Cambodia is a wonderful country with enchanting people and an unbearably sad past when the Khmer Rouge rampaged and wiped out academics and with them, much of the Khmeri culture, right down to the food. Only now is the country beginning to find itself again.
I arrived in Cambodia from Bangkok where I had enjoyed wonderful food on every street corner and market stall; familiar food, fragrant with lemon grass, kaffir lime leaves, chillies, nahm pla - fish sauce, palm sugar, ginger, chilies, Thai basil which has a sweet anise flavour, coconut milk, garlic, green papaya and limes. I was not sure what waited; would the food be more the same or would it different?
Sandwiched as Cambodia is between Vietnam and Thailand, one thing I was sure of was that I would not be disappointed. There are many cross-over dishes and many of the ingredients are the same but the richly sweet coconut cream is tempered by tamarind and bitter leaves, tiny round pea-like sweetly sour aubergines bob on the surface of curries, galangal replaces ginger, bunches of soft green peppercorns replace chilies and morning glory replaces broccoli.
Market stalls crowded with decorative piles of colourful perfumed fruit, from the idiosyncratic magenta skinned dragon fruit with its dalmatian black spotted flesh and ruby red hairy lycees and the stinky custard durian to the more familiar but never sweeter, never juicier pineapples and mangos and creamy bananas.
There are stalls with heaps of salads and vegetables on the floor which ooze that just picked sensation. Stalls where you can find every kind of seafood and where a fish still flips around on the slab as the clever comes down on it head. Stalls where women work endlessly, pounding chicken or shrimp or fish for housewives and vendors to buy and take home. Stalls where there are umpteen sacks and varieties of rice. People teem everywhere, jostling, pushing, diving and darting about their business. Tiny traditional fast food stands are crowded with people eating. Wherever you go wherever you look in every corner people are eating.
Sliced aubergine with minced pork, coriander and green peppercorns
4 smallish aubergines
4 tablespoon sunflower oil
6 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 tablespoon green pepper corns
500 g minced pork
2 tablespoons palm sugar or muscovado sugar
1 tablespoon prik nam plas
8 tablespoons oyster sauce
100 ml chicken stock or water
4 spring onions finely chopped
Fresh coriander leaves
Put the aubergines on a roasting tray in a hot oven, 200 C and cook until tender say 30 minutes. Leave until cool enough to slice.
Heat the oil in a wok over medium heat and add the garlic and chilli and stir fry until fragrant. Increase the heat; add the minced pork and stir fry for 5 minutes or until browned. Add the sugar, the fish and oyster sauces and cook for a minute. Pull off the heat, stir in the spring onions and stir well. Taste and add salt and pepper.
Arrange the prepared aubergine on the base of a serving dish, spoon the minced pork over the top and scatter the coriander over the top. Serve with steamed rice.