Bambi and Chips in BattambangMarch 11, 2009
You’d hardly notice it, tucked away down a central but quiet and slightly gritty side road near the train station, Jip Sreng was the world’s gloomiest aircraft hanger – a vast bleak ballroom of a place more or less empty when we arrived at sundown.
We may have been in the tropics but once we had got past the six young female greeters lined up in wedding frocks on either side of the imposing entrance, the atmosphere was positively Icelandic and as cold as a nun’s bath.
On stage was a three piece band going through the motions and the obligatory tailor’s shop dummy singer crooning away, looking for all the world like a toy robot on super-strength Mogadon with the batteries removed.
Earlier in the day I’d asked my old sparring partner, the ever biddable Chhay Vet to find me a restaurant serving deer, we’d shaken on it, he’d made the necessary calls and now here I was perched uncomfortably upright on the type of heavy luxury hardwood chair – typical of a Battambang restaurant – that made it impossible to lounge or sag. The only other customer at 7pm was an affluent-looking older Japanese guy sitting with three doting female Khmer friends.
I watched as the dish was plonked down in front of me by a dowdy fifteen year old waitress (already looking faintly tired and bored by the task at 6pm) and half expected a bunch of white NGO women (the sort whose monthly pay cheque would keep the average Khmer village in mosquito nets and anti malarial tablets for the next 300 years) to appear behind me making the same noise as Janet Leigh when the shower curtain is yanked back in Psycho and then staring at me like I’d been caught shooting heroin directly into a genital vein.
To be candid, I hadn’t eaten all day and was on the verge of gnawing at my own arm so it was a relief to get anything at all – even an endangered species. The venison was cubed and tender, sautéed in a garlic, black pepper and sugar gravy with just a hint of ginger. Instead of the usual green peppers, onions and rice garnish, we had the less than classic ‘English’ combo of fried egg and chips which hardly added gravitas. Yet, as ever with luk lak, it was the freshness of the ingredients and the quality of the meat that made all the difference and prevented the meal from being trite and hackneyed.
And the deer certainly was fresh having only been delivered that afternoon. In the UK it’s not uncommon for rare-breed meat animals to have a stinky flavor gunshot. However, this venison didn’t, so my hunch is that a snare somehow played a part in getting it to my plate. My fellow diner told me that the supply line could be weak and depended very much on which endangered creatures strayed outside Ms Jolie’s animal sanctuary in Samlot. Still, at least the meat is free range and locally sourced.
Vet added that until not so long ago, Jip Sreng had a pets’ corner, only with a twist as all the critters on public display in this mini zoo – macaws, monitor lizards, turtles and the like – would after a customer’s nod and point be bustled out of their cages, marched off to the kitchen and would then, after a short interval, reappear garnished on a plate accompanied by a black pepper/lime dipping sauce. These days that’s gone and so it would appear, are most of the customers.
Trying to get back from the loo in this aircraft hanger restaurant, I almost felt like a toddler lost at the fair but when I eventually arrived back to my table, my dining partner’s choice had arrived. He’d chosen a wild pig soup which was served as a steamboat and consisted of a dark broth, lots of paddy herb (ma-om), kaffir lime, some fish sauce, a hint of tamarind and all the wild piggy parts which were grey, chewy and boiled. I passed and told Vet I was hors de combat but mine host was having none of it and spooned several chunks of dull grey gristle onto my plate anyway.
The pig soup put Vet into sparkling form and he was soon sufficiently enthused to regale me with tales of the wild boar aka Sus Scrofa Cristatus which in Khmer culture is associated with fertility and virility, and wild pig tusk amulets which make the wearer invincible and allows one to snort in derision at flying bullets. It’s essential however, that the boar must still be alive and healthy for the tusks to remain potent and retain their bullet deflecting capabilities.
Therefore, one must wait for a tusker to come thundering through the forest and then catch the beast and remove its tusks (which is easier said than done), or scratch around in the forest until you chance upon a stray tusk that has accidentally fallen off whilst being sharpened, by the boar, on a tree. The latter method is inevitably time intensive, so Khmers with their usual ingenuity occasionally burn down a section of jungle which boars are known to inhabit. Tusks, being bone, don’t burn, you see.
Jip Sreng, off Street 2, Battambang.
Bush meat dinner for two, approx $12 including drinks.