From Our Foreign Curryspondent ... Dateline: Cambodia!

(The TATTGOC brotherhood extends around the globe, and we welcome reports of curry expeditions beyond Glasgow – here chief Foreign Curryspondent Tikka MaBaws files another spicy dispatch – complete with recipe! – from his globetrotting journey with Phall From Grace. Follow their ongoing adventures at travel/photo blog I Done A Holiday)

A Beginner's Guide To Cambodian Curry

As Phall From Grace and I bumble our way around the world, it's hard to get away from a travelling cliché: more often than not, food provides structure to long, unemployed days on the road. Sadly, in places like China it doesn't matter how you try to structure things, the scran is largely pish. Things are better south in Vietnam – nowhere in the world will you find better spring rolls; few places have better coffee either. But while there's plenty of spice in China (anything to disguise the greasy, bony dreadfulness of the food) and plenty of tasty snacks in 'Nam, there's a chronic lack of decent curry in both.

And then we arrived in Cambodia. We expected plenty before getting here - historical glory and modern horror in spades - but who could have guessed that it'd be this plucky little nation that'd pull out not just curry, but some of the very finest that this Foreign Curryspondent has ever tasted? It's not just me who thinks so either, but someone who Actually Knows What He's Talking About.

“I didn't know much about Cambodian cuisine before I got here – even if you Google it, you don't get much help,” says chef Wayan Mawa. After settling in Siem Reap as head chef of perhaps the swankiest hotel in the country, the Indonesian is now deep into a love affair with what he calls “royal Khmer” cuisine.

As we walk around a market in downtown Siem Reap, he points out over 50 ingredients that can potentially go into Cambodian dishes. From lotus flowers, to pig heads (that's not a metaphor for anything), to frog-skin aubergines, it's fair to say you won't find many of them in an average Dennistoun Lidl. But while they're selling fried locusts and deep-fried tarantulas on sticks outside (in Cambodia that is, though possibly in Denny as well), Chef Mawa's scran is an altogether more regal affair – and naturally at the top of his menu you'll find curry.

He specialises in two particular types: royal Khmer and amok. The latter is regarded as the national dish and is typically cooked with fish (hardly surprising given the importance of the Mekong River in these parts), though it also suits chicken well. In all cases it is uniformly delicious. Even one poisonous offering we had in Phnom Penh tasted fantastic, until it started coming out our noses and gave a new meaning to the phrase “to run(s) amok”.

“This country is completely different to the others,” says the jolly Balinese cook. “Thai and Vietnamese food is not really involved in real Cambodian cuisine, either. The Lok Lac [delicious fried beef] and Khmer curry is more similar to central Javanese food, for example.”

This I quite believe, but the amok, full of lime leaves and baby aubergines, could hardly taste more Thai. Surely Cambodia has taken some influence from its neighbour there? “Actually it was the other way around,” replies Mawa, dismissing my childish question with healthy disdain. “Amok was created here and influenced the Thai food. When the Thais attacked Siem Reap they took everything, including some of the recipes. Now they use coconuts in Thailand too, but the dishes are much thinner – Cambodia uses coconut milk like nowhere else.”

We head outside to the grounds of the hotel and chef gives me a tour of his spice garden. He's growing some potent-looking chillies out here, but they play a surprisingly low-key role in Cambodian cooking. Instead, some locals in rural parts use them to line their gardens in order to fend off spice-phobic elephants. Ordinarily I can't stand coconut-based curries, but the royal Khmer curry and amok rely heavily on it and include almost no chilli at all. I'm almost embarrassed that my pyromania has seemingly vanished. As if to console me, the chef ushers us into his kitchen to begin what is nominally a cooking class. In fact it's more like a demonstration, but I get to wear a hat that - after some not inconsiderable adjustments - almost fits. Meanwhile, Mawa prepares the ingredients and explains that Cambodian curry is absolutely nothing like, say, an Indian korma.

“Cambodian curry only uses coconut milk, it's a thicker curry, but very simple. In India they use cashew nuts and yoghurt, and cook it for a long time,” he says as I imagine him giving me a tender hug. “In Cambodia the cooking time shouldn't be over five minutes.” The result is that all of the individual ingredients retain their wonderful individual flavours, rather than being boiled into a homogeneous whole.

Mawa has been here for three years and recently began a cooking class within the hotel. He's also published a book on royal Khmer cuisine (you can find a recipe below). Though he's not native to these parts, he loves the food and would love to see it exported around the world. The question barely needs asking, but I do so anyway. What is his favourite dish?

“This one,” he says with a smile, waving a ladle over a gently steaming pan of royal Khmer curry. “You don't need anything extra, it's very simple: just rice and curry... And the amok – I cannot resist.”

Tikka MaBaws, out.

Kari Sach Moan (Royal red curry)

Ingredients
500 grams chicken, cubed
1 onion, cubed
200 grams sweet potato, large cubes
1 cup coconut milk
2 teaspoons of fish sauce
2 teaspoons of sugar
½ teaspoon of salt
2 teaspoons of curry powder
2 teaspoons chopped peanuts
4 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 tablespoons of red curry paste, or to taste

Method
Place a pot over medium-high heat; add the oil and sauté the paste until it smells fragrant. Add the chicken pieces and then the rest of the ingredients. Allow simmering until the chicken is tender. Check the seasoning to make sure the curry is well flavoured.

Serve the curry in a bowl and decorate with grilled fruit on sugar cane skewers. (Or, as is more likely in Scotland, with rice.)

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