Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Food Ethnography on a Budget: Cambodia II - Nataing, Crispy Rice Cakes and Jícama Pickle

My quest to discover new cuisines at bargain basement prices continues. Already, I've spent more than I had expected or wanted to spend, but a lot of that has been mitigated by my choosing recipes that used ingredients I mostly have lying around. That's an important part in saving money on grocery shopping: figure out what the hell you already have in your pantry. Mine looks a little stranger than most people's pantries, since I have so much variety in it. So to help narrow down the "budget" part for people, I'll try to quantify what I got and how much it cost, and what I already have that most people may need to buy.

Back to Cambodia:

Located in: Southeast Asia
Some common ingredients: jasmine rice, coconut milk, fish sauce, prahok, yucca, pork, papaya, mango, lemongrass
Number of Cambodian restaurants in the Baltimore area: 0
Number of Cambodian restaurants in the DC area: maybe 1
Kind of like: Halfway between Thai & Vietnamese, with a smidge of French

In just a fortnight, I've already learned a good bit more about Cambodian (Khmer) cuisine than I ever did. Of course, I'll never be an expert at this rate - one cookbook and a few websites doesn't make you an "expert" in anything. But I am surprised at the ideas I have already picked up.

From reading the Elephant Walk Cookbook and various websites about Cambodian cuisine, I have found out the following very basic facts about the cuisines of Cambodia:

  • One of the most typical ingredients and flavors of Cambodia is prahok, or fish paste, which takes a long and complicated process to make. It's like ketchup here - it's everywhere. However, different classes will approach it in different ways: the lower classes may be more willing to eat it uncooked, while the upper classes would never think to do such a "gauche" thing.
  • Many tropical flavors are also common in Cambodia, particularly lemongrass, pepper and coconut milk.
  • Most everything is served with some format of rice - whether it's the jasmine rice I just made or the crispy jasmine rice cakes that I tried to make, with varying results.
  • If prahok is the condiment of choice, then amok trey is the dish of choice. It's a fish in coconut milk and steamed in banana leaves. Is it a coincidence that amok is also the Indonesian word for "mad with rage"?
As I've said before, my education in Cambodian cuisine starts with the Elephant Walk Cookbook (partially on Google Books no less), by Cambodian-American chef Longteine "Nyep" De Monteiro and Yankee Magazine writer Katherine Neustadt. A diplomat's wife, De Monteiro was born into an upper class family but loved to eat the food of the much poorer folks that worked in the house. Fortunately for De Monteiro, she and her husband were abroad when the Khmer Rouge seized power in Phnom Penh in 1975; sadly, many in her family were not. In happier times, De Monteiro later found her way to France and eventually to Massachusetts where she opened her Elephant Walk restaurants.

Both De Monteiro and Cambodian food websites I've explored mention that prahok is one of the most common flavors in Cambodian cuisine. It is a bitch to find in Baltimore. Not even the uber-well-stocked H-Mart carries it. They carry pastes made out of just about everything: crab, shrimp, beef, pork, onions, tofu, beans, chilies, on and on and on. But oddly, no fish paste. 700 varieties of fish sauce, but no fish paste. Go fig.

Another common food item is the pickle. These pickles aren't like in the US or India where they sit for a few days and are meant to preserve food. Instead, they are meant to give a quick tang when some is needed.

The meal: nataing

To save money, I tried to find recipes that mostly featured ingredients I had lying around. One recipe, nataing, is a rich pork dish made with ground chili (or paprika), coconut milk, garlic and shallots, among other things. I have no idea if this is a traditional dish or something the chef at Elephant Walk created from flavors and textures that reminded her of home. It was meant as an appetizer in the cookbook but it was a centerpiece of the meal (I used a pickle as my vegetable). And fortunately for me, I had most of the ingredients on hand.

I usually avoid posting recipes from cookbooks, but so many others have already done this with this recipe. Still I will merely link to online recipes, and describe roughly what I put in it (check here, for example).

Basically, you sauté about 1/2 pound of ground pork in either ground dried New Mexico chili or paprika, oil and a cup of coconut milk. Eventually, you add ground peanuts (roasted, unsalted), thinly sliced shallot and garlic (lots of it), sugar and fish sauce. Continue to cook about 10 minutes and serve warm over crispy deep fried rice cakes.

The nataing was an especially rich dish, very sweet with a heavy coconut flavor (duh). I couldn't really taste the saltiness of the fish sauce. De Monteiro suggests this as an appetizer, but about a quarter of this dish with rice cakes and a pickle was very filling for me. It's something I would make again.

I had most of the ingredients already, only needing pork (about $2 for a .6 lb package), a shallot (40 cents - because I ran out) and peanuts ($2.50 for the bag - no, I didn't have any roasted peanuts, but at least I have a nice big bag to use later). So I only shelled out about $5 for new ingredients, with about $2.50 of that being an investment in an ingredient I can keep on using for a while. Most people will have most of these ingredients. If you don't have the coconut milk or fish sauce, expect to shell out another $5 for those. The fish sauce will get you a good bit of mileage if you make things that use it.

The meal: crispy rice cakes

The recipe suggests serving nataing on deep fried crispy rice cakes, filling in and of themselves. These things are made out of pre-cooked jasmine rice, and are quite tedious to make. The recipe suggests laying a flat layer of jasmine rice barely submerged in water in a large pan, and continue to cook and press together until you can remove the whole thing as one piece. This should take about 20 minutes. It took me twice as long. I think I had too thick a layer of rice. And it didn't come out in one piece - more like one piece that broke into two or three smaller ones. Not a problem: I fit it all on a cookie sheet and baked at 200 degrees for about 45 minutes. The middle was still a little soft so I left it in a little longer.

Still not completely dry, I tried to fry them in small pieces in hot oil. They still turned out beautifully - crispy, crunchy and a little nutty. True, the nataing sometimes fell off, but they were a nice and extremely filling combination. One word of advice: don't fry it all up at once. You will not be able to get pre-fried rice cakes back to their original crispiness.

If you don't have jasmine rice, a 1 lb bag will cost around

The meal: jícama pickle

I decided to make a quick pickle for a side dish, to cut through all that meat and grease. Since the Elephant Walk Cookbook says that jícama is enjoyed in Cambodia, and since I had one laying around, I went ahead and pickled that with some tomatoes, basing it off the recipe for De Monteiro's red pepper pickle relish. I was uneasy about this at first, but it turned out to be the best part of an already delicious meal.

I replaced the two roasted red peppers in her recipe with two small Roma tomatoes and a small diced jícama. I marinated that for just a half hour with about eight thinly sliced cloves of garlic, in white vinegar, water, fish sauce and sugar. The result was crunchy and tangy, sweet and sour, and a lovely accompaniment to the nataing. Once again, I have another recipe in my arsenal to use in the future!

My exploration of Cambodian food is not quite done yet. I couldn't find a recipe in the cookboook for what even De Monteiro calls a dish that is as ubiquitous as the hamburger is here: amok trey. There are a few recipes floating around on the internet, and it will be the last one I tackle in my crash course in Cambodian cuisine.