Some weeks ago at Tom Yum Café on Chicago's north side, we spotted Cambodian Fried Rice on the menu. Had to have it because none of us, all long-time food enthusiasts, had ever eaten much Cambodian cuisine. The veg stir-fried with rice left us flat-lining after first bites: it was inoffensive but lacked personality, distinctive flavors; first bites failed to beckon seconds. This may very well not have been a good representation of Cambodian food, so when I heard about Angkor – the areas only Cambodian restaurant – in Lombard (52 W. Roosevelt), I was eager to go.
At Angkor last Friday night, the must-have was Machew Krueng. Kruengs come in red, green and yellow versions, at least that I know of; there may, like moles, be many variations on these spice mixtures, incorporating garlic, galangal, turmeric and usually many more ingredients pounded together and added to soups and other preparations. Perhaps similar to French master sauces, kruengs seem fundamental to Cambodian food, giving it a distinctive flavor and distinguishing it from regional cuisines of Thailand and Vietnam.
The Machew Krueng was delicious and beautiful, with some sourness from green papaya and perhaps pickle, meaty rib eye steak and very slight heat from banana peppers. Co-owner/chef Eng Treng told me she holds back a little of the more extreme flavors so as not to turn off gringos. I totally understand, but it's also very possible that Cambodian food is just not as aggressive as, say, Thai. In Sihanoukville on the Cambodian coast, Carolyn and I ate a load of stuff and none of it approached the heat and spiciness of just about any of the food we had in Thailand.
If you're used to Mexican food, and most of us are, you may perhaps understandably expect the same tongue-tingling, capsaicin-driven rush when eating food of other Latin American countries. And just as you may find Costa Rican or San Salvadoran food relatively lacking in the impact one expects with Mexican, so does Cambodian food (based on my very limited sample) seem absent the chili intensity of Thai food.
That said, we highly enjoyed our meal at Angkor.
We had the Angkor Special, a fried rice (had to see what their version was like), and it benefited hugely from tiny nuggets of red Chinese sausage that lent a sweet note and also visual interest to the usual array of grain and veg. Life-changing? Nuh-ungh. But good.
Amok, another off-menu item, was a table favorite in a mild cocoanut milk sauce, quite subtle, good natural flavors predominating, which as I say, could be a consequence of constraint in the kitchen or the milder nature of the Cambodian culinary tradition, or likely both. Our server told us the fish used in this preparation was basa (a type of catfish), but I'm guessing that ingredient varies, here and in Cambodia, based on availability.
Eng told me she Mudfish, but she was shy about offering it to gringos, so that's exactly what we wanted. She seemed excited to serve us some, and when it arrived at the table, my friend Alec Barclay (who has a much more sensitive palate than me) exclaimed, "Wow, THAT has an aroma." The mudfish slurry (which contained some chilies – at last, heat!) was in the center of the plate and around the periphery were arranged sliced raw vegetables; this is very similar to what seems the standard serving arrangement for nam prik, the Thai "salsa." I'm sure there's a more descriptive name than "Mudfish" for this dish; it's not on the menu. I kept eating more, fascinated by new flavors.
For dessert, Durian – the King of Fruits – over coconut rice. This was another off-menu item, which the folks here seem eager to serve if you let them know you're game to try new things. Of the durian, which came chunky in a creamy sauce, Carolyn mentioned she liked it "more than ever before," though she hastened to add this was a "relative" statement though now she "could actually understand how people might develop a taste for this dish, not that I have." Durian is a powerful flavor – sweet and sulphurous – and I've liked it much more in shakes and preparations like this than I ever have raw. Our Oak Park neighbor Chris Miller compared durian to full baby diapers (sorry, his analogy, not mine, though not totally off-base).
As we were leaving, I asked Eng and Andy if it might be possible to have a larger dinner at their restaurant, with maybe 20 or so people, where maybe they could cut loose and prepare food in the style they had back home. Eng's eyes got really big, and she smiled "Yes, yes, I could do that!" If a traditional Cambodian dinner like this might appeal to you, let me know by posting your interest here.
There are photos of several of these dishes at the top of this post; click each one to advance to the next.