Monday, December 24, 2012

Paris Bistro Cooking 6,200 Miles From France

There is a book called The Art Of Simple French Cookery by Alexander Watt, a notorious gourmet who spent much of his life lounging around in Gallic restaurants, which perfectly captures the essence of the Parisian bistro in the 1950s.

No doubt beginning his day with pastis, moving on to red wine, and then finishing the night on brandy, Watt would gorge himself on bistro classics such as poularde Marie-Louise, boeuf en gelee, rognons a la moutarde, gibelotte de lapin, and always a plate of seasonal cheeses.

The accounts of his “gastronomic peregrinations” are a joy to read, as is his book, Paris Bistro Cookery, which adjoins the back of The Art Of Simple French Cookery like an upside down Siamese twin. As you flick through the pages, you can picture Watt swaying in the doorway of tiny Parisian kitchens, disrupting service as he scrawls into a grease-spattered notebook.

And something tells me he would have approved of La P’tite France, 6,200 miles away in Phnom Penh, and the cooking of its chef-owner Didier. I wasn’t lucky enough to go to his original, much smaller venue, just off the Riverside. But foodies fondly recall it as a typical bistro – friendly, cramped, tables pushed together, noise and tobacco smoke drifting over the cheeseboards. They recall with gluttonous, lip-smacking memories, the splendid simplicity of the dishes – always a severer test of a kitchen’s ability than the fancy stuff.

La P’tite France has since moved to a beautiful villa on Street 306, and people who know tell me the food is even better. But everything comes at a cost – in this case a less chirpy, more formal ambience, they say. So it was with these thoughts and the longing for Gallic classics like confit duck, terrines, and oysters flown in from France, as our tuk tuk arrived at the plush gates and garish pink sign of Didier’s new home.

For 8pm on a Saturday night, business was steady rather than busy, and we chose a table on the patio giving a glimpse of the Khmer chefs in their whites beavering away in the kitchen. Around us sat pudgy, well-dressed French men doing what they do best – discussing food while gorging themselves like foie gras geese to a chorus of ooh la las.

There were specials on the blackboard – including tripe and scallops – but sadly they’d sold out of oysters, which our waiter said arrive every Friday.

The service was smooth and brisk, and a little plate of amuse bouche quickly arrived – two slices of baguette topped with tomato, olive, and melted cheese that were a little ordinary, and certainly not needed considering the enormous portions that followed.

My $5.25 starter of marrow bone gratin with toast and a saucer of fleur de sel was exquisite. The gooey, oozing, fatty, beef shin marrow melted in your mouth and was a reminder – at half the price and far more generous – of the similar signature dish at St John restaurant in London, which food writer Anthony Bourdain claims is the best dish he’s eaten.

My friend’s starter of whelks with garlic mayonnaise ($6.25) was very good too – no trace of grit, and a wonderful, fresh, fossily taste of the sea. But if I were to be properly critical, the garlic should have been chopped much finer, and the aioli was lacking in the richness it should deliver in its perfect form.

Mon Dieu this man knows his onions though. And that view was confirmed by the main courses. Each part was a model of how it should be cooked, with such assurance, such taste, and such old-fashioned virtue.

My $11.50 braised pork shank with cep confit, sitting on a bed of choucroute, and winged by two turned potatoes, was enormous and fell apart as I dug in. It was an exceptional dish and showcased every part of Didier’s cooking skills.

My friend kept uttering appreciative noises as he ate his $12.50 braised lamb shank nestled on creamy flageolet beans, steeped in garlic. It came with a ramekin of fiery Tunisian harissa paste that brought the whole dish alive.

Our bellies bursting, and with the true taste of France dancing on our taste buds, we looked at the dessert menu, boasting dark chocolate mousse, poached pears, tarte tatin et al. But as any French cook will tell you, every good Gallic meal should end with cheese, so we shared a platter ($6.50) that came with a roof-of-the-mouth-etching Roquefort that would have made King Charles VI proud, and certainly the finest French bread – baked daily by Didier and his crew – I can remember having in Asia.

By golly it was an incredible meal. The cooking was sublime, and the only downside was the eagerness of the well-drilled, immaculately-turned-out Khmer waiters to snatch our plates at every opportunity. It’s certainly not a place for night owls or loiterers. By 10pm we were the last table to clear, and felt slightly hurried to vacate that beautiful, rare spot of leafy sanctuary in the steamy streets of Phnom Penh.

The frogmarching, if you will, aside, I’d heartily recommend it to food lovers, and anyone wanting a romantic notion of what it must have been like before French colonialists were finally booted out of Cambodia. A pocket of history, a pocket of gastronomic excellence. It may not have the informal, neighbourhood dive ambience of a true bistro, but I know Watt would have greeted the cooking with appreciate applause.

La P’tite France, #38, Street 306, Phnom Penh, 016 64 26 30. Meal for two, including drinks and service: $65

:: My bestselling food book Down And Out In Padstow And London is available in paperback and Kindle
To read an edited extract published in Caterer and Hotelkeeper Magazine click here...

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

KFC Chickens 'Fed So Many Illegal Hormones They Are Unable To Walk'

There is a view in Asia that famous fast food brands from the West are subjected to more rigorous food health standards than their Asian competitors. There is apparently a trust among consumers instilled by Colonel Sander’s and Ronald McDonald’s smiling faces, and the premium attached to such brands.

But this reputation has been damaged by Chinese state TV reports that chickens served at KFC and McDonald’s restaurants in China have been fed illegal, toxic drugs and kept under constant lights to make them grow faster, and thereby provide more profits for their unscrupulous producers.

China Central Television’s investigation, which it said was based on a year of undercover reporting, alleged that some of KFC's suppliers in Shandong had given at least 18 kinds of antibiotics to chickens to keep them healthy. The birds also had lights turned on around the clock to make them eat constantly, with a chicken growing from 30g to 3.5kg in just 40 days.

A farmer in Gaomi told CCTV he would also mix a hormone into the feed and the birds would become so fat that some were unable to walk. Another farmer said they had to change antibiotics periodically after chickens developed resistance to the drugs.

They said their chickens were bought by the Liuhe Group, which is based in Qingdao, and reportedly sells 40 tonnes of chicken a month to KFC's Chinese subsidiary. When the chickens were sent to be slaughtered, workers would fabricate records about how they were raised before they were shipped off to KFC’s parent company, Yum Brands, which also owns Pizza Hut.

KFC said it would co-operate with Chinese authorities in investigating the reports and would punish its suppliers harshly if they had fed antiviral drugs and growth hormones to its chickens.

"KFC attaches great importance to the contents of the media report and will actively co-operate with the relevant government departments' investigation," KFC said. "If (we) find out that our suppliers have conducted any illegal activity, (we) will handle it strictly.”

It was an about turn from last month, when a Yum Brands spokesman dismissed as "untrue" reports that some KFC chickens in China were being fed toxic additives.

McDonald's said its chicken and raw materials pass through independent, third-party laboratory tests. "Our chicken products comply with stringent food quality standards and comply with the relevant government standards. Please, everyone, don't worry about eating it," a spokesman for the Golden Arches pleaded.

China has struggled to rein in health violations in its vast food sector despite repeated pledges to deal with the problem. The country has been plagued by news reports of fake cooking oil, tainted milk - and even watermelons that explode from absorbing too much fertiliser.

:: My bestselling food book Down And Out In Padstow And London is available in eBook and paperback.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Cooking Snake In Mondulkiri

An article I wrote for Khmer 440...

I was sitting in a restaurant in Mondulkiri, listening to backpackers haggling over elephant rides – “That one’s a very bullshit operation for the elephants…Yeah, but we got offered two bucks cheaper from the other guy” – when Brendan finally called. “Hey, So Pheakj forgot to wake me again. Do you fancy going to the waterfall?”

He hired two moto drivers and we headed off through the windswept valleys surrounding the one-horse town of Sen Monorom. Children waved at us as we crawled past trying to avoid craters in the red dust roads. We climbed higher, the engine screaming, and arrived in a jungle clearing with an elephant tethered by one ear to a shack. Just out of reach were 100 green bananas, and the beast was eyeing them morosely while batting away flies with his ears.

Brendan looked at the waterfall jump. It was usually about 10 metres high, but he said the water level was much lower than last month, not just from the dry season but the dam up river. The Elephant Man threw a stone into the water indicating where he claimed it was deep enough to jump. But as he was not jumping himself, I was taking no chances.

We climbed down through the jungle and bathed in the pool. Something was nibbling away at my feet. I swam to the other side and foam thundered down around me. The sound was deafening and for a moment I forgot all about what the locals call “anacondas”. A little boy scampered across the rocks, picking up beer cans. We climbed back up and the Elephant Man took a photo of us and printed it out on a contraption hooked up to a car battery.

Chinese Food In Phnom Penh

An article I wrote for Khmer 440...

The worst service I ever had was in London’s Chinatown. There was a cloudburst and then heavy rain so I scurried into one of the restaurants. The place was packed, and I was looking round trying to spot a table, when a furious-looking waiter pounced on me.

“What you waaaannn?”

I noticed people had stopped eating and were looking at me.

“Table for one,” I said slightly pompously.

The waiter eyed me suspiciously.

“We gorr no table for one! You go down stair!”

Then he was off in his shiny black shoes, scuttling waiters.

I stood there for a moment, confused. I didn’t like crowded restaurants at the best of times. The sniggers from nearby tables faded, and I spotted a staircase leading down. At the bottom, I was met by another waiter.

“Hi there, how are you doing?” I said.

His hate-filled eyes bored into me. It felt like a scene from Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence.

“Wery busy!” he spat. “What you waaan?”

He was worse than the last one. People were listening intently, pretending not to notice.

“Table for one, please.”

“You got no frenn? You go upstair, he give you table!”

Why Cambodian Food Deserves A Better Press

An article I wrote for Khmer 440...

There has been a lot of talk over the years about the need to attract more foreign visitors to Cambodia. But there is something its people could bring a much-needed change to – and that is cooking.

It is often said, sometimes even by Khmers themselves, that Cambodian food is nothing to write home about. It is supposed to be not only cack-handed at best, but also poorly imitative of Chinese, Thai, Indian, and Vietnamese cuisines. And I have asked many expats what they think of the local food only to be greeted with “not much”.

Now that is a terrible disservice. As anyone who has travelled overseas much will know, there are a whole host of Khmer delicacies that are impossible to get abroad. So much so, that the state-owned postal service says 70% of all parcels sent from here are filled with specialities like prahok, smoked and dried fish for home-sick Khmers. No doubt the list could be added to, but here are some of the things that deserve much wider recognition.

First of all, prahok, a fermented fish paste used in dips, soups, stir-fries and stews that tastes of blue cheese and is the backbone of Cambodian cooking. Then there is Kampot pepper – the country’s first product to be granted Geographical Indication status – which makes a splendid dip with salt and lime for freshly-boiled crab.

Returning To Cambodia

An article I wrote for Khmer 440...

There was a documentary I saw about Spike Milligan and the depression that had blighted much of his life. He’d been brought up in India and moved to England when he was 15. It had a terrible effect on him. He missed the colours and richness of India and had to readjust to stark, grey Britain. The cold, the drabness, and the continual reminders of the exotic world he’d left behind. And that’s how I felt much of the time back in Blighty after spending 18 months in Cambodia.

“How can you live here now, after spending so much time in Asia,” someone asked as I arrived. She was right. I had to return, for better or worse, and sure enough four months later I was back in Phnom Penh.

Not the prettiest city in the world. But when you wander down by the Riverside and take in the breeze and see all segments of Cambodian life from mad-for-it grandmothers in pyjamas doing aerobics, to the monks with their alms pots, to the old men in freshly-ironed shirts and trousers squatting by their mopeds looking for the next ride, to the tuk tuk driver with ‘Lexus 570’ scrawled on his backboard, to the moon-faced official barely peering over the wheel of his supercharged Range Rover with its carte blanche Khmer flag and VIP sticker in the window.

One of only two countries in the world with a building on its flag, or so I was told by a slurring lawyer the other night. Afghanistan, if you’re asking. And that must say something. A reminder of the great empire that built Angkor Wat, and a hope that the good times might come once again. Just like Greece. It’s this naive hope, the continued smiles and bright outlook I love most. I escaped from the cold and the dreary faces of those who have plenty, but grumble about everything. I fled from the obsession with weather stories, and erosion of common sense and fun, to a country where most people have nothing but look pleased to have it.