Monday, March 26, 2012

Asia's ten greatest street food cities

So here's what I spent most of November and December working on. 9,000 words about 100 street foods in Penang, Taipei, Bangkok, Fukuoka, Hanoi, Singapore, Seoul, Xi'an, Manila and Phnom Penh.
Read more: Asia's 10 greatest street food cities |

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Is it or isn't it? Ribs on Kien Svay

I know a group of guys who go on a journey to visit Restaurant 522, in Kien Svay, Kandal province every now and again. The rickety restaurant is built on stilts; it sits on, and threatens to fall in to, the Mekong river. The restaurant is reached by a ramshackle boat that's loaded up with a cooler full of various local beers to be consumed during the journey: Anchor, Angkor, Cambodia, Klang. It's a lovely thirty minute ride from Phnom Penh during which one watches the murky brown Tonle Sap give way to the dirty blue waters of the Mekong. After declining a few invitations, I finally decided to go. My reason for avoiding the place for so long? It's allegedly a brothel.

I've got no beef with sex workers, but after more than a year-and-a-half in Cambodia, I've realized that I don't want to be there when my male friends are sampling the merchandise. But they assured me that Restaurant 522 was no longer a brothel, or wasn't really a brothel, or was only sort-of a brothel, and that their mango salad was the best I was going to get in Cambodia.

And frankly, I was willing to put up with what could potentially be a very awkward afternoon for the sake of trying this amazing mango salad and what I was even more interested in: their ribs. Cambodian ribs are a wonderful thing, one of my favorite things to eat in the Kingdom of Wonder.

I've never prepared Cambodian ribs (or any other kind of ribs for that matter) so I can't tell you exactly how they do it. I've had different variations here that are made with honey, ginger, fish sauce, Kampot pepper and sometimes, black tea. My current favorite variation is served at 54 Langeach Sros (pictured above) and has a bit of a kick to it. Whenever I go I always order two plates at a time, because I know that no matter how many so-called flexitarians are at the table, they'll be gobbled down in a matter of moments. There's a deep-fried option, but I always go with the grilled ones (healthier, like). One of my favorite bai sach chrouk places also serves ribs--they may be cooked in a garbage can but taste like heaven.

Anyway, it was these promises of amazing ribs and mango salad and a terrible hangover that couldn't be endured on my own that goaded me into a trip to a brothel with ten men. I did receive assurances that the men were going solely for the ribs and mango salad and that I was certain to have a wonderful and completely non-sexy time. After spending more than a few evenings in local hostess bars, though, I've realized that men have only a dim idea of the sort of things that women find threatening, and that despite their assurances, it's usually not very fun. Despite this, and possibly because of my determination to have a good time, I managed to enjoy myself and my lunch.  

Was this place even still a brothel? I don't know. There were a number of bedrooms there, which was suspicious. The waitresses were flirtatious and did their best to completely ignore my existence, forcing me to serve my own drinks while my male companions were tended to like heroes returning from war.

But the ribs, which were slightly sweet, were delicious,the stir-fried lotus rootlet (said to increase virility) was outstanding and the mango salad was pretty freaking good, although maybe a bit too sour for my Westernized palate. Could a brothel really have excellent ribs? Was this really a brothel? Does it even matter?The jury's still out.