Pros: Simple, delicious, well-balanced flavors; interesting history and culture
Cons: Some moderately hard-to-find ingredients
Rating: 5 out of 5
First posted 8/14/2000
It’s official: now that we’ve reorganized, my fiancee and I can see that we have two bookcases full of cookbooks, and we’re annexing another shelf. These days there are three main types of cookbooks that we buy. First, cookbooks involving an ingredient or food that we like or wish to know more about. Second, cookbooks from authors or in series we respect. Third, cookbooks from foreign or regional cuisines that we don’t yet have enough cookbooks from.
“The Elephant Walk Cookbook” fell under criterium number three, and so we got it. I’d never seen a Cambodian cookbook before. As it turns out, this cookbook is a sort of companion to an acclaimed restaurant by the same name… which happens to be about a twenty minute walk from our apartment.
This book includes a marvelous chapter on the history of Cambodian cuisine that certainly taught me more Cambodian history than I’d ever learned in school, yet was engaging and interesting. You’ll learn it all through the eyes of Longteine de Monteiro, author of the book and proprietress of The Elephant Walk restaurant.
These are not huge, complex dishes. These are not mountains of varied ingredients. Pretty much any home cook could make these, at least in terms of complexity, ease of use, and equipment needed. The “Stir-Fried Beef with Tomatoes” has only one paragraph of directions, and it isn’t unusual. Very few recipes have more than two short paragraphs, or maybe three.
These dishes contain very few unusual ingredients–mostly fish sauce and mushroom soy sauce, along with lemongrass. You may occasionally find something a little more exotic, such as galangal, but not often.
Fish sauce and mushroom soy sauce may be a little difficult to substitute for, as I find there are few flavors quite like them. Meat marinated in mushroom soy sauce takes on a dark, flavorful quality that normal soy sauce can’t compare to.
Fish sauce, for those of you not familiar with it, is a staple seasoning used in several Oriental cuisines. It’s made out of anchovies, primarily, but there’s no need to make a face. I abhor anchovies, but fish sauce never bothers me. It’s used in small amounts and well-used simply adds another level of seasoning – not a fishy flavor. Luckily most Oriental groceries carry these, and even many standard grocery stores. Failing that, there are a number of Oriental supply stores online which can ship such items.
Lemongrass is another thing that’s difficult to substitute for. Again, however, it can be found in many American groceries, and I’ve often found it at online Thai import companies.
There is also a small chapter in this book on shopping for Cambodian ingredients to help you in your search. Worst case, search the web for a site called the Cook’s Thesaurus for ingredient substitution guidelines.
Ultimately, you can do without these flavorings, and you can substitute. But I think you’ll find the flavors of these dishes so perfectly balanced when you follow them as-is, that it’s worth the extra trip out to the virtual shopping store to get the right things.
A Remarkable Balance
And that’s what amazes me most about these dishes. The most simple recipes have the most sublime flavor to them. Longteine de Monteiro is a sorceress in the kitchen – where most cooks would take 10 ingredients to achieve an effect, she can do it better with four.
The best example of this is the grilled corn. You heat a little oil, stir-fry five ingredients (and that’s including the water and salt), and brush onto cooked corn. For something so simple and so mild in flavor, it makes a tremendous difference in taste.
You’ll learn that in traditional Khmer culture there’s no such thing as an appetizer because the entire meal is served as a buffet. Snacking, however, is a common Khmer concept. The author has kindly separated out the recipes in a way that will appeal to American cooks. Many of the recipes come with commentary on various ways in which they’d be served, or a dish’s place in Cambodian cuisine.
First come appetizers and snacks. Here you’ll find everything from Shrimp Toasts to Cambodian Spring Rolls to one of my favorites: Cambodian Ginger-Cured Beef. In this recipe you cure beef with a very simple mixture of seasonings for 8-24 hours. Then you cook it. It’s sweet and savory all at once (as many of these recipes are), and absolutely fabulous. The Steamed Yuca with Coconut Dipping Sauce didn’t entrance me, but that may be because of the strong scallion taste, which isn’t particularly to my liking.
Next come soups. Cambodian Beef and Broth and Emerald Soup have so far been the most appealing to me, although the Spicy Chicken Soup looks heavenly, as do the Clear Duck Soup with Lime and the Lobster Soup with Lime. Longteine is an expert at pairing tart with rich, sweet with salty in a celestial dance of flavors.
The cornerstone of the Beef chapter is the Marinated Beef with Lime Sauce. This is the recipe that taught us the amazing phenomenon that is mushroom soy sauce used in small amounts as a marinade – the cooked beef had a scintillating sheen to it. The lime “sauce” is simply lime juice, water, and black pepper, and yet it complements the beef perfectly. There are a handful of stir-fries, of which the Stir-Fried Beef with Pineapple is still my favorite. I’m looking forward to trying the Sweet Beef Stew.
Pork doesn’t particularly excite me, so we haven’t used the Pork chapter much. I must admit, though, that Oriental cuisine is the only place in which I have enjoyed pork, so I do eventually look forward to trying some of these recipes. Here you will find Stir-Fried Buttercup Squash with Pork, Pork with Peanuts and Lillies, and Braised Tomatoes stuffed with Pork.
The fish and shellfish chapter ranges from Ginger Catfish to Royal Catfish Enrobed with Coconut Milk and Lemongrass to Caramelized White Fish with Fried Garlic.
In the Fowl chapter you’ll find Grilled Cornish Hens with Lemongrass, Five-Spice Chicken with Dates (one of the longest recipes in this book, clocking in at six paragraphs of directions, two of which are only one sentence long), and Cambodian Ratatouille.
The Rice and Noodles chapter includes Rice Cake Treat, a simple, sweet and salty dish. You’ll find fried rice in various incarnations (Shrimp Fried Rice, Fried Rice with Crabmeat, Fried Rice with Pork Sausage…). Then Rice Noodles with Fish Balls, and Cool Rice Noodles with Dried Shrimp, Coconut Milk and Herbs.
Then you’ll find the Salads chapter. I could wax rhapsodic about the Tomato Salad for hours, literally. It’s chicken, tomatoes, cucumber, a few fresh herbs, a simple dressing, some chilies, ground peanuts (and, if you follow one of the serving suggestions–which we heartily recommend that you do–hard-boiled eggs). It’s fantastic! We usually double the recipe just so we’ll have leftovers. It’s another of those perfectly-balanced recipes that so wonderfully characterize this cookbook.
Finally there’s a chapter of Pickles and Relishes, and a few Desserts. New Year’s Rice Treats, Sticky Rice with Palm Fruit, and then my favorite: Bananas in Sweet Coconut Milk.
This is a delightful book of low-effort recipes. If you have a grocery store with a decent foreign foods section or are willing to search around a little on-line, it’s well worth the investment of time and money. I’ve never seen a cook come up with such complex, well-balanced flavors before – particularly not ones that seemed so simple to make.