On the day that led to my series of Cambodia posts, I was thinking of a recent discussion with Oanh of Halfway Between Ca Mau and Sai Gon about the similarities and differences between Vietnamese and Cambodian food. You can visit Oanh's blog for more info, but part of that discussion was a Cambodian woman's assertion that pretty much all Vietnamese food was Cambodian in origin. She claimed that Vietnamese not only stole Cambodian land (the Mekong Delta used to belong to Cambodia), but that Vietnamese also stole Cambodian food and renamed it.
With more than half a million Vietnamese living in Cambodia, and a million Cambodians living in Vietnam, I think it's much more likely that there was a lot of cultural exchange, including of cuisine. I have no problems acknowledging other cuisine's influence on one another. For instance, xa xiu is simply the Vietnamese phonetic spelling of Chinese Char Siu (Chinese Barbecued Pork). And yet, she asserts that the Chinese also stole it from the Cambodians. Ummm, when one of the key ingredients is Chinese 5-spice powder, I highly doubt that's the case. She also lays claim to everything from Pho Bo (Vietnamese Beef Noodle Soup) to Bun Rieu (Vietnamese Crab-paste Noodle Soup in Tomato Broth) to Bun Bo Hue (Vietnamese Hue-style Beef Noodle Soup).
I found her blog very divisive. I think she missed an opportunity to educate many people about what is unique about Cambodian cuisine. For instance, it's commonly acknowledged that the popular southern Vietnamese hu tieu nam vang (Vietnamese Phnom Penh-style noodle soup) is Cambodian in origin. And yet, on the flip side, few Cambodians wish to acknowledge that their beloved beef lok lak dish is actually Vietnamese in origin. According to Phnomenon,
"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."Loc lac/lok lak means absolutely nothing in Khmer. It's simply the phonetic approximation of luc lac, which does have meaning and gave name to the dish Bo Luc Lac (Vietnamese "Shaking" Beef). So why is it so difficult for Cambodians to acknowledge that one of their beloved dishes originated in Vietnam? Why is there such enmity?
Dith Pran explained in his article on "Return to the Killing Fields," in the New York Times on September 24, 1989.
"Because of Kampuchea Krom, generations of Cambodians were taught to hate the Vietnamese. My generation was told in school that our ancestors who fought and lost the war were tortured by the Vietnamese. The majority of Cambodians still do not trust the Vietnamese, even though they realize the Vietnamese saved them from the Khmer Rouge, who killed more than a million of their own people."I've only eaten Cambodian food a few times and prior to blogging didn't pay nearly as much attention to nuances as I do now. My only memory of the food I ate while in Cambodia was a beef and green bean stir-fry and sauteed frog legs in peanut sauce. Even longer ago, at Angkor Wat on Geary Street in San Francisco, I remember liking the food and the funny "The pope ate here" (That would be the late John Paul.) signs, but that restaurant has since closed down.
So, since my cousin's friend, the Chinese-Cambodian we consider an honorary family member, was in town that weekend, I suggested dinner at Battambang Seafood Restaurant, just a little down the street from the San Gabriel Superstore. I had driven past it many times and had always meant to go in. Then recently, LA Weekly's Jonathan Gold had recommended it. While I've liked his Chinese restaurant recommendations, I've been mildly to very disappointed with his other choices.
Named after Battambang, Cambodia's second-largest city, the restaurant has very, very few Cambodian dishes on the menu. In Vietnamese, the sign outside proclaims Chinese, Vietnamese, and Cambodian food. The huge mural of Angkor Wat inside the restaurant would seem to indicate it was a Cambodian restaurant though.
Upon opening the menu, it was page after page of Chinese or Vietnamese dishes. The menu was written in English, Chinese, Vietnamese, and Cambodian. The Cambodian words were written in Khmer script instead of the Romanized equivalent. Flipping page after page, even though I knew that Gold had mentioned they served fish amok and sadao salad here, they were lost amidst the 145 other Chinese and Vietnamese dishes. Even with a Cambodian-American at our table, we had a very hard time unearthing the very few Cambodian dishes on the menu. Nonetheless, we ordered anyway.
The result was like what it was -- Vietnamese dishes that were prepared by Chinese-Cambodians. Which isn't to say the food was bad, just that the dishes were neither one cuisine nor the other. I know for real Cambodian food, I need to venture out to Long Beach, where there's approximately 50,000 Cambodians in Little Phnom Penh. But my cousin's friend's brother sold his restaurant, so my cousin's friend didn't have any other recommendations for us. Plus, Battambang was much closer.
The first dish out was complimentary clear broth. Vietnamese pour broth over rice if they think it's too dry. Cambodians tend to dip their spoons of rice into the broth to wet it before eating. We did neither, but just so you know that's what it's there for.
We ordered the beef lok lak with fried rice for $6.50. You've read my discussion above about how this dish is really Vietnamese in origin. A little too much sauce for my liking, this was closer to a Chinese beef stir-fry than Vietnamese bo luc lac. Or you know, it's the Cambodian version of a Vietnamese dish. :P
I ordered the house special frog legs for $10 simply because I remembered ordering it when I was in Cambodia. The frog leg pieces were small and chopped up, stir-fried with bell peppers and onions. I'm used to eating big and meaty frog legs so that meant more bones to sort through. This dish tasted Chinese, nothing particularly Cambodian.
The beef "stick" on skewers served with pickled green papaya and carrots was a Cambodian beef version of Chinese barbequed pork. The beef was slightly sweet, charred, and slightly dry.
Cambodian grilled beef with lettuce, cucumber, and thuc prahok (Cambodian fermented fish paste) for dipping was $18. Wrap the beef inside a lettuce leaf and dip into the prahok sauce.
Prahok is usually made from mudfish. The dipping sauce for beef or vegetables, is made with fresh chilies, herbs, lime juice, and chopped Thai eggplants. The Vietnamese name for the sauce is ba hoc. I've never had ba hoc, so the closest approximation for me was Mam Nem (Vietnamese Fermented Anchovy Sauce). The fresh mudfish in prahok tasted a bit danker than fermented anchovies. Not bad, just different. So finally! A dish that tasted Cambodian.
One of my other cousins said she likes the Canh Chua Ca (Vietnamese Sour Fish Soup) here. I'll let you debate whether it's really Cambodian or Vietnamese in origin.
If you don't want to drive down to Long Beach, then you need to do a little digging around to find the few Cambodian dishes on the menu. The rest of the menu really is just Chinese and Vietnamese food. And well, the thing is, if I wanted either of those cuisines, there are other restaurants in the San Gabriel Valley that do it better. The restaurant probably needed to offer all three cuisines though as the Cambodian population isn't large enough in this area to sustain such a customer base. Also, it seems like nightly dancing and karaoke might be the real lure. There's a large dance floor in the middle of the restaurant and every beer after the 10th one is 50 cents off.
Battambang Seafood Restaurant
1806 S. San Gabriel Blvd.
San Gabriel, CA 91776
Open 10 a.m. to 10:30 p.m.
1 year ago today, Strawberry Shortcake.