Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Seim Reap, Cambodia

As we arrived in Cambodia from Saigon, we were greeted at the Siem Reap Airport by our guide Ta, who escorted us to the stylish Hotel de la Paix, our beautiful Khmer-inspired accommodations for the next four days. 

The name Cambodia derives from the French Cambodge, which comes from the Khmer word Kâmpuchea, but more recent governments have returned to using Cambodia. The official name is now the Kingdom of Cambodia. The ancient capital of the Khmer Empire was at Angkor — the world famous UNESCO World Heritage site — which is very close to present-day Siem Reap, our home for the next few days.

Cambodia's cuisine draws from the great civilizations of China and India and is also influenced by neighboring Vietnam and Thailand. There are also traces of French inspiration from the time when Cambodia was part of French Indochina. The Chinese left the legacy of stir-frying, while curry dishes that employ dried spices such as star anise, cardamom, cinnamon, nutmeg and fennel were borrowed from India, but given a distinctive Khmer twist with the addition of local ingredients such as lemongrass, garlic, coconut, kaffir lime leaves, turmeric, chilli peppers, shallots and galangal. 
Also, a pungent fermented fish paste Pra Hoc is used extensively in many Khmer dishes and and adds a unique flavour to Cambodian cooking. 

For our first evening in Siem Reap, we enjoyed an outstanding Khmer 8-course tasting menu which included delicate Deep Fried Krill (tiny shrimp) with Khmer Papaya Pickle which was served on on a banana leaf; Khmer Shrimp Cake; Star Fruit with Chicken arrived in a decorative coconut shell; Pan Fried Needle Fish with Green Mango Sauce was displayed on a hand-carved wooden board; 'Jungle-style' Sour Soup was artfully served in a hollowed-out shoot of bamboo; and finally, Stir Fried Prawns with Green Pepper Corn and Frog Green Curry with Khmer organic brown and white rice arrived in hand-thrown pottery bowls; the finale — a tray of assorted Khmer sweets. Each of the small dishes were just delicious and so exquisitely presented, that our first introduction to Khmer cuisine was as much a feast for our eyes as it was for our taste buds.

Cambodian Shrimp Cakes
Makes 6-8 small cakes

1 lb ground shrimp
1 clove garlic
2 chopped green onions
1/4 tsp soy sauce
1/2 tsp fish sauce
1/4 tsp sugar
4 tsp Thai Red Curry Paste
1/4 tsp black pepper
1/2 cup grated jicima
1/4 cup red pepper, diced fine
1 tsp fresh ginger, grated
1 egg white only
1 cup flour
peanut oil, for frying

1/4 cup hot water
1/4 cup sugar
1/3 cup lime juice
1/3 cup fish sauce
3 chopped red chillies

In a large bowl, mix ground shrimp, garlic, onions, soy sauce, fish sauce, sugar, paprika, black pepper, jicima, red pepper and ginger. Mix well.

Add the egg white and the flour. Mix well, forming into small patties. Use a little flour to better handle the patties. Set aside.

Heat a frying pan to medium heat. Add oil. Pan fry shrimp patties in peanut oil until both sides are golden.

For the sauce, mix hot water and sugar until dissolved. Then add lime juice, fish sauce, and chillies. Mix well and let cool slightly before serving on the side with the Shrimp Cakes garnished with cilantro.