Two More Battambang SuppersNovember 16, 2008
I inwardly groaned when Chhay Vet suggested schlepping out into the wilderness on the edge of Battambang to hit yet another fried beef place, but Goh Dut, which we can translate literally as Burnt Cow, was quite different as the specialty of the house is veal and each night a calf is slaughtered and tossed onto a charcoal and wood barbeque for a spit roasting.
Veal, prized for its whiteness and the fact that it can be cut with a spoon rather than a fork, is considered dastardly by many as this whiteness comes from a lack of iron in its rearing. In Europe getting this whiteness involves cruelly separating the calf from its mother and the force feeding the animal with milk replacement formula rather than the mothers’ milk, grass or the grain it would naturally get.I was assured no such thing happens here where Khmers aren’t so bothered about veal being milky white. We were happily nestled in our outdoor cabin slurping jugs of Tiger Draft ($3.50) when the veal ($5) arrived piled amply high on a plate large enough to marvel at.
Khmer veal was still tender (although needing to be cut with a dinner knife rather than a spoon), delicate, rosy and pink (rather than an anemic white) but having a delightfully clean, sweet and subtle beef taste. We found that veal from calves fed sufficient grass or grain as well as milk has real character and flavor and the meat was coated with a sweet and sour based jelly which I’m guessing was made using sugar and rice vinegar and soy giving it a sherry like flavor.
Surprisingly ‘pudding’ (free) was a platter of bananas accompanied by a hearty bowl of meat bones in an intensely flavored broth.
Next night, we went for another bumpy ride to the dusty, dark and empty edge of town to try a place known for its unique interpretation of the well known luk lak. Only this was luk lak with a twist as instead of beef, the key ingredient was venison of the endangered and pitilessly poached from the forest variety, which is highly illegal yet most definitely available.
However, on arrival, the staff who hurried out greeted us with a sea of shifty suspicious faces and a chorus of stage-managed ot miens (no have). Consequently, we were out of luk lak, so to speak. Vet reckoned they were lying their pants off and the refusal to serve us was serve was more than likely due to my white face and the suspicion that I might be on a mission to expose their illegal activities. 10 out 10 as they were quite correct.
Instead we went to another no name, hole in the wall known as Wat Leap due to its proximity to the adjacent pagoda of the same name.
In the pantheon of great dining rooms, this stark wood, brick and rusty roofed shack wouldn’t really figure in any exotic, upscale crossover experience. Nevertheless, it’s resolutely authentic and the same moon-faced middle aged female cook has been honing her skills for the last twenty years.
Cooking with a high flame over wood and charcoal is quite an art if you neither wish to char the food horribly or, even worse, incinerate yourself, and yet with the peeled shallots and garlic, fish sauce, chilli paste, green herbs, raw meat and other ingredients arrayed around her ready to be scooped up by the fistful, this cook has got it nailed. Plus, as an added bonus, the food doesn’t taste of gas.
The menu is conditioned by a kitchen that has certain obvious parameters so consequently there are just two dishes on the menu – stir fry with pork or stir fry with beef. Yet the servings were hefty containing a mix of flat, broad, somewhat slippery rice noodles, brown beans, oyster gravy, plus the usual variety of crunchy Chinese green vegetables and of course tender pork and beef.
There are just three tables but this place is popular for takeaways because the cook has the ability, unusual amongst Khmers, of being able to speedily cook five or ten dishes at the same time. As a result, locals swoop down out of the dark on their motorbikes for a few minutes, collect their stir fries and zoom off again.
I assume there must be someone in the world (other than the Lonely Planet and the owners themselves) who thinks that the White Rose with its sulky staff, overpriced fly blown fare, mangy one eyed cats and troop of persistent, glue sniffing, ragged and annoying beggars is a great place to eat. Hopefully having read this short series of Battambang food pieces, readers will hopefully now be able to get off the beaten tracks and try some better places.
The author lived in Battambang from 2005-2006. Mr Chhay Vet (012 521 440) is happy to escort visitors to the restaurants mentioned.