The ten odd days we spent in PhnomPenh and SiemReap were gorgeous to say the least.
The awe-inspiring temple complexes of Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom, the intricately carved red sandstone pediments of Banteay Srei narrating tales from Hindu mythology, Nrisingh Avtar slaying HiranyaKashipu, Bali and Sugriva’s battle for supremacy, Nataraja entranced in his cosmic dance, to name but a few, the humbling environs of Ta Prohm reminding Man that Nature shall return to conquer, left me mesmerized and stunned.
Cambodia is a beautiful country, the Khmer people innocent, warm, contented, scarred by the macabre violence of the Paul Pot regime, yet optimistic that the future shall be bright.
One day the golden age of the Khmers shall return, our guide in Phnom Penh, a young lad in his mid-twenties, muses, staring listlessly at the vast expanse of the ageless Mekong.
And that infectious optimism rings loud when I interact with young chefs and restaurateurs in PhnomPenh and SiemReap, proud to showcase Khmer cuisine to the world and not for a moment averse to experimenting with local seasonal produce and bold flavours.
Food in Cambodia was honest, redolent of her earth and her rivers, whether it be street-side cafes or hip restaurants, not for once were we disappointed.
Being the fish addict I am, the vote for my favourite has to, no surprises, go to the fish amok, local Tonle Sap catch marinated in a medley of indigenous spices and coconut cream and steamed in banana leaf parcels. By the time we left Cambodia, I had possibly tried a dozen versions, each one gratifying and delectable, yet different from the others in flavour profile and texture.
One particularly interesting one for me is a nondescript shack beside one of the temples in Siem Reap who serve the ubiquitous amok in a coconut shell.
The waiter, in his late teens, maybe early twenties, reminds me with a grin, Madam please scrape the inside of the coconut shell lightly and stir the coconut flesh into the curry.
I do as instructed and the flavours explode on my palate.
The amok is heavenly, a symphony of perfectly balanced flavours.
Back home and still musing about my travels across Cambodia, I cook a dish inspired by the amok in a coconut shell, albeit with Bengali spices and the humble ridge-gourd in lieu of fish. The outcome, my Daab Jhinge, is hypnotic, the subtle sweetness of coconut flesh balanced by the piquancy of the mustard.
Daab Jhinge. Young ridge-gourd. Tender coconut flesh. A hint of mustard. A kiss of poppy-seed paste. Some wicked chillies. And just a dash of mustard oil.
Food heaven !!!