Thursday, November 6, 2008

Khmer Food -- Bananas with peel & beef stomach

I'm in Mondulkiri this week for work, and I asked my coworkers what the specialty is in this region. Their favorite local dish is (yum!) cow's stomach, so tonight, we headed over to an outdoor restaurant that's known for grilled meats and this delicacy.

The seven of us walked to the back of the restaurant near the kitchen. The place had 10 or so tables -- a tin roof over a dirt floor littered with balled up paper napkins and various debris, a typical Khmer establishment. sat down in our plastic chairs around a low table. One person had brought along two plastic bags of precooked rice from a roadside stand. On one end of the table, there was a small wooden stool, and on this stool was perched a sturdy wooden cooking pail with glowing hot charcoal inside. The owner of the establishment came over, poked the fire a bit, and handed us a metal rack with a handle and a small pair of tongs.

Next, the servers brought out three heaping plates of fresh veggies (yum!) -- sliced carrots, cucumber, cabbage, green peppers and eggplant -- and two more plates of thinly sliced banana flower and oval slices of bananas with the peel still on. Since this was a grilling establishment, I thought the bananas were for grilling, but my compatriots immediately fell upon the platter, so despite my misgivings about the deliciousness of banana peel (even the monkeys peel it off!) I joined in and delicately picked up a slice with my chopsticks and tried it. Immediately my entire mouth went dry and I decided one was enough and I'd stick to the pretty pink and white mound of flower shavings.

Soon after, our server came back with a tray of sauces -- a soup bowl of gray, thick concoction, highly pungent and topped with a bunch of peanuts -- and tiny trays of salt & pepper mix, limes, garlic slices, and extra peanuts. I was instructed that the grey sauce was Prahok, a general term for a myriad of pastes, sauces, gums, and spreads of all consistencies and colors, made of fermented fish. I dipped a chopstick in gingerly and decided it was delicious, so I poured myself a small tray and started dipping my veg.

Seconds later, two noodle bowls full of raw, red meat and a large platter of a gray and black, bumpy, almost hairy-looking meat arrived at our table. The beef smell was unmistakable. I promised them I'd try almost anything at least once, so I immediately took the smallest piece of stomach I thought I could (mua-ha-ha) stomach, and popped it in my mouth. The consistency was as it looked -- tough and chewy -- and the taste was as it smelled -- beefy beyond beefy. I'm quite sure it had no flavoring -- it looked boiled. It definitely would have benefited from a dip in the Prahok, but I wanted the unadulterated experience. I can't tell you exactly what my revulsion was, but if I'm honest, I think it had more to do with the presentation and the texture than with the taste.

Mr. Yu, grilling meats.

Eventually, we got round to the grilled meats -- some more delightful offal, and eventually some pieces of steak, which my colleagues (dear, dear folks that they are) pressed upon me with admonitions that I would need the "power" from the beef to push the car through the knee-deep mud of Mondulkiri roads the next day.

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