homemade jam. My only regret is that I didn’t manage a second one!


Amazing ribs from the Rusty Keyhole. As you can see, we couldn't wait to get started!

Fruit shakes
Fruits shakes feature on most menus in both Laos and Cambodia. These delicious fruit “shakes” are essentially fruit smoothies with fresh fruit of your choice blended together with either coconut milk (my preference), regular milk or yoghurt and ice. A refreshing way to recharge after a day of sightseeing.

Pineapple palm wine
Pineapple palm wine (8%) tastes pretty much as you might expect, like alcoholic pineapple juice. It’s easy to drink and definitely worth a try whilst you’re in Cambodia. Palm wine is produced by fermenting the sap collected from palm trees, the pineapple variety is presumably made by adding pineapple juice to the palm sap.

Cambodia has definitely supplied more mouthwatering South East Asian delights, next stop Tom Yam and Thai curry!


Food for thought part three – Vietnam

A lot of the food in Vietnam is very oriental in style and flavour, probably due to the thousand or so years that the country was occupied by the Chinese. Some aspects of Vietnamese cuisine have reinforced an opinion that we formed in China, namely that one of the benefits of being vegetarian is that you’re far less likely to accidentally find yourself eating some undesirable animal or part thereof, say duck eggs containing nearly mature embryos, or the delights of dog meat. Thankfully, despite not being veggie, we managed to steer clear of these delicacies whilst sampling some of Vietnam’s other specialities…

One dish that can be found fairly ubiquitously throughout Vietnam is pho. Pho is a noodle soup usually served for breakfast but that can also be found at other mealtimes. Pho consists of a flavoursome broth with rice noodles and chopped spring onions accompanied by either bo (beef), ga (chicken), or lon (pork). The noodle soup is also often supplied (although not always) with some fresh greens (coriander, mint and lettuce) and uncooked bean sprouts bringing a refreshing crunch to the dish. A regional variation in Hue is Bun Bo Hue, a supposedly spicy beef noodle soup. I’m not sure if this dish was simply dulled down for tourists when I tried, but I found it sadly lacking in spice.



Hot pot
I believe that hot pot is probably a Chinese invention, but it is one that has certainly become widespread in Vietnam. A “hot pot” of bubbling spicy broth is placed on the table into which you dunk a variety of meats, seafood, vegetables and noodles, plucking items out when cooked and enjoying the soup at the end. If you want a great hot pot in London, just ask our friend Pey Shan who introduced us to it last year!


Hot Pot

Street Food
Street BBQs provide the perfect opportunity to join the locals perching on tiny plastic stools mere inches off the ground, whilst sampling some freshly cooked street food. A plate of beef and vegetables are supplied for you to “barbecue” yourself. However, the term barbecue is used loosely as you are in fact frying the meat in oil on a small gas powered stove. However it’s cooked, the result is very tasty once you’ve braved the spitting oil, darting with your chopsticks to grasp a piece of beef and dabbing it in the seasoning of chinese five spice, salt, pepper, chilli and lime juice.


A street BBQ in Hanoi

Fish steamed in banana leaf
This is a fairly simple Vietnamese speciality of delicately seasoned fish encased in a banana leaf and steamed to perfection, presented as a delightful parcel to be unwrapped and shared at the dinner table.


Fish in steamed banana leaf

White Rose
This is a delicacy of Hoi An. The white rose, banh bao in Vietnamese, is a small steamed parcel of shrimp or crab meat a in manioc-flour wrapping to be dipped in a lemon and pepper sauce. A delicious little snack or starter!


White Rose

Spring rolls (nem)
Vietnamese spring rolls come in a number of varieties and are quite different from their Chinese counterpart. Chinese spring rolls are usually made with a wheat-flour casing and are predominantly deep fried, whereas Vietnamese nem are wrapped in rice paper and either eaten fresh, steamed or fried. Fresh spring rolls, sometimes called summer rolls, normally contain glass noodles, raw bean sprouts, and some refreshing green leaves including mint. They can also contain cooked meat such as pork or shrimps (sometimes less pleasantly still encased in their shells) and are wrapped in moistened rice paper. For cooked spring rolls the meat and veg can be rolled in dried rice paper and either eaten as is, steamed, or fried, providing a nice variety of textures and flavours. Another variant tried by Simon was the “roll your own” spring roll, with pork patties molded around lemon grass to be rolled up in rice paper stuffed with salad leaves, rice noodles, carrots and bean sprouts and enjoyed with a sweet and sour chilli sauce.


Spring Rolls


Pork on lemongrass skewers, with spring roll ingredients

Baguettes and pastries
The French colonised Vietnam between 1867-1954 and left behind a legacy of baguettes and pastries. You have no idea how wonderful it is to once again taste unsweetened bread!


Laura ate this and concluded 'Needs more chocolate!'

Rice wine
Rice wine isn’t really a wine, it’s a spirit of around 40% proof made from fermented rice, tasting a lot like rice flavoured vodka.

Coconut juice
Lop the top of a nice green coconut, stick in a straw and voila! You have coconut juice!

Vietnam certainly has some delightful dishes on offer but after the wealth of flavour found in India were sadly a little underwhelming. Whilst I found the food here lacking in spice the same could certainly not be said of garlic which abounds in almost every dish (perhaps this is the reason that Vietnamese cuisine did not endear itself to me)! Hopefully Laos and Cambodia will provoke more of a love for South East Asian cooking.


Food for thought (part two) – India


Being a huge fan of Indian food back home I was slightly afraid that the real thing may not live up to expectations…Needless to say my fears were totally unfounded!

Our sortie into the highly spiced world of Indian cooking may have had a shaky start as we waited for our stomachs to settle after the inevitable bout of “Delhi belly”. However, once recovered, we delightedly delved in!

Indian food varies from region to region but has proved to be tasty in almost every form. Generally breads (such as naans, parathas and chappattis) are more a phenomenon of the North, as are tandoori (clay oven cooked) and meat dishes. This is not to say that meat and bread do not appear in the South, just that you are more likely to find vegetable and seafood dishes.

With that in mind here are some of the foodstuffs that we have encountered:

During our Indian cookery class in Udaipur we learnt how to make pretty much any kind of flat bread that you could ever desire. The basic ingredients for any Indian bread are flour, water and a pinch of salt; mix, knead, roll out and cook dry on a heavy iron plate and you have a chapatti. Parathas are essentially the same with a little oil folded in and used to coat the bread whilst cooking. Naans are slightly more complex with curd (natural yoghurt), baking soda and sugar added to the flour, and rested for 30 minutes before cooking (traditionally cooked in the tandoor, although a hot iron pan will suffice). Parathas and naans can also be stuffed with any filling of your choice, be it fruit, vegetable or meat to provide an endless variety of breads. And the difference between all of these?Chapattis are your common everyday accompaniment to a meal whereas naans are usually reserved for special occasions (well going out for an Indian in England is always a special occasion right?), whilst parathas are normally served at breakfast with chai.

I won’t say much about rice as it’s a grain I’m sure you’re all familiar with. However, I’ll introduce a small fact that surprised us: apparently a vegetable pilau should contain more veg than rice, whereas a vegetable biryani should contain more rice than veg (according to our teacher Sashi anyway). We both believed it to be the other way around! We’ve also discovered Kashmiri rice; rice cooked with various fruits and vegetables, usually including pineapple – a favourite of mine.

Pakoras, koftas and cutlets
It took us a while to ascertain the difference between these tasty little deep fried treats but I think we’ve finally cracked it. Pakoras are vegetables fried in a spicy chickpea (gram) flour batter, whereas koftas consist of vegetables that have been mashed together and moulded into a ball before frying, whilst cutlets are essentially flattened koftas. The nice thing about our experience with these finger foods is that they are much more flavoursome than their British counterparts.

Sadly samosas were not covered in our cooking class but we discovered some of the best samosas I’ve ever eaten in a great little eatery in Jaipur named LMB. Samosas in India are much larger than those tiny little things we get in the UK, they’re also far more sumptuous. These fist-sized triangular parcels, packed full of vegetables and spices deliver a good kick with every bite. Our favourite samosa outlet serves them up with generous helpings of mango and coriander chutneys, the sweetness of which provide a good counterbalance to the spices inside. This is definitely a lunchtime favourite that will be sadly missed.

Aside from their pairing with samosas, chutneys are something that we’ve found surprisingly elusive. They are however deceptively easy to make, mango chutney can be made by blending together fresh mangoes, sugar, salt, chilli powder and a little water. When mangoes are not in season fear not! Simply substitute the fresh mangoes with mango powder (a very intense and sour powder made from dried mangoes), add some extra sugar and water and simmer until reduced to the desired consistency. Coriander or mint chutneys are made by blending the fresh herb with garlic, chilli, salt, a little water and some lemon juice, simple and delicious (maybe omit the garlic if you’re like me).

Dosas are a distinctly Southern speciality; crispy rice pancakes that resemble giant brandy snaps in appearance but taste more like cheese on toast. A masala dosa is curled around a generous dollop of spicy potato curry and served with sambar (a spicy lentil and vegetable curry soup) and a couple of other unidentified but flavoursome accompaniments that come with free refills. Very nice for breakfast, lunch or dinner – or all three!

What to say? Curries come in an endless variety, so much so that I won’t even attempt to describe them. On most menus in India you’ll find a selection of veg and non-veg dishes. With a large portion of the population being vegetarian, vegetable curries are not just relegated to the lowly side dish as they are in the UK. We’ve had some very nice veg dishes including stuffed potatoes (a skinless baked or boiled potato stuffed with paneer and served in a creamy sauce), pumpkin curry, and okra cooked in dry spices (a favourite of Simon’s). In the south we’ve had some delightful seafood dishes including prawn masala, meen papas (a creamy fish fillet curry) and grilled tiger prawns in a tongue tingling spicy sauce. Curries in the south of India (or perhaps I should say Kerala since that is the only part of the south we’ve had time to explore) frequently have a coconut sauce giving them a flavour reminiscent of a Thai curry, although without the fish sauce.

Meat can be a little hit and miss in India. For the most part beef is off the menu due to the Hindu sanctity of the cow. Pork is similarly omitted, presumably out of respect for the Muslim population, although this is just conjecture on my part. Mutton and chicken however can be found on most non-veg menus. Tandoori meats, either in the form of meat on the bone (e.g. Tandoori chicken), skewered boneless chunks (such as chicken tikka) or even minced and shaped into kebabs (common with mutton) are marinated in yoghurt and spices before cooking in the tandoor (clay oven) – delicious! When eating a meat curry in India you may prefer to choose a dish that is specified on the menu as boneless, otherwise you may spend your time picking what little meat there is off the bone. That said, most of meat curries we’ve had have been very tasty.

Mystery veg
In the streets of almost every city we have come across vendors pushing carts stacked high with this miscellaneous green and purple vegetable that looks something like a cross between a mini bell pepper and a brussel sprout. What this vegetable is, or how it is supposed to be consumed we have no idea, the only thing of note is that the sellers periodically pour water over them. If anyone is able to identify this vegetable for us it would be most appreciated!

Lassis are yoghurty drinks, which can be plain, sweet or salty, fruit flavoured, chocolate flavoured or in the case of the Rajasthani specialty ‘Makhani lassi’ saffron and sultana flavoured. Lassis (or at least the sweet type, I cannot account for the salty variety) are very refreshing, providing a cooling antidote to both the hot climate and spicy food.

Not being a tea drinker I don’t believe any description I give will do justice to chai, therefore I leave this to Simon…
“A rich milky blend of tea leaves, sugar and spices, it’s nothing like the watery brown cuppa back home – although a bit of a shock when you see quite how many tablespoons of sugar they’re heaping in!”

You’ll find Indian sweets glinting temptingly at you like little sugary gems behind many a glass counter. We saved this treat for Diwali when sweet shops suddenly pop up from nowhere, bursting at the seams and spilling out onto the pavements, selling large boxes of assorted delights to share with friends and family. We stood in front of a counter and tentatively picked out a small selection to fill our tiny box. Of the sweets we sampled (and you’ll have to forgive me, I don’t know their names) were a round white coconutty one (a bit like coconut ice), a thick treacly cube in a paper case (similar to the topping of a treacle tart), an almond diamond topped with shiny silver leaf (essentially pretty marzipan) and a number of fudge-like sweets (including one chocolatey affair). We enjoyed these little bursts of sugar amidst the Diwali fireworks from our rooftop, a spectacular way to sample India’s sweet offerings.


A taste of India


With Laura’s love of spice and mine of curry, it had to happen really. We’re hooked on the food! Our shaky stint of food poisoning well behind us, we’ve been savouring the delights of fine dining Indian style (in flavour if not necessarily the surroundings), and are loving it!

On the way out of Pushakr, we stopped in Ajmer for a flavour of some Muslim sightseeing, and then a cheap but classy lunch before our journey on to Udaipur. The mausoleum we visited in Ajmer was impressive, but sadly somewhat impenetrable to us as foreigners, and non-Muslims at that. We nearly failed at the first hurdle – finding the cloakroom, which was hidden away in another building cunning disguised as a guest house in a busy alleyway a few streets away. The mausoleum complex was in gleaming marble, with huge metal people-sized pots for the faithful to make their donations, and a community atmosphere within, with lots of people sitting around chatting amid vendors and worshippers, water pools and a mosque. We were even invited by a family to join them for a cup of chai before we left, but were sadly short on time and had to let it pass.

Udaipur is known as the White City, but is more memorable for its duo of beautiful lakes, with two shimmering white palaces apparently floating in the water. It’s certainly the most picturesque city we’ve visited so far – so cinematic is the view that this was used as the location for the James Bond film Octopussy, where the villain was holed up in one of the beautiful palaces on islands in the lake. Predictably, most tourist restaurants try to drum up trade through a nightly showing of the film – although we didn’t quite manage to fit this into our schedule.

Sightseeing-wise, we got our fill of the city palace, with decorative peacocks and mirrored rooms with commanding views over the streets below as well a rabble of shouting and gawping schoolkids. We also went on a sunset lake tour by boat, which was beautiful if slightly cloudy – the whole place really looks stunning over the water.

One of the highlights of the city itself was a fantastically restored old Haveli, essentially a mansion set around a courtyard. The first floor found us in a bizarre but impressive room of marionette puppets, with the puppetmaker on hand to demonstrate them. As well as a huge array of conventional puppets – sitting on camels, on cushions, sized as miniatures and life-size – there were also some that could do special effects! One that could shake its hips while dancing; another that could hold its head in its hands or feet; and most surprising of all, a female dancer with a long skirt who could do a handstand, only to become a male puppet (with skirt) when turned upside down! Certainly a unique skill, if slightly unexpected!



The Haveli had been lovingly restored after falling into ruin, and was a colourful insight into life as it was for the rich upper classes, with a kaleidoscope of stained glass illuminating rooms of embroidered fabrics and painted motifs, and punkahs hanging from the ceiling – strips of fabric that would be wafted by a servant pulling a cord around the clock to serve as a fan. There were also two slightly more quirky exhibits: what purported to be the largest turban in the world (although with no statistics to support this), an impressive coil of cloth that looked like it might only fit a giant; and a collection of hand-sculpted monuments from around the globe. In polystyrene. And so we hereby present the world’s largest turbans, and a truly 21st century Taj Mahal for your visual pleasure.



We also briefly took on our celebrity personas when we visited the second of Udaipur’s lakes. After a quick visit to the Moti Mahal, a set of gardens and ruins that we still don’t understand anything at all about (except that the swings are great!), we took a quick boat ride out to a small island with a cafe. The island was temporarily home to lots of Delhi kids on a school trip to Rajasthan, and we had a paparazziesque journey back across the water with them all crowding round us for photos, handshakes and inquisition. We even got a round of applause at one moment when they declared us to be ‘a lovely couple’! (Note: for the benefit of those new to our adventures, we may be lovely but we’re not a couple!)

Our culinary endeavours started with a fun lunch of sweet curries at a place we nicknamed Queenie’s. About as homely as a cafe could be, we sat at the dining table in the main room of their small house and they produced a sumptuous selection of fruit-based dishes, while the kids all crowded round my iPhone playing the universal game ‘Cut The Rope’ with delight. Buoyed by exotic flavours and full stomachs, we then joined a cookery class for the evening with Shashi, an amazing woman with incredible enthusiasm and a heartbreaking story.

Widowed ten years ago, she had to observe the customs expected of a bereaving Brahmin wife – spending 45 days siting in silence in the corner of her home, fasting during daylight hours while female family members wept before her. With this over, she began the rest of her life – forbidden from working due to her caste, and seen by all as an omen of bad luck as a widow. With two young sons, she was just able to scrape by, working secretly as a washer-woman, receiving one rupee (just over a penny) for each item of clothing she scrubbed – while the guest-houses she was working for would be charging five or ten rupees to their customers. Her break came three years ago when one of her sons brought home some tourist friends, who suggested she start teaching people to cook. As someone who didn’t speak any English, this was hugely daunting, but she persevered – and helped by the voluntary efforts of visiting translators, photographers, website designers and typists, she has now established herself as a hugely successful entrepreneur, with others now trying to imitate her – including, in a wonderful piece of karma, the very guesthouse owners who had paid her just one rupee for washing clothes.

The course we did with Shashi was amazing – and at four hours long for 550 rupees (£7) was fantastic value, especially when it overran to 5 1/2 hours because of so much interesting chatter, and we got a very tasty dinner too! It was heartwarming to see the contributions other travellers had made over the years – from the gifts in kind previously mentioned, to a chef’s knife brought out with friends who visited later, and most impressive of all, an entire hardback cookery book of her recipes made by a professional photographer who had visited – the first she knew about it was when the completed book appeared in the post! All in all, as much as the flavours were wonderful and we look forward to experimenting with the recipes on those back home, it was really hearing Shashi’s life story in the context of her home that seemed to give us a true taste of India – and a sweet one at that.