Saturday, January 5, 2013

Cooking Middle Eastern in Cambodia

I've just treated myself to a number of new cookbooks, which is always dangerous. Buying more than one cookbook at a time usually means that most are ignored in favor of the most exciting one. So this time, I decided to cook exclusively from each cookbook for a week. Turns out to be a genius plan, anyway, because each cuisine really requires a few staple ingredients, and once you already have them in the fridge, it's easier (and cheaper) to make more recipes, or find recipes that you already have the ingredients for at home. I'm a few days in to my first week of Middle Eastern food, and thought I would post some photos and commentary about The New Book of Middle Eastern Food by Claudia Roden.

Of the cookbooks that have already arrived (Burma: Rivers of Flavor, Vietnamese Home Cooking, and The Country Cooking of Greece plus Japanese Farm Food is allegedly on its way), The New Book of Middle Eastern Food (TNBOMEF) is certainly the least inspiring in terms of looks. Clocking in at 513 pages, the book is almost entirely text, with three photography sections that have a few old-fashioned photos of the prepared dishes. David Hagerman this photographer is not. But since my initial grocery shop was done the same day I returned home after two weeks in Sri Lanka (more on that later), I was drawn to TNBOMEF as the least Asian of the bunch.  I don't know anything about Middle Eastern food. Nothing. Allegedly this book covers Egypt, Turkey, Lebanon, Iran, Syria and North Africa. I've been to Turkey a couple of times, but other than that, I'm a total newb, which is sort of exciting for someone as world-weary as myself.

So I went out and bought tahini, yogurt, parsley and mint. The rest is stuff I'd usually have around or can get easily, anyway. Cooking Middle Eastern food in Cambodia is not as easy as you might think, but maybe not as hard as it could be. In the last year or so we've gotten three types of plain yogurt now available in the country (and I even occasionally make it myself). Before that, everything came from Thailand and even the so-called plain stuff had a liberal dose of saccharin and was disgusting. The fact that I was able to find tahini (or tahina as Claudia Roden calls it) was also a shock, thank god for the WTO, eh?

My first recipe was the easiest one that I could find in the book, cucumber salad with mint. Exactly like it sounds, although I left out the orange-blossom water because unsurprisingly I both didn't know what it was and it's not available in Cambodia.

Feeling emboldened, I moved to my next recipe, salatet hummus, or chickpea salad. I substituted curly parsley for flat-leaf parsley because flat-leaf parsley isn't available in Cambodia. One time they had it at Lucky Supermarket in Phnom Penh priced at $7. No one bought it and it has never been seen again. Luckily for me I know a dude in Kandal province who is obsessed with organic farming and he's promised to grow me some flat-leaf parsley seedlings so I can grow it on my balcony, but they aren't big enough to transplant yet. I have sort of mixed feelings about chickpeas--I always want to like them more than I actually do--and while I really liked this recipe, I'm not gagging to make it again.

My next foray into Middle Eastern food was more intense. When I read the description of batoursh, which described it as "ground meat with eggplants and yogurt" it practically begged me to make it. I love yogurt, especially as part of a meal other than breakfast. I used ground beef instead of ground lamb, because the lamb here is imported from Australia, is really expensive and usually looks rotten. I haven't been able to find pine nuts anywhere, so substituted almonds instead. this had a nice effect, actually, of adding more crunch to the dish than it would have had with pine nuts, so it was a happy substitute.

I bought tahini, but wished I hadn't when I got home. First, I should have made it myself. Sesame seeds are dirt cheap here. Second, I don't like it. I haven't had tahini in quantity since college when I remember hating it but eating it to stay in the good graces of the lesbian cult that was trying to commandeer my life. I assumed that me not liking it was no real reflection on tahini itself, but more a dissatisfaction with my life at that time. Actually, turns out I don't really like the stuff. When I make this recipe again--and I will--I'll leave it out. Roden says it's optional anyway, so I guess I'm not the only one that feels ambivalent about it, which is a relief.

The finished Batoursh had a layer of mashed eggplant, a layer of yogurt and a layer of ground beef and nuts. It looked a bit like dog vomit. I added some chopped mint as a garnish and to make the dish slightly more exciting added a sprinkle of zahtar, a spice blend I got from Seasoned Pioneers. It was delicious. Would make again.

Tonight I toyed with the idea of going out for dinner and then decided to stick to my Middle Eastern cookery guns and made tomatoes stuffed with herbed rice. As per ush I had to make some substitutions due to my location in Cambodia and general laziness. Instead of short grain rice I used Cambodian pink rice, which worked really well.  I can't find allspice, so instead of that and the cinnamon, I used a ras-el-hanout blend of spices. It contains galangal, rosebuds, black pepper, ginger, cardamom, nigella, cayenne, allspice, lavender, cinnamon, cassia, coriander, mace, nutmeg and cloves. While I recognize that using this spice blend probably changed the face of this recipe, it did it in a good way because it turned out totally delicious, and for once I didn't even mind the sorry state of Cambodian tomatoes (and sorry it is indeed).


  1. I'm going to make batoursh tonight!
    Does your cookbook have mujadarah in it? I make that about once a week -- just put lentils and brown rice in rice cooker and then top with carmelized onions. Amazing!

    1. It has mujadra bel Burghul -- lentils and bulgur with carmelized onions. What kind of lentils do you use?

  2. Ah, yes, another yogurt lover - and obviously our numbers and influence are growing ;), because plain, unadulterated yogurt is getting easier to find in many places. Thanks again for sharing your experiences and wit!


  3. Take that cucumber and mint salad and mix it with a bunch of yogurt. Add lemon or lime juice, salt, pepper, fresh garlic, and dill if you got it. Might spice up that salad a bit. In farsi its called mast-o-khiar, which just means yogurt and cucumber.

    Or! Add tomatos, raw onions, lemon or lime juice, olive oil, salt and pepper for a "salad shirazi."

    Chill both of these in the fridge for a few hours before eating to allow all the flavors to mix and get tasty. I make big batches of the yogurt one and eat it over the course of the week.

  4. hii i would love to know if u buy your not tasty tahini in phnom penh? if you did can u please please tell me where and if u have the address it will be great. im looking for tahini for a long long time. please if u can send me to my email it will be easier for me. thanks millions :) dana -

  5. Yes where did you buy the tahini in Phnom Penh? Thanks!