There is an old proverb used in South East Asia to describe the work-ethic of the countries Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.
“The Vietnamese plant rice
The Cambodians watch it grow
The Laos listen to it grow”
And having cycled in all three countries I can vouch for its accuracy. Vietnam is a roaring tiger economy where you are never too far from the hammer and grind of construction and commerce. While its lethargic neighbor Laos is totally horizontal in its outlook.
Cambodia sits quietly between these two South East Asian extremes and its geographical location means it shares perhaps the best attributes of its neighbours. Walking into the unassuming surrounds of Lemongrass in Camden, on a cold night in early January, I was reminded of their charm.
In no apparent rush, a few days after the traditional ‘twelfth night curfew’ the tinsel and baubles were only slowly coming of the ceiling. Lazy black and white stock photographs of dogs balancing teacups and elephants teetering on diving boards hung from the walls. And the usual dusty suspect of Malibu, Baileys and Tia Maria sat on a glass shelf with a couple of street-stall Buddha’s and a lucky Thai cat waving in time with a battery-powered wall clock that was suitable slow. But like all the best places to eat you don’t visit this modest Cambodian restaurant for its décor. You visit for it’s food and the chance to get a real taste of Cambodia.
Head Chef Thomas was born in Cambodia. He left in 1969 to study in London, but still talks with a fondness, at times verging on sadness, about his childhood growing up in the countries capital Phnom Penh.
“It was brilliant! ”
he replies when I ask him about the food he remembers as a child.
Growing up in Phnom Penh in 1960‘s Thomas remembers the beauty of the riverside city he grew up in. When a sweeping promenade along the banks of the Mekong awarded the city a reputation as ‘The Paris of South East Asia’
“One thing you can thank the French for is the beautiful city and the food! On one side of the road there were plam trees. And on the other mangoes. Everyday we ate fresh fruit”
Talking while working calmly over eight roaring gas rings above a stove sunk in a water bath that heat eights well oiled and shiny woks, Thomas stops to chop and dice before immaculately plating up another order that is ferried out to the half dozen tables filling with customers. At at our table our guests are thirsty and hungry.
Tiger beer bottles are starting to litter the table (Angkor is still unavailable in the UK Thomas assures me). Some stock prawn crackers and a dozen ordinary spring rolls have vanished, but that is where the ordinary ends. As is tradition in Cambodia all food is shared from the center of the table and soon perfectly garnished plates and bowls land on our table.
A fragrant Cambodian soup is spooned into bowls, its ginger and coriander scented stock clearing to reveal plump prawns and chunks of pineapple. Bite-sized leek cakes dipped in chili and soy provide a crisp initial bite followed by a soft inside full of flavor; Finely sliced Buddhist cabbage comes bundled in bouncy mounds that have barley touched the sides of a hissing wok before being splashed with lime juice, white pepper and fish sauce. And a refreshing salad of shredded mango is so perfectly dressed with a hint of chili, lime juice and fish sauce that it transports me straight to a sweltering street corner in Phnom Penh via some kind of taste bud time machine. Plates of asparagus tips and plump mushrooms sautéed in garlic, butter and cracked black pepper are an obvious homage to Cambodia’s colonial masters, the French, but the ‘Pièce de résistance’ of this Franco Cambodian fusion is yet to come.
Before the French colonized Cambodia in the 1870’s there was little evidence that the Khmer people ate beef. As rice growers and fresh-water fishermen, there was already plenty of food to choose from and the only meat in their diet came from hunting wild animals such as deer and wild pig. Cattle were far to valuable to this agricultural society as tractors and transportation to be eaten, and thus the cow was and still is held in high regard in Khmer folk law.
But, when an invading European power comes onto the scene with a lust for bovine home-comforts things change. This new demand meant cattle were soon being bred for the table and it wasn’t long before local cooks were cooking with beef. In Vietnam this carnivorous introduction led to the birth of ‘Pho’. A noodle soup of rich beef stock, not dissimilar to the French ‘pot au feu’, now the national dish of Vietnam, but in Cambodia they developed Beef Lok Lak, an unctuous dish made from diced beef wok-seared in that most wonderful of French creations, butter! And this is the dish Chef Thomas has down to a fine art.
Perfectly marinated chunks of beef, tossed in a butter-drenched piping hot wok are served still sizzling on platters garnished with diced tomato and onion. The meat is unfathomably tender, the seasoning spot on and the clever use of butter combined with a tangy dip of black pepper and lime juice is a master-stroke and the cry from our table is “more Lok Lak please!” closely followed by the hiss and flash of Thomas’s wok.
Lemongrass is worth a visit for the Lok Lak beef alone, but coming to our table at the end of the meal armed with two tidy stacks of banana fritters flambéed in Grand Marnier, Thomas provides a suitably impressive end to our Cambodian feast. Suitable because his whole operation is nothing short of impressive. Thomas is a one-man show and watching him at work it is clear he takes a quiet pride in what he does. Thomas’s cooking is a celebration of Cambodian food as he remembers it in the 1960’s. A time when Cambodia was the jewel of South East Asia. Envied the world over for it’s magnificent Watt’s and temples. It’s unrivaled craftsmanship and beautiful riverside capital. Its fertile red earth and peaceful people only too happy to watch their rice grow. Recent history has not been kind to Cambodia but in years to come she will emerge from a turbulent century to become one of World’s must-visit destinations and this in turn will lead to more Cambodian restaurants in our capital. Most will be worse than Lemongrass, some might be better, but none will be as authentic or have the same Cambodian charm that Thomas provides.