Pho, toothpicks and satisfaction
They say the simple joys are the best. Well, a noodle soup (pho or ka teav tirk) is as simple as it gets, but enjoying this traditional Khmer breakfast in a noodle-shop is one of the many joys of our life in Cambodia.
Whether it is a lean-to, little shop or a big open-plan eatery, Phnom Penh’s noodle-houses are packed every morning with men and women grabbing a quick bite or families breakfasting together. Irrelevant of whether the place is clean or filthy the food is always good.
The food is nearly always prepared out the front on a metal trolley with a gas-fired burner and bench; you simply pull up a plastic chair at a plastic table and wait for your noodles. If so inclined you can amuse yourself watching Khmer karaoke which is usually playing on a television down the back somewhere.
Each table in the house is set with a spread of condiments that would put the refrigerator of single 30-something male sales executive to shame. The centrepiece is always the condiment quadrella; four steel pots of crushed chili, chopped garlic, pickled mini jalapenos and something that looks suspiciously fishy but is in fact ginger. Then there are the bottled goods: soy sauce, hoisin sauce and sweet chili. This is supplemented with sugar, pepper, fresh lime and sometimes even a satay dipping sauce. The vegetable accompaniment varies depending on the establishment, but is usually bean sprouts or a plate of fresh herbs: coriander, mint and basil.
When the steaming bowl full of soup noodley goodness arrives it is up to you to season to taste. With so many different combinations the trick is to figure out where to start. I have found that best way is to watch and learn from fellow dinners. The other option is to experiment but that entails an element of risk. Extreme caution should be exercised when combining crushed chili, dried chili and hot sauce. I would walk straight into a dish pig job in hell’s kitchen on the back of some of the devils broths seasoned with those bad boys. Much to the amusement of the wait staff and my fellow dinners I usually manage to cough, sweat and cry my way through.
Just like their western counterparts, Cambodians appear quite partial to sugar in the morning. You often see fellow dinners making the soup noodle equivalent of Fruit Loops by drenching their soup with sugar. I am not sold on that one. My recipe has evolved to the following:
- all available herbs;
- a squeeze of lime;
- a sprinkle of love;
- a squirt of hoisin; and
- a bucket load of chili and garlic.
This nutritious breakfast is best accompanied by an iced coffee. After that, there is nothing left to do but lean back with a toothpick and the satisfaction that comes from the simplicity of it all.