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Boston Area Cambodian

Cambodian at Floating Rock...Next stop,Wonderland!

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Cambodian at Floating Rock...Next stop,Wonderland!

galleygirl | Nov 24, 2002 11:59 PM

Once the girl has tasted prahok, there's no going back! I'm in love, and it's the real thing, I don't care what my friends say...Actually, my friends were right there with me.. Our native guide, ChuckS, led us back to the 'hood of his youth, and six hounds journeyed to Shirley Street in Revere for lunch saturday...

Cambodian food combines the freshness and lightness of Vietnamese, with the bright flavors of Thai cuisine, and the intense pungence of Indian spices...What more could you want in a lasting relationship? AND, it's pretty low on the fat scale...

The flavors that make Cambodian food unique include prahok, a salty, musky preserved fish paste that takes the place of a lot of the fish sauce in Vietnamese food, and the belacan in Malaysian food. Lemongrass seems to figure heavily in many fishes, as well as galangal, with a more delicate, more roasted, less in-your-face flavor than ginger. Lime leaves are ground to a paste, and add taste and body to broth...Much of our food also relied on the use of turmeric and other aromatics.

We wandered into the landscape of a new cuisine, with nothing to guide us but our chow-instincts.
Never mind, there was a section titled, "Cambodian Specialties", and six mouth willing to try anything.

We began with a few selections off the Appetizer menu...Fish cakes turned out to be little, golden brown and delicious-discs that looked average, but didn't even need sauce. They had fish, and fish sauce, and probably five herbs in them, as well as that undertone of prahok and a healthy amount of chilis...Oh, I have to admit, we told them we wanted everything hot, and they really went for it. 9Lives, who usually eats with his chopstoicks in one hand, and the Srichicha in the other, DIDN'T EVEN USE IT HERE!!!! No gringo-ing down..Once they knew we were serious, they pulled out the big guns...

We also had the squid salad, recommended by C.Simon. Very similar to the fabulous Thai squid salad at Dok Bua (you must try this, it's great, and a deal!), but minus the tartness of the lime juice, and sweetness of sugar...Lots of barely-cooked, scored squid, slivers of hot and sweet peppers, and all the Vietnamese herbs I don't know the names of. Yeah, sure, it starts with mint and basil, but delves into the "wet dog " herb, and meanders around to a lot of territory that only translates into English on a few websites. Nevermind, it's all fresh, so you should follow the meandering...

The carnivores also indulged in what the menu called "Tiger Tears"--even the tigers cry when they eat that stuff, (says 9Lives...)..I almost forsook 27 years of the vegetarian path here. Deepfried, but not battered pieces of beef were tossed with TONS of slivered lemongrass, peppers, and copious amounts of basil. This seemed like the various yums we've come to expect at Thai places, but with a less piquant dressing, made up for by herbs....A lot less lettuce, as well.... Meat-guys, chime in here..It looked amazing, probably one of the top dishes...

Our first soup was ordered because it was untranslated on the specials menu, and just explained by our waiter as "Soup in Duck". It turned out to be an intense broth, full of ground lime leaves, and further thickened with chopped-up preserved mustard greens, cooked up with duck on the bone...Split decision on this; some hounds thought the duck fat was marvelous, some thought it was too greasy...

They did agree that what made the soup unusual was that undercurrent saltiness and "juicyness" that characterized the preserved mustard greens. Our second soup, Farmer-Style Sour Fish soup, used this to advantage....Into the clear yet pungent broth went catfish steaks and lots of Chinese watercress, which seems to be the vegetable of choice here. The starchy flatness of it added another flavor-layer to the soup.

Well, when we find hollow-stem watercress, we go for it...A whole order with garlic sauce, and fresh chilis to boot, tauntingly perched on top.

Spicy Seafood turned out to be a stirfry of shrimp, squid, fishcake and sweet peppers done with curry spices. The warmth of the turmeric and the hint of prahok combined with every fresh herb in the kitchen, including lots of basil...It felt to me like a deconstructed curry; all the heat and aromatic spices. including coriander seed were there, but none of the oil and sauce...This was definitely one of my favorite dishes; the flavor combination seemed to sum up the Cambodian experience. I kept eating, smiling, and trying to figure out WHAT the flavors were...

Our green-lipped mussels were listed with bean sauce, but they were out, and asked if basil was okay...A big plate of steamed mussels, covered with basil and chopped up galangal...Fresh, clean bright flavors wrapped around big mouths-full of mussels.

And in a last nod to the meat-eaters, spicy chili pork...It was spicy, and there were favorable comments on the tenderness of the pork.

The challenge here is seeing through the translations on the menu..There's the item, in Cambodian characters, and then the vague English translation...With names like "Spicy Seafood", and "Chili beef", you're not quite sure what you're getting. There were none of the tranliterations we've come to rely on when we order Thai or Vietnamese, no "Cha Ca Chua" or "Yum Tom" to guide us, nothing that sounded vaguely familar...

With a less adventurous group, we might have relied on some of the chow-fun or stir-fries that sounded more familiar, and had a less Cambodian, but probably very delicious meal. Judging by all the food that went by us, everything looked great...But by ordering from the "Cambodian Specialties" part of the menu, we really got a chance to get the maximal experience of unusual spice-per-mouthful.....It was a little scary flying blind, but everytime I asked the other hounds, "Are you SURE???" they jusy kept saying, "Yeah, go for it!" We did, and there wasn't a klunker in the bunch, nor in this bunch of eager eaters!

To be continued...[Well, don't you think I went back to Shirley Ave tonite? ;) ]

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