I can never be quite sure why I like this soup so much – but of all the great broths in Cambodia, and there are plenty, chicken porridge soup (bo bor sach moan) is my favourite.
Maybe it’s the heavy use of nutty, browned, but not burnt garlic (a common garnish in Khmer soups), or the herby fragrance of the chopped culantro sprinkled on top? Or the occasional limp crunch of bean sprouts poached in the heat of the broth? Or the pleasing discovery of a little piece of chicken or bone to suck on?
Or is it the soothing lightness of the chicken stock, hinting of lime leaf and lemon grass? Or the julienne strips of fresh ginger that are, like the bean sprouts, stirred in at the end moments before service so they take on an increasingly cooked texture as you finish the soup?
Because this is not a soup to be rushed. It takes time to finish. And as a breakfast, which is when it is traditionally eaten in Cambodia, it’s deliciously filling – and there’s no bacon and eggs in sight.
The great “all day English breakfast” as every cafe and restaurant seems to describe our beloved fry-up out here may leave you feeling stuffed for an hour or two with all that lovely fat and grease and ketchup. But in my experience, it often leaves you craving a second brekkie – especially if sausage sarnies are involved.
But this chicken rice soup keeps you going all day. And that was just as well for a friend of mine recently who was forced to experiment with living on $2 a day for food, which he managed to achieve by eating two bowls of bo bor sach moan every day at the central market in Phnom Penh – after he’d persuaded them to charge him the Khmer price, that is.
But it’s not just the flavours. It’s the love with which it’s made. I honestly thought I’d met the happiest two women in the world in Sihanoukville a few weeks ago. The twins ran a tiny street food stall that served only one dish – you guessed it, chicken porridge soup – and had two small tables that customers would cram round.
They gazed on happily, constantly joking and smiling, as they watched customers queue for a space, and then dive into the condiment trays of ground black pepper, sugar, fish sauce, lime segments, fiery red chillies, and fermented bean paste.
There were no wounded egos or chef tantrums – Khmer food is always served with plenty of condiments to balance the desired sweet, sour, spicy and salty tastes of each diner – because there is little arrogance in the kitchens out here, and no “right” way to flavour a dish. And it comes as a refreshing change if you’ve ever had the misfortune to work with the sort of brazen, dogma-driven robots Michelin-starred restaurants spew out.
But it’s not just the love and the bean sprouts and the zip from the Kampot pepper, and the hit of lemon grass and ginger, and the soothing crunch of gizzards (easily the best part of a hen for my money), and the soapy richness of the cubes of blood pudding, and the wilful perfume of dusky, browned garlic. It’s the gloop. It’s the way the jasmine rice splits and thickens the stock, creating a greyish, cloudy sheen to the liquor.
Like many great dishes, it takes you back to a memory of childhood. For me, it was the chicken and rice dish they served at school. I think they called it “chicken a la king” but it’s so long ago it’s hard to remember. It was chicken cooked in a creamy, yellow sauce that probably came courtesy of a tin of Campbell’s condensed soup – the base of many a casserole in those days. It always came with boiled rice and one or two triangles of fried bread. Fried to the same chestnut brown as the garlic at the street stall, I remember.
There was something splendid about the way you stirred the chicken and rice together to form a moreish mix, the softening fried bread dancing playfully on your tongue. And it’s that sort of texture you get from Cambodia’s famous soup, especially if you buy a baguette to dip into it as I sometimes do.
I’ve seen a dozen different ways of cooking it. But the way they make it at that down town food stall is my favourite. The cooks start the day by putting five or six whole chickens in a huge soup cauldron. They fill it with water, throw in some chopped shallots and garlic, lime leaves and a few bruised lemon grass stalks, and then rake up the charcoal and bring the pot to the boil.
Then they add enough turmeric to turn the liquid a golden yellow. It’s the only place in Cambodia I’ve seen that uses turmeric in porridge soup. The spice is heavily revered by the Khmers for its medicinal properties – particularly in the north, where pregnant women have it rubbed into their bodies to keep their skin tight after they give birth – but generally you only find it in kroeung, a curry paste that forms the base of many Cambodian dishes.
They let the stock simmer away for a couple of hours, topping up with water if necessary, and then season it with salt, fish sauce, sugar, and plenty of pepper. They fish out the chickens and put them in a bucket to cool, ready to be prepped.
Every part of the bird is laid out on a tray, including the yolks taken from the hens’ ovaries, which glint like amber pearls and are absolutely wonderful. Diners choose which part of the bird they want, and the breast is shredded and carefully rationed, and laid on top.
In a smaller pot, they cook the rice until it begins to break up, and then put a scoop in each bowl of soup with a handful of blanched bean sprouts and some shredded ginger – to a rough proportion of one third rice to two thirds chicken stock, so the rice doesn’t completely smother the broth. When cooked a la carte, or at home, the rice is boiled in the chicken liquor, but when you’re dealing with vats of the stuff and keeping it hot all day, you have to keep them separate otherwise the rice dissolves and loses its porridge consistency.
Lastly, they make the garlic garnish by finely chopping dozens of cloves, and heating vegetable oil in a frying pan. When the oil begins to spit, they toss in the garlic and stir continuously for 30 seconds or so until it is brown but not burnt. Then they drain off the oil, and sprinkle the garlic on top with chopped culantro (use coriander if you can’t get this) and spring onion greens.
You should really try it, it’s a blinder. And if it’s excellent out here in the stifling heat of Phnom Penh’s markets, it must be even better on a dark, chill morning in wind-swept Britain…
BELOW: Cambodia’s other famous breakfast – fried pork with pickles, rice, and, of course, soup…
Words and Pictures by Lennie Nash
Lennie can also be found on Twitter as @lennienash