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Eating <i> Amok </i> (and Other Cambodian Wonders)

“L ittle Phnom Penh” is easy to spot. Suddenly, a plain-American street in Long Beach sprouts dozens of signs in wiggly Khmer script--you’re in the middle of the largest Cambodian expatriate community in the world.

Cambodian businesses have revived this once-decaying strip of Anaheim Street, but oddly, there were few Cambodian restaurants until a short while ago.

More than 40,000 Cambodians live here. Traditionally, though, Cambodian food was cooked at home, from ingredients picked in the backyard and fished from a nearby stream. When Cambodians did go out, it was usually to a Chinese restaurant.

At last a sort of restaurant row has developed. After more than a decade of radical cultural adjustments, including the two-income family, Cambodian-Americans have discovered the advantages of leaving the time-consuming preparation of their favorite dishes to restaurants.

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The new places cropping up in Little Phnom Penh have also become the hub of business and social activity. Some are booked for weddings and parties on weekends. It isn’t necessary yet to make reservations at a Cambodian restaurant, but it’s wise to call ahead and make sure it’s open.

Cambodian cooking has a lot in common with the food of its neighbors, Thailand and Vietnam, and shares the same Indian and Chinese influences. Although not as spicy-hot as Thai, it relies on similar seasonings. One thing that identifies the food as Cambodian is the emphatic use of salted, pickled or fermented fish condiments; if you like Thai food, the tastes will be instantly familiar. The owners of Battambang turned an Anaheim Street auction house into a pleasant, roomy restaurant, a sort of community clubhouse. At the end of the dining area, opposite a hand-painted mural of Angkor Wat, a 50-inch television set screens Cambodian movies, singers and sports.

The menu, a thick tome written in four languages--English, Khmer, Chinese and Vietnamese--may look exotic, but with a few exceptions it proves to be everyday Chinese food. My Cambodian friends put this printed menu aside and ordered duck sour soup, amok and praw hok k’tee , dishes not listed at all.

Memorize the phrase: “Please bring us the small plastic table-top menu written in Khmer.” That’s what you have to say to get the menu that lists complete Cambodian meals. You won’t be able to read it, but you can point to the A or C dinners, which are particularly good ways to explore the cuisine.

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On the $16 “A” dinner, suitable for two or three, you get your choice of beef hot-and-sour soup or duck sour soup. The latter is a robust curry-like dish in which tamarind, lemon grass and leaves from the tropical “kaffir lime” each lend a different tone of tartness, mellowed with the richness of coconut milk and the ethereal aroma of ground toasted rice.

At the same time you’ll be served two other dishes. For one of them, be sure to choose praw hok k’tee , one of the best dishes Cambodian cuisine has to offer: minced pork cooked in coconut milk, beautifully seasoned with lime leaf, a little fresh chile and pickled fish. It’s one of a number of Cambodian minced meat dishes served with a plate of raw vegetables for scooping up the seasoned meat.

For the other dish, you might choose the clams fried with mint to study the similarities between Cambodian and Thai cooking. I’d really recommend picking the outstanding beef salad, though. For dessert you’ll get a typical Southeast Asian-style tapioca soup, slightly sweet, topped with slices of yu t’iao-- Chinese doughnut.

A dish worth ordering a la carte with the “A” dinner is amok , a creamy Asian pate of fish and coconut milk steamed on a bed of Chinese greens (if you’ve had the Thai hormok you’ll recognize it). On the “C” dinner, though, you can get amok without having to order a la carte.

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That “C” dinner ($28) serves four or five. For starters, choose Cambodian-style lobster soup with banana blossoms. It tastes like a milder version of the Thai hot-and-sour shrimp soup tom yam koong and sparkles with the heady scent of lemon grass.

The second dish, a whole fish, may be ordered deep fried with a tart dipping sauce or with Chinese-style brown bean sauce. If you wish, though, the waitress will substitute amok. Mandarin fried chicken, the third item, may seem to lack Cambodian character but my friends, reaching for second helpings of the deliciously crunchy bird, informed me that mixing Chinese and Cambodian food in a restaurant was perfectly natural--particularly since this is Cambodian- style Chinese food.

The fourth dish, trey praw ma chum hoy , is a steamed cake of pork, fish and egg with a potent fishy flavor that is best eaten with lots of rice. Dessert is the same exotic tapioca soup as on the “A” dinner.

Battambang Restaurant, 2501 E. Anaheim St., Long Beach. (213) 439-9301. Open 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily. Monorom is the least opulent of Little Phnom Penh’s restaurants. But the frail-looking lady behind its stoves has a knack for creating spectacular flavors.

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Although Monorom’s menu does describe some dishes in English, ordering has its share of frustrations. Here, as in most of the other restaurants, the Khmer name of a dish is not given in Roman letters, making it impossible to order most of the dishes except by pointing. And sometimes delicious-looking food appears on other tables that isn’t on the menu at all.

But if you point or ask the owner what he has on special, you’re likely to wind up with something wonderful. That’s how I discovered nataing , one of the most delicious Cambodian dishes I’ve ever eaten. It looks like a bowl of chili and comes with puffy rice cakes and French bread, which you dip in the nataing . The secret of the dish’s creaminess is the ground peanuts and coconut milk in the mild pepper-flavored sauce.

The first section of Monorom’s menu lists rice plates, including a house specialty, pork stew over rice. Below the rice plates are 16 dishes, mostly written in Khmer. Count down to the eighth one (like all Cambodian restaurants, Monorom makes things tough for most of us by using Cambodian rather than Arabic numerals on the menu) and order tak kruen , a dip accompanied by a plate of vegetables. It’s rather like praw hok k’tee , using grilled fish in place of meat, and is dressed with lime sauce, fresh Asian basil and chiles.

Monorom’s fish sour soup with banana blossoms (third on the list) consists of catfish slices, tomatoes, pineapple and, of course, banana buds (think of them as hot-pink hearts of palm), in a clear, tangy broth generously sprinkled with fried garlic. The curry-like beef sour soup (fourth down), dosed with tart lime leaf and turmeric, is flecked with delicate, pointed “water grass” leaves that resemble very tender spinach. Water grass also appears, sauteed with bit of minced pork and a light sweet garlicky sauce, in the last (16th) dish on the list.

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Monorom, 2150 E. Anaheim St., Long Beach. (213) 987-0130. Open 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily. Peilin is one of the oldest of the Cambodian places. The large, open dining room is dazzling: vibrant coral-colored walls rimmed with electric blue and vermilion neon strips. And when the restaurant is full, which it often is at lunchtime, there’s a lively energy in the room.

As at Battambang, the four-language printed menu primarily lists Chinese items and a table-top menu lists the Cambodian dishes in Khmer script. My Cambodian friends recommended the second item on the table-top menu, a home-style dish called samlaw. Cambodian cooks make many kinds of samlaws and this one, a soupy stew of quail and beef, included exotic vegetables such as Asian pumpkin and golf ball-sized eggplants.

We also had succulent Cambodian-style sates (fifth on the list), and a Cambodian beef salad (No. 6). This fresh-tasting toss of thinly cut beef and cabbage, bathed in a sweet-tart lime dressing, comes artfully garnished with red bell pepper strips and roasted peanuts.

You can try giant Asian prawns by ordering the crab soup, No. 57, and asking that “lobster” be substituted (Cambodian restaurants refer to their giant prawns as lobsters). The huge meaty prawns are cooked shell and all in a tart and spicy seafood broth fragrant with lemon grass.

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Peilin Restaurant, 2232 E. Anaheim St., Long Beach, (213) 433-3810. Open 7:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily. (Note: Peilin plans to move to 1350 E. Anaheim sometime in June.) Kim and Sophy Ngann have opened Royal Palace in the North Long Beach-Lakewood area, a suburban outpost of Little Phnom Penh. It has the usual Chinese menu that doesn’t tell the whole story. In this case, the two back pages of the menu are written in Khmer, as are the Cambodian specialties listed on the wall above the buffet area. Sophy Ngann’s descriptions of these are dependable.

The Nganns are justly proud of their sates , which make good appetizers. When you’ve finished them, bypass the first 20 items on the Khmer menu, all Chinese, for the more traditional Cambodian dishes, the 21st through 32nd, plus the 50th.

Of these, Kim Ngann recommended kapi cha kreung (29th down), one of the Cambodian dishes of minced meat to be dipped up with vegetables. This version, flavored with salty shrimp paste and a little chile, went perfectly with cool, tart slices of green mango.

Royal Palace’s tak kruen , the pounded fish dip with lime (31st down), lacks the chile and basil flavors that make Monorom’s so exciting. But a hearty samlaw that combined squab, catfish, eggplant and Chinese greens in curry-like broth was the tastiest I’ve had. Cambodians have a particular way of eating this dish: put a fish slice and a little liquid over some rice, and proceed with a spoon in the right hand and a fork in the left.

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From the Cambodian dishes listed on the wall, I chose poh ‘ohw cham hoy , another meat dip for vegetables. This time the meat was flavored with pickled fish called poh ‘ohw. Tre kaw svei katchai , a dish of sliced catfish, came lightly coated in a rich, slightly salty glaze and topped with julienne of green mango.

Royal Palace, 3713 E. South St., Long Beach. (213) 630-7306. Open Monday through Friday 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday 8 a.m. to 10 p.m.

At Banteay Srey Village, ordering is relatively simple. The dishes are listed by categories, such as soft noodle, appetizers, spicy soups and chowders (thickened samlaws ), and they are described in English.

“Hot pot” dinners at a Cambodian restaurant can be any kind of dish cooked communally at the table, whether in the familiar Mongolian hot pot or a chafing dish. But not all of Banteay Srey’s hot pots are successful. Beef with anchovy sauce a la Cambodia is an unappealing plate of barely seasoned, lukewarm grilled beef that had been cooked in the kitchen.

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Another time we ordered the Banteay Srey Village hot pot No. 27, which may be the restaurant’s best item. First the waitress brings a chafing dish filled with a slightly sweet curry and coconut milk broth. As it begins to simmer, platters of soft fresh rice noodles, raw vegetables and herbs, and thinly sliced beef and seafood arrive. You are equipped with long-handled wire baskets for retrieving the food from the simmering pot. To eat, you either wrap pieces of meat and seafood in lettuce with a few sprigs of the herbs, taco-fashion, or mix them into a small bowl of silky noodles and broth.

Other good bets are the Cambodian sausage, any of the seafood hot-and-sour soups and the soft rice noodle Cambodian-style. But it must be said that some of Banteay Srey’s less successful dishes could discourage one from ever trying Cambodian food again. The quail and vegetable chowder was murky tasting, the dressing on our squid salad lackluster, and tre pa ma chum hoy overcooked and dry.

On Friday and Saturday evenings when Banteay Srey has live entertainment, the restaurant is filled to overflowing with groups of smiling eaters. And when the singer takes the stage some diners applaud as she begins a favorite song. It’s clear Cambodian people are beginning to feel at home in Long Beach. And they are making restaurant dining part of the new Cambodian-American culture.

Well and good. Now, if only someone would spell out the Cambodian names on these menus, we would know what to call our favorite dishes.

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Banteay Srey Village Restaurant, 1020 Anaheim St., Long Beach. (213) 495-4140. Open 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily.


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