Sibilla’s Cambodian plate (s)
Late converts are the most fervent. My mother is proof of this; moving to Italy in her 20s she left behind the chowders and meatloaves of New England and wholeheartedly embraced the Church of Pasta and All Italian Food. So much so, that my attempts over the years of introducing exotic elements to our home meals have been met with polite interest – while she is obviously pining for her spagettini numero 3.
Last year my mother declared that she would “never see Asia”. She had her hands full with the family and the farm and saw no point in venturing this far. When her eldest decided not only to move to Singapore but to produce the first grandchild here, her plans had to change. So after the longest flight she has ever been on here she is.
Such a long trip needed to be rewarded with something more than the easy internationalism of Singapore so I booked us on a long weekend to Cambodia, to see the temples at Angkor Wat, my last trip before baby. The temples were stunning, but I was equally interested in the food, and hauling my bulk over ancient stones all day certainly worked up an appetite. I had never had Cambodian before and my research indicated a milder version of Thai, with heavy use of fermented fish and lemongrass pastes.
What a discovery! The tastes were strong with spices without being too pungent or fiery, and the pastes give a really interesting dimension. Coconut milk is used but in smaller quantities than in Thai. We had a tasting menu meal in a more refined restaurant and a mom and pop feast the night after, and although presentation and portion size varied, reoccurring tastes enforced the particularity of this wonderful cuisine – pomelo salad with dried shrimp and chili, green mango and peanut, sour fish soup, spicy beef – and the national dish, fish amok (cause for many a pun), steamed fish with coconut cream and spices, my personal favourite.
I expect and hope that this light and surprising cuisine to become more widespread. My mother ate everything, and her enjoyment seemed to go well beyond politeness, although deep down, I know she is itching for a bowl of spaghetti.