Whitebait, Guinness and Rollmops – Khmer Culinary Faves from the UK

‘I miss the rollmops, delicious, just like prahok…. but I don’t really like Cornish pasties,’ my husband informs our friends back here in Phnom Penh upon our return from our two-month trip back to my homeland.

Being in the UK with Makara for two months this summer was a long, dappled-light dream which makes me go misty-eyed now, as we settle back into our lives in Phnom Penh.

When we landed at Heathrow my fair old land of home wrapped us up in its quintessential Britishness and so began the whirlwind of barbecues, Pimms to celebrate Wimbledon wins, boating along the Oxfordshire canal, admiring the shrunken heads at the natural history museum in Oxford, strolling along Southbank, watching amazing live music at Kokos in Camden, stunning walks on Cornish coastal paths and a wonderful wedding followed by feasting and dancing at our wedding party set up alongside the strawberry fields at the local fruit farm.

It’s such a beautiful place, especially, I discovered,when seeing it through the eyes of someone who you love and whose country you have been a guest in for so long. I was suddenly hit by the tour guide effect and found that there was always something to marvel at….from swans gliding down impossibly calm waters, under the shade of willow trees at first light, to the resident smack-heads and crazies of Stoke Newington High street.

The world is a weird and wonderful place and to show Makara my little homeland pocket of it was just so much fun.
After landing we spent a couple of days at my family home in a little market town near Colchester and had everyone over for our first bbq which ended in us using the bbq as a camp fire as it was still a little chilly the first week of June.

‘What do you mean it’s nearly ten o ‘clock? What the hell?’ Makara said bemused as to it only being twilight two hours from midnight.

That night we made smoked aubergine and pork as well as a Khmer curry and we all had that alongside good old bbq wings and bangers.

I was a bit worried about how Makara would find two months in UK food-wise but not all that much really- it’s not like you can’t find noodles and rice and spicy soup in the UK of course. I thought we would be making quite a few trips Thai restaurants and we did go to a couple but in fact Makara embraced certain selections of British cuisine wholeheartedly. Mornings mostly started with rice though (or for me a cafetiere of good coffee). Every morning Makara boiled a little saucepan of rice with an egg in its shell for breakfast.

‘I come down to the kitchen in the morning and I miss the smell of the rice and that little egg in its rice nest’ my Mum sighed as we skyped the other day.

What I was worried about was snacks. Cambodia is snack heaven-one if the reasons I love it so. And fish, a fish lover’s paradise it is here. But Blighty did good in the end. We went a bit posh once a week and when my Mum was working in Cambridge we would get a lift with her and on the way back we would stop at this amazing farm shop and stock up on wonderful rollmops, marinated anchovies, fish pate and locally smoked trout. These fishy suppers were a real treat for all – my mum, my man, an array of fantastic fish delicacies, cold white wine, warm summer evenings in the garden. Fine times indeed.

Also, the supermarkets have moved on a bit from Pot Noodles- now Sainsburys have a delicious Udon noodle pot which doesn’t taste like packet food at all; however, at nearly £5 a pot you may as well go to a Thai restaurant for lunch.

We went to the Mersea Estuary near my house for a walk one extremely sunny Sunday…loads of roasting red British flesh on display as we tucked into our seafood platter, and Makara with a towel on his head to protect him from the sun’s glare. Dressed crab, mussels, shrimps, prawns and rollmops – all fresh and locally caught.

‘This is the Kep of Essex’ I dutifully informed Makara.

When my dad treated us to a week on a canal boat we were delighted of course: a first for both us. I found the symbolism of a week on a canal boat with your future son-in-law quite amusing – the men bonding over steering the boat, avoiding ducks and bridges and aggressive rowers.

Makara and I would open and close the locks together which seemed quite ritualistic of our impending commitment to each other – watching my dad on the long barge lowered down as the water drained from the lock and then slowly rising up again as the we refilled the lock before opening the gate to let the boat continue up the canal.

It was such an amazing way to see the countryside, chugging along past the blue linseed, yellow rapeseed and red poppy fields then sitting on deck in the evening with Pimms and binoculars looking out for twilight owls and men out shooting rabbits.

It was during this trip that we started our whitebait and ale tour of the UK. Of course the beauty of the canal boat trip is that you get to moor up in every little village and check out the village pub. So, in every pub we tried halves of all the house ales with their wonderful names and array of flavours – Doombar, Golden Duchess, Badger, Thornbridge, Explorer, Pale Rider. Of course, alongside this we needed snacks, and I am yet to meet any Cambodian person that gains any kind of satisfaction from a packet of crisps (or scrips as Makara calls them). So I suggested whitebait.

‘What’s whitebait?’

‘They’re small fried fish’

As soon as I said that I knew they would be another winner. So we tucked into plates of them in pretty much every pub we went to during the summer. Just in case anyone is interested, the UK whitebait award goes to The St. Agnes Inn in Cornwall -delicate batter, fresh whitebait, great tartar sauce and a lovely salad on the side.

However, Makara’s favourite tipple throughout the trip remained halves of Guinness which he says is so much better than the cans over here ( I couldn’t comment as I’m a pale ale or cider lady). He also said the Guinness helped keep him warm when temperatures dropped to normal UK summer sub-20 degrees.

We had our wedding reception on a fruit farm in a small village- children running around picking strawberries, a big speaker system, lamb on a spit and a buffet prepared by the chef from the farm cafe – fish roulade, potato salad with potatoes from the garden and a big spicy noodle salad. Instead of a wedding cake we had a massive summer pudding full of the berries that we were surrounded by. Veg straight from the patch, fruit fresh from the tree, fish straight from the sea and loads of happy people dancing and laughing – the winning recipe for happy memories.

The morning after the wedding we all emerged from our tents (we couldn’t afford a wedding and a festival so we rolled two into one) and my sister went and ordered forty egg and bacon baps for the happy campers from the farm shop café.

Later we all ended up down at the village pub, most people with their Sunday roasts (these and Cornish pasties were not on Makara’s favourite list) and we stuck to whitebait and prawn cocktail (it’s my personal pub grub of choice as long as it’s done well with crispy salad and nice buttered brown bread).

After a summer like that it was really hard to leave the green,green grass of home, but hand in hand we did and everything here is as messy, idiotic, beautiful, interesting and delicious as always. It’s just great that Makara knows where my roots are and I can’t wait for the rest of our life and times together. We are both very lucky to have wonderful friends and family on either side of the globe that love good food and a good laugh.

Yep,life is sweet I thought to myself last week as I sat with my new Cambodian family tucking into good old beer with ice and plates of wonderful fried meats, grilled fish and spicy dips with my Guinness and roll-mop loving husband.

Anna Pen

6 thoughts on “Whitebait, Guinness and Rollmops – Khmer Culinary Faves from the UK

  1. Anthony Reply

    Glad to hear he enjoyed it. I was brought up in Burnham-on-Crouch just around the corner. There is some great seafood to be had in that area. He’s spot on about the Guinness too, it can get you drunk, keep you warm, substitute dinner, etc, without doubt one of things I miss most; although an Abbott Ale comes in a very close second.

    My wife thoroughly enjoyed London & Kent where my folks are now, again the seafood is a surefire winner, but she also found herself drinking two or three mugs of proper tea every morning (we went in winter) – finally she understood where my obsession started!

  2. andy Reply

    Hang on, you were brought up in Maldon and subsequently lived in Cornwall? Do we know each other? I’m an east coast Essex boy myself and lived 18 years in Plymouth, spending most of my weekends in Cornwall! Some day I’ll bring my Khmer wife for a visit and follow in your footsteps!

  3. Anna Reply

    hmmm, small world-we may do. Actually, I was born in New Zealand but grew up in Halstead, near Colchester, Essex. Cornwall was the obvious choice for a UK honeymoon and we have friends that live there. I’m sure your wife would love those coastal walks and views…who wouldn’t. Stunning part of the world!

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