While in Phnom Penh Robert and I were lucky enough to be under the tutelage of a Fine Dining Khmer chef trained by the famous Raffles Hotel group of Singapore. Not only is she a chef but also happens to be the matriarch of the family that was taking care of us and leading our Cambodia culinary adventure.
Robert learning about Khmer street food
Most of our “tasting time” was, as usual, spent on the street sampling the various street venders and trying to understand and live like the locals do; in an effort to show us a more refined side of Khmer cuisine our resident matriarch and chef agreed give us a crash course and demonstration in Khmer fine dining. One blazing hot afternoon Chef Danhi & I jumped on our friend’s dirt bike, one for the 3 of us, and headed to the outskirts of the city.
3 Chefs on one bike
We arrived at a large complex that was actually still being completed and was very upscale when compared to the surroundings.
New Housing Complex
We entered the family dwelling and immediately jumped into the cooking, which actually ended up being more observing than cooking. The chef proceeded to produce dish after dish of traditional Khmer offerings in a relatively refined form including, a steamed fish and glutinous rice cake called Amok; a curried chicken dish, that tasted similar to a very mild version of a Thai curry; a traditional herbed omelet, similar to omelets I have had with the Hill Tribes of North Thailand; and a custard steamed in a pumpkin.
Robert's Photot Documentation
If i had to describe Khmer food in a sentence i would say that it is similar to the country’s location geographically, in that it is sandwiched between Thailand and Vietnam. Much of the food looks and tastes like Thai food that has been created with a Vietnamese culinary mind in that the food is rather mild and could be considered “bland” when compared to that of Thailand or Malaysia.
Folding leaves to hold the Amok
Once all of the food was complete a expansive spread began to take form on the living room floor, the traditional eating local throughout most of the region. After snapping a few photos we all sat down to enjoy as a family of food enthusiasts and new friends. All of the love that went into the creation of this feast quickly made its way into our conversations, relations, and now recollection. The company and resulting microcosm of culture was even better than the food and serves as an accent to a culinary experience I will never forget.
One of the wildest things Chef Danhi & I experienced in Phnom Penh was what I like to call the “Whole Roasted Cow District”; a street nearly lined and dedicated to restaurants featuring and serving a whole roasted young cow.
A fresh one is ready to serve
Although not full grown, these animals are far from veal and actually rather large. Impossible to miss, they stand, skewered from snout to tail on a long steel pole, rotating slowly over red hot coals, and not in the kitchen but rather, in the parking lot, smack in the middle of the restaurant’s entry way.
The cow on the table
Pieces of meat are sliced and torn from the beast to order arriving on the table in a variety of forms and accompanied by and intimidating duo of local chili sauce and a pungently gamey fermented fish paste with the consistency of paper mache. I mean, this stuff was so funky the flavor and aroma were beyond fishy; achieving a new level of funk, funk so alerter and advanced that it is no longer identifiable as an odor emitted by a fish, or fish product, or anything even remotely close to a fish.
The beef its self was mild in flavor when compared to its accoutrements but reeking of terroir, it tasted of the long hay like grasses covering the roadside grazing areas throughout and surrounding the city. At this type of establishment the end of service is rather obvious and determined by the amount of remaining flesh rather than the clock or reservations.
If you are in Phenom Penh and get a craving for a whole lot of beef, check out the “whole roasted cow district” for much more than a meal.
Chef Danhi and I recently returned from our latest culinary adventure through Southeast Asia. In this last expedition we covered Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore, and Cambodia. While in KualaLumpur Robert and a couple of our friends and colleges had the opportunity to attend a special dinner held at the illustrious Mandarin Oriental hotel. Usually during these culinary quests Robert and I stick to the indigenous fair as the primary focus of these journeys is usually to to learn and discover more about the authentic cuisines of Southeast Asia, but this dinner was very different from most.
Chef Ramsey tempers his frozen watermelon dish
The special event was a guest chef appearance and prefixed 23 course meal by 31 year old Chef Jeff Ramsey, Chef de Cuisine of the Tapas Molecular Bar, a Michelin Star rated restaurant in the Mandarin Oriental hotel of Tokyo, and formerly of Jose Andres’s Cafe Atlantico in Washington DC.
Chef Ramsey presented us with delicious and innovative dishes and flavors from around this word and beyond. Meal such as this one are a rare and refreshing reminder that when done with integrity and a bit of restraint, these molecular techniques yield a remarkably different dinning experience.One such technique was Chef Ramsey’s method of adding smoke to a dish by pumping the smoke into a dome-covered plate of food, the top of which was removed on the table by the guest, realeasing the aroma when it is needed, just before consumption.
Chef Ramsey uses this hydro-powered apparatus to pump smoke into the domes
The highlight of the dinner, at least for me, was the most simple course. The chef presented a plate of characteristically tart, sliced fruit accompanied by a little red, unassuming berry. The chef instructed us to first taste one of the fruits, i chose the lemon wedge, and then chew on the berry for about a minute and allow the pulp to coat your mouth and palate and then taste the same piece of fruit again. The first time i tasted the lemon it tasted just as i suspected, sour, but the second time i tasted it, after i chewed the berry, it was sweet like lemon candy. Chef Ramsey went on to explain that this was the result of a protein present in these special berries that drastically changes your palate’s perception of flavor. I had read about this berry before and heard it referred to as “flavor tripping”. This is definitely an experience worth trying!
Japanese Charcoal Salad Dressing is used for plate work and flavor
Chef Danhi and I are quite fond of using the phrase “Cuisine within Context”; but what does that really mean? Today I would like to share a story that I believe illustrated this self coined term beautifully.
Terraced Sticky Rice Paddy
In September of 2008, my Chef, Robert Danhi, and I capitalized on an opportunity to take part in a home-stay program with the White Karen hill tribe inhabiting the mountainous region North of Chiang Mai. The goal of this expedition was to spend some time getting to know the culture and cuisine of the tribal people. This particular episode happened to be at the end of our trip; Robert and I had just spent a month in Southeast Asia and completed a tour of some of the world’s greatest food cultures, Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Singapore; places where cuisine is king and I am not the only one who thinks so. The experiences that filled the last 25 days had raised the proverbial bar of expectations to unknown heights and I simple could not wait to explore yet another culinary culture.
Upon entering these hills I was well aware of the history and global influence of the region. This is the infamous “Golden Triangle”, a long time hub of poppy cultivation and opium production. Although I knew not what to expect, my mind was inundated by romanticized imagery of trekking on elephant back through lush jungle and poppy fields.
As we crept into the jungle and my imagination discovered reality I found the truth to be a patch work of the anticipated and the unexpected. While the pristine, emerald green forest I had imagined was very much a reality, it met my perception from a point of view quite lower than I had expected; as I had failed to procure the pachyderm companion that accompanied and propelled me through the jungle of my dreams. As vegetation enveloped and miniaturized our humble party, we were given our first glimpse of the forest from within. A dank, vegetative aroma preceded the thundering waterfalls escorting us as we descended the jungle mount, ripping through the overgrowth and pummeling the rocks below before transforming into turbulent tributaries tracing our path through the dense foliage and finally give way to whispering streams.
Moving through such terrain can be as treacherous as it is tantalizing, especially when hiking in flip flop sandals. Because of the many dangers and obstacles hidden in the wet forest floor, I found myself perpetually walking with head down and eyes focused on the next place to safely step. So involved was I in the requirements of my step by step journey, I lost track of my location and progress. Rounding a bend and emerging from a tree-dwelling cloud, I was over taken by a landscape as stunning and awe inspiring as any I had yet seen, approaching and even surpassing the seemingly impossibly pristine conditions of my imagination. In front of me lay an expansive step of terraced sticky rice paddies cascading down the hillside and saturating the mountain valley with pigments of jade. This emerald sea of rice patty was dotted with traditional, stilted, straw huts, scored by an extensive irrigation network, and framed by towering, green mountains. The landscape simultaneously stunned and beckoned me to venture deeper within; the exotic, sultry elegance of this environment quickly reminded me of where I was and in a manner constant with the surroundings, loudly introduced itself as the Golden Triangle of Northern Thailand!
After shaking off my initial star stuck reaction and pinching myself one more time I ventured into this enchanted land of both fiction and fact only to find that my fairytale was even grander than I had initially assessed. Upon closer inspection this vast rice paddy was of no ordinary manner, to my amazement it was entirely composed of row after row of neatly manicured Thai sticky rice. This unique grain is cooked in a true steaming process where the rice is actual held above boiling water and is hydrated by the raising vapors. Most rice that is called “steamed rice” is actually not steamed at all, it is cooked through an absorption method where the grains are placed directly into boiling liquid and are hydrated through direct contact and saturation.
ri in sticky rice patty chiang mai
In northern Thailand the traditional method of eating is with one’s hands and once cooked this long grain delicacy is chewy and malleable making it the perfect vehicle for scooping up palate scorching curries and other tasty offerings. Small clusters about the size of a tablespoon are plucked from purpose built sticky rice baskets, then massaged into small discs and used as an edible grabbing utensil. This is without a doubt my absolute favorite way to eat and favorite variety of rice!
Encouraged and enticed my chef and I simply could not wait to dive into a traditional kitchen and indulge in both the cuisine and culture of the people who had so graciously taken us into their homes. That night we gathered on the floor of a traditional stilt home to prepare dinner. However, this meal and the conversations held around it would be much different from those we had indulged elsewhere in Thailand. It became quickly evident that although we were still in Thailand, we were no longer dealing with Thai people. Dinner consisted of a tasty but rather boring stir fry, a strange ethnic omelets, an outstanding Vietnamese style pummelo salad, courtesy of the chef and I, steamed sticky rice, and despite our best efforts, absolutely zero food talk. This was not a food culture at all.
Robert & I doing some prep
After dinner we were invited to a “party” in one of the communal shelters. As we sat around a central fire, some how built in a wooden fire place in a wood and straw stilt house and drank local rice whisky, much light was shed on the confusing meal we had just had. With little prodding it was explained to us that the White Karen tribe was of Mongol decent and had fled to this area as a result of lethal persecution. There cuisine was developed out of sheer necessity and was meant to sustain a people on the run. As the roots of this hospitable family and their people where revealed our disappointment transformed into intrigue and a final moment of clarity. The history of this people is filled with challenges far greater than achieving perfect seasoning and there cuisine is a direct reflection of this. When Thai cuisine and culture are observed in the same light the result is the same. Thailand is a nation of free people, a people that have never been conquered and have had the luxury of focusing on food and fun; resulting in a vibrant and active food culture. These two culture and their respective cuisines may share a country but in reality are like night to day and it is clearly visible.
“Cuisine within Context” is a powerful and enlightening concept. I encourage anyone with an interest in food and culture to look at things in this light; I believe it will be as rewarding and revealing to you as it has been for me.
One of my favorite places in Vietnam is the coastal city of Nha Trang. This city is home to our good friend Captain Cook and Chef Danhi’s favorite fish sauce, produced in small batches by a local family. In September of 2008 Chef Danhi and Co had the opportunity to visit this beautiful city, named Nha Trang meaning Bamboo River by the ancient Champa people that used to inhabit the area. While visiting we made it a point to seek out this artisanal fish sauce factory that Robert had been telling us about since his last visit to the city. Lead by the prolific and local Captain Cook, AKA Mr. Chow, we were able to locate this fabled fish sauce family. We arrived at the family home by way of 2 stroke motor bike. We hopped off our bikes and strolled up to the front door where Captain Cook was already speaking to an elderly woman. I watched as the corners of Captain Cook’s smile became heavy and morphed into a telling frown; something was wrong. He explained that, to our disappointment and relative dismay, they were no longer producing this potent elixir of umami. Our disappointment was quickly eclipsed by an obvious and overwhelming sense of grief permeating the air and was evident on the expressions of all those around us who could understand the conversation being held in Vietnamese. Captain explained that the family Patriarch had just passed away and the family was in the middle of the grieving process. Traditionally the younger generations would take over following the death of the patriarch; however, in Vietnam today the majority of the population is under the age of 25 and this younger generation has a different idea of what is cool and desirable in a profession. It was made very clear to us that the young adults of working age in this family do not want to continue the family tradition of fish sauce making. “it is very hard work and it smells really bad” they told us as they pinched their noses. What is going to happen to these ancient and regional traditions? Are they destined to eventual oblivion? Only time will tell.
We did eventually find another small, local producer in Nha Trang. Check out the photos!
In the upcoming month of May Chef Robert will be attending and speaking at the annual Thaifex trade show. Thaifex is an “International Trade Fair covering Food & Beverage, Food Catering, Food Technology, Hospitality Service and Retail & Franchise” and the largest food show in Asia.
“Thaifex – World of Food Asia held in Bangkok, Thailand, is where global players of food and beverage meet. It is the leading trade platform for the food and beverage industry in South East Asia. Based on the world’s largest food and beverage trade fair – ANUGA in Cologne, Germany, Thaifex – World of Food Asia is a one-stop shop for all in the industry. From processing technology and ingredients to the end products, the trade fair covers all areas of production.”
On May 14th Robert will be moderating a 3 hour panel discussion entitled “How Food Products Get On American Menus”.This interactive session will give the attendees an inside look on how a food ingredients moves through the product and menu development cycle.Chef Danhi and the Thai Department of Export Promotion has assembled this panel of industry experts to take the audeince through a culinary adventure of menu items from the streets of Asia to the plates of American consumer. A step-by-step product development process will be outlined and how the discipline of Culinology™ (Research Chefs Association), begins with the manufacturers and continues to play a important role all the way on to the plate or package the customer enjoys.Panelist Include: Chef Lon Symensma of he famous New York City restaurant Buddakan; Ross Kamens, Executive Chef of Noodles & Co, a chain of over 200 restaurants in the USA, and Chef Mark Waltzer of Premier Culinary Consulting Group who works with leading food manufacturers and restaurant chains to bring food products to the marketplace.
In addition to the thousands of attendees from around Asia and the greater globe, Chef Danhi will be making this trip accompanied by a select group of “movers and shakers” within the American food industry. This group of “power-chefs” is in search of the next big things in flavor, texture, distribution, and packaging coming out of this “on-trend” region. A few categories of interest highlighted by the event producers are: The Asian Hospitality and Food Service Industry, Coffee and Tea, and Food Technology.
Although saddened by the fact that I cannot attend, I am already salivating at the thought of the deliciously, exotic food finds that are sure to result from this epicurean expedition! I will be sure to keep you up to date on this as things develop.
Chef Danhi and I recently attended the 2009 International Association of Culinary Professionals (IACP) annual conference held in my home town of Denver Colorado. The highlight of this event, for me at least, was a class entitled “Bourbon, America’s Native Spirit” proctored by the one and only Parker Beam of the famous Jim Beam label and family.
As a long time fan and once upon a time salesman of this mahogany hued elixir of life and anger I thought I knew a good bit about it. However, a good deal of knowledge, new to me, was imparted by this iconic figure of the beverage industry. As charismatic as he is genuine, Parker Beam captivated even my limited attention span; divulging golden nuggets of information in a manner only achieved by such a southern gentleman.
It turns out that Bourbon dose not, in fact, have to made in Kentucky to be called Bourbon, it simple has to be made there if you intend to sell any of it, as it was put by Parker.
Through out this indulgent and educational episode of justified intoxication the audience was coddled through a progressive tasting of some of Kentucky’s finest Bourbons, beginning with a cantankerous 4 year old youngster and climaxing with a sultry, 28 year old lick of Mr. Parker Beams name sake spirit. I shared an intense love hate relationship with this minuscule yet monumental moment in time as I savored each drop and then instantly suffered its departure from my palate; that is until I noticed a few foolish or perhaps unfortunate victims of scheduling circumstance had abandoned full glasses of this wonderful whiskey as old as I and yet far more mature. I quickly scooped them up and was on my way before anyone could notice or at least do anything about it.
Aside from the beverage knowledge, I learned much from this experience. I realized that although often, my mother is not always incorrect. For years it has been her mission to enlighten people of the power of living in, and enjoying the moment. The moment I spent with this glass of Kentucky pride was as exhilarating as it was brief and could only be appreciated for that very instant, but because it was, will be fondly remembered for the rest of my drunken, stumbling, days.
Chef Danhi & Co recently returned from our first annual retreat. We took this opportunity to get out of the confusion of everyday work where we could more accurately analyze the big picture; sometimes it is hard to see the trees within the forest. From this perspective we were able to talk about what we are doing, how we are doing it, and what we would like to be doing and how to get there. On top of a lot of very useful conversation and planning we had a lot of fun doing some recreational target shooting, or as Robert calls it “Ballistic Indulgence”, and romping around the Mojave in my Jeep.
Last time Robert and I were in Koh Samui, we rented scooters, as is the tradition, and took a wind in our hair, well at least mine, epicurean adventure and found this lady parked in a dirt lot. Her food was outstanding and when I asked for some Nahm Prik, chili sauce, for my grilled chicken she smiled and proceeded to hand pound it in her marvelous mortar. If you are ever in Samui look for her colorful hat and don’t pass up the chance to sample her grilled chicken, Nahm Prik, and fermented rice noodle papaya salad.