Barbecued stingray….. because the cow was gone
Cambodia is one of my favourite countries, and I'm clocking up my tenth visit.
Working in Thailand, it was a convenient and fun place to skip over to for a visa run and a relaxing 2 or 3 day break.
Phnom Penh is the capital, with it's lazy, slow, laid-back pace hovering somewhere between a few decades ago and next week.
Change has come to the city, and buildings are climbing skywards at a rapid pace.
My last visit six months before was 'as normal'.
This time the skyline had changed with quite a few new buildings and developments trying to claim dominance.
Old habits die hard, and I always like to settle in to Sisowath Quay on the river side. It's a great place to watch the ebb and flow of daily life, with a birds-eye view of the water, people, weather and traffic.
Similarly, one of my favourite foods in Phnom Penh is a chunk of cow.
Outside the markets large whole cows used to roast over charcoal and if you got there at the right time, the vendors could normally be talked into carving off a chunk of veal sirloin. It's just delicious, with thick, crisp, crackling skin and rare meat that glistens with a seductive pink sheen.
This trip surprised me with yet another change – the banishing of the streetside veal crematoriums.
Apparently they were offending the monks at the nearby temples and a local regulation was passed banning the grilling of whole cows.
I felt sure that they must still grill them somewhere, perhaps out of sight, so I did a quick search of back alleys and down the maze-like paths that wind through the inner city markets.
It turned out to be a 'veally' poor effort on my part.
I didn't end up finding my beloved charcoal-roasted cow, but I did end up in Central Market around lunch-time, doing a double-take as I passed a trough of glowing charcoal topped with an array of incredibly fresh squid, cuttlefish and stingray.
Squid is a Danang thing and a Krabi thing too. It's the bulk of the local catch in both places where I've lived for the last 4 years, so I bypassed the calamari and sidled up to a couple of lonely looking stingray fillets.
They were cooked to perfection and irresistible, and I hadn't tried stingray in Cambodia before.
In Malaysia I'm a bit of a barbecued stingray addict, and I'm also very fond of the Vietnamese method of barbecued stingray wrapped in la lot leaf (betel leaf).
In Thailand we used to do stingray jungle curry, so light and tasty, and in Australia I'd braise it with apple cider, thyme and rosemary.
It's not hard to sell me stingray, especially if it's really fresh.
The Europeans kick it up a notch, turning stingray into a fine dining dish.
Over there it's called skate and commands a high price due to the demand. The French tend to keep it simple, serving with capers and 'beurre noir' or 'black butter'. It's popular steamed, braised and pan-fried, whereas in Asia, a charcoal barbecue is the 'go to' method for ray fillets.
The barbecued stingray was simply prepared.
Having said that, it was also perfectly cooked and very fresh, so the devil is definitely in those two details.
Interestingly, the condiments served were ram leaf (Vietnamese mint in Australia or pak faai in Thailand) with green tomato and fresh slices of cucumber.
The sauces were equally simple. Lime with salt and pepper, as in Vietnam, and fish sauce with chilli and ginger.
Just as in Vietnam, the topping was a last minute dressing of garlic and spring onion in oil with salt and pepper
A lot has changed in Phnom Penh, and the mood seems entirely positive right now.
The city is abuzz with growth and activity and the people remain lovely.
I'd highly recommend a visit to Phnom Penh for 2-3 nights and Siem Reap for another 3 nights.
The food is incredible, the people so calm, and the value for money is second to none.
These two monks probably have a lot to contemplate.
Things are changing by the week….but in a lot of ways, Phnom Penh still stays the same.
That can't be said for the skyline.
Apart from the wildly popular 'amok fish', what's your favourite Cambodian food?
Leave a comment and share your experience.
Phnom Phnom Phnom!