Tuesday, July 31, 2007


Deliciousness alert (I am such a dork):
I just ate some of the best potato salad of my life, but I warn you, it's pretty over the top. Sour cream, mayonaise, garlic, little potatoes, and the secret ingredient, basil. The fatty ridiculous ingredients insure deliciousness, while the basil and garlic give it a spicy kick that you would never expect.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Tom Kha Memories

For lunch today I used the leftover ingredients to try my hand at Tom Kha Gai, a Thai coconut soup made with chicken (in this case, leftover tofu), adding to it sliced sweet potato and carrots. Here's a recipe if you want to give it a shot. I can't delve into the mysteris of Tom Kha, because it's too depressing. Why? Because the best Tom Kha I ever had was at Marisol's in New Orleans, now sadly just a memory thanks to that bitch, Katrina. Chef Pete created a perfect Tom Kha by ditching the chicken and using crabmeat instead, and as I recall, it was a touch spicy as well. I still remember the little gold squares that they put under the bowls. Alas and alack, life moves on.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Cambodian Delights

To begin, I wanted to start a food blog even before all my friends did. So there.

But food is the sort of thing that everyone can talk about without feeling ridiculous, because there are so many ways to approach it, and the more people talk about it the more they learn, which is never a bad thing. For example, you can talk about how to make food, how to eat food, what to drink with your food, where to eat good food, all that stuff. You can also go deeper and talk about how food gets from one place to another, both regionally and continentally, how people make food in different countries, why they eat what they eat, when they eat certain foods and why; the basic anthropology of cuisine. Food represents far more than nutrition - it is a key component of culture.

A few things are important to know in terms of the technical side of this blog. First, I'm a vegetarian and have been for almost six months, with nary a glance back (although I'm eager to figure out how to make a vegetarian spaghetti carbonara). My posts will therefore lean towards vegetarian and vegan food, with seafood occasionally thrown in there. Second, I'm big on travel and open to eating just about everything (sans meat, at this point), from cow brains in Alexandria, Egypt (tastes okay but with a texture like mashed soft tofu, plus you can catch encephalitis from it) to blindly pointing out things on a menu completely in Tamil. Third, I'm a graduate student in Anthropology. Fourth, I live in New Orleans, which is perhaps if not food's Mecca, then certainly its Medina.

Lately I've been eating a ton of Asian food, specifically, Southern Indian, Indonesian and Bali-an, Malaysian, Southern Thai, and Cambodian food, which positively correlates with my current travels in Asia. I've been travelling with my companion (also a dedicated and guaranteed-to-post and very much carnivorous foodie boyfriend), throughout this steamy continent since the beginning of June. We began in Singapore, spent some time in Indonesia including several heavenly days in Bali, then meandered through Malaysia, Thailand and Cambodia, returning just yesterday to Sing after several days sweating it out in Phnom Penh, and will remain here for another week or so before heading back to the Big Sleazy.

So, I'd like to start with what's been on my mind lately, which is Cambodia and Cambodian food.

Like other places in Asia, Cambodian food is heavily rice based and almost always a dish is accompanied by a steaming mound of white (the Khmer verb for 'to eat' is nyam bai, meaning 'eat rice'). Khmer food is similar in certain ways to Thai food, for example, in the use of coconut milk combined with other flavors. Yet Khmer food is as distinct as Khmer culture - something that wasn't lost on the Khmer Rouge in the 1970's (accelerated rice-growing was also a big thing under Pol Pot, but I'll save that for a later post). Among the slaughtered were those who carried on Khmer traditions including dancers, monks, and even cooks who preserved and passed down recipes of the ancient Khmer empire seated at Angkor. Only in the past ten years have certain traditional dishes made a serious comeback.

One peculiarity of Cambodian cooking is the use of a rather unusual ingredient - mashed fermented fish. River fish are descaled and gutted, then smushed around, either by machine or foot, and left in the sun for a day (oh the merciless Cambodian sun), then kept in a jar with salt. The paste can then be added (as a pungent reminder of what country you're in) to cooking. I unfortunately didn't get to try this, however, I've enshrined another local dish in my gut's memory: the ambrosial amok.

Amok is a curry similar to other curries in the region and yet completely different, and I would argue, better. The main difference is that instead of being boiled, it is steamed, resulting in a curry that is solid but incredibly moist, topped with a layer of herbed condensed coconut milk. There are several types, depending on preparation and the meat used, including Amok trei, made with whitefish and steamed in banana leaves, Amok moan, made with chicken, and Amok Chouk made of snails and cooked inside their shells. A foundational component of this and many other dishes is kroeung, a paste of herbs usually containing many or all of the following: lemon grass, cardamon, turmeric, garlic, fish sauce, shallots, cilantro, ginger, cinnamon, cloves, kaffir lime (an Indonesian lime similar in shape and size to the key lime), and galangal, (a rhizome similar in appearance to ginger used widely in Asian cuisine and medicine, believed to be a stimulant and an aphrodisiac, with rather spicy, "soapy, earthy aroma and a pine-like flavor" and "a faint hint of citrus" 1)

The best Amok that I supped upon was hands down the vegetarian tofu Amok at Le Papier du Tigre, a classy little joint in Siem Reap, located next to a restaurant claiming the best amok in town but decidedly having the second best (although a killer grapefruit and shrimp salad). I will attempt to recreate it here:

Amok Tofu
1 pack of medium or hard tofu, cut into medium-size cubes
4-8 banana leaves, or dark green cabbage leaves, cut into 8-inch squares
1 can coconut milk, unsweetened
1 beaten egg
kaffir lime leaves
oyster mushrooms (a small handful per serving), in bite size pieces

For the Kroeung
1 garlic clove
1/2 chopped red onion
1 Tbs finely chopped cilantro
1/4 tsp grated ginger
1 chopped small piece of galangal or 1/2 tsp ground galangal (if you've got it)
2 Tbs chopped lemon grass or 2 tsp ground lemon grass
1/2 tsp turmeric
1 tsp paprika
2 Tbs fish sauce
1 Tbs shrimp paste
2-3 cayenne peppers, chopped and crushed
zest of 1/4 of a small lime
1 Tbs lime juice

1 Tbs sugar
1/2 tsp salt

1. Using a blender, blend the garlic, cilantro, ginger, lemon grass, turmeric, lime zest, paprika, fish sauce or shrimp paste and sugar. Add the coconut milk and blend again.
2. Pour the coconut mix into a medium saucepan, add the beaten egg, galangal, and onion and simmer, stirring, for 10 minutes until thickened.
3. While that's cookin', bring a small pan of water to boil and place either the cabbage or banana leaves in there so that they become pliant. To make the cups; imagine a smaller square inside the square-cut leaves, which will be the bottom of the cup, then fold the sides up, pinning or even stapling the folds as you go. Make another cup to place over its pair, thereby creating a little box.
4. Season the tofu with salt and cover it with half of the coconut sauce.
5. At the center of each leaf, place a dollop of the tofu mixture, then fold the edges over and pin securely, with toothpicks or even staples. Steam these little babies for 25 minutes.
6. A few minutes before serving, heat the remained of the sauce. Either pull off one of the leaf-cups or slice an opening into packets and spoon the remainder of the coconut sauce over the insides (the sauce should be nice and thick, like cream), garnishing with finely sliced cayenne. Serve with rice.

I found that mine turned out alright - not exactly what I remembered (I couldn't find any banana leaves or big enough cabbage, so I, um, ended up using coffee filters), but that the curry flavor was really, really good. In the future I will totally experiment with eggplant, okra, sweet potatoes and other various veggies. I would pair it with beer or if you want to get all fancy, with a light, citrusy, dry chardonnay.