Phnom Penh, Cambodia, 14 January 2011
With fiancé recently returning from Cambodia, I’ve been feeling nostalgic about my time there last year.
Unlike most other South East Asian countries, the food isn’t one of the big selling points of Cambodian travel. Amongst Angkor Wat, the Killing Fields, the markets and the beautiful people, food doesn’t really get a mention. Probably because Cambodian food hasn’t broken through internationally like its “trendier” peers and there’s VERY few Cambodian restaurants in Sydney – mostly in Cabramatta and one (strangely) in Cremorne. As a “cultural lesson”, we tried Cambodian food from Battambang Restaurant in Cabra a couple of times, and it was pretty challenging in a “I’ll give you 5 bucks if you eat that…” way. Very rich curries, mouthfuls of blood pudding (ugh) and mystery vegetables (like the Khmer eggplant Throb Srouy).
We arrived in Phnom Penh with a “I hope there’s a McDonalds nearby!” attitude, but thinking back on the trip, some of the fondest memories are of the food. Fried pork and rice or beef ball soup noodle in the morning, the best pork roll I’ve ever tasted, crispy spring rolls that were so good I almost cried, and the pictured (half-eaten) Loc Lac Beef.
This was our final meal in Phnom Penh, but I first discovered the Loc Lac at the food court we frequented during our stay. I tend to freak out over the endless choices at local food courts, so you can imagine my dilemma at a foreign food court where everything is in Khmer and I only have pictures to go by – with the added stress of rationed food tokens so there’s no room for error! I went with Loc Lac Beef because it looked simple (no nasty surprises), its fun to say “LOC LAC!” and trusting my philosophy that anything with a fried egg on top is gold. Little did I know that this dish was a Cambodian institution, much like hot dogs to the Americans and meat pies to the Aussies.
Loc Lac Beef is a humble dish, fits perfectly into the category of cuisine I like to call “third world food”. It’s not the most PC term, but from my limited travels I’ve noticed that local food in developing countries shares the same basic characteristics – rice, a few slices of fresh veg, and chopped up meat. Loc Lac consists of stir fried beef marinated in a lime and pepper sauce, served with rice, fresh lettuce, onion, cucumber and green tomato, and (if you’re lucky) a fried egg. I have no idea what the pink in the rice is – and no amount of Googling has helped me figure it out. Nothing to take it above your average Asian stir fry – but there’s something very comforting about its no-frills simplicity. It’s not a dish you would travel for, but it’s wholesome, uncomplicated and somehow captures the culture and character of the country.
I assumed this dish was as authentic as you could get in terms of Khmer cuisine, but apparently not:
Loc Lac (occasionally, lok lak) is a superb expression of Cambodia’s recent colonial history and the imagined authenticity that is generally transferred by foreigners onto Asian food; an authenticity that is mirrored by the way that Khmer national culture itself is constructed. Loc Lac comes to Cambodia via Vietnam where it is named bo luc lac (literally, “shaking beef” in Vietnamese) and was most likely brought to Cambodia with the French colonisers rather than with the Vietnamese. At some point within the last 50 years, Cambodia has wholly claimed it as part of Khmer cuisine – so much so that it would be literally unimaginable for most Cambodians that the dish was originally Vietnamese.
[Side note: The above quote is taken from Phil Lee’s Phnomenon Cambodian food blog. An extremely well written blog – I became curious about the author – and from my cyber stalking I’ve found that he’s an Aussie who now writes the Mouthful blog for SBS. Check it out if you like slightly nerdy, smart-mouthed food writing.]
You can eat Loc Lac at Liep’s in Cremorne for a pretty ridiculous $19 or just make it yourself OR you can go to Cambodia where your first-world wealth will automatically upgrade you to Sultan-status and you can buy this off the street for about 50c and wash it down with a sweet sweet condensed milk iced coffee… mmmmmm.