And Google, tolerant as usually it is of Ask-Jeeves-phrased questions, gives me a mere smattering! Nobody (in the English speaking world) seems to know much about Cambodian soup. I mean, Google actually tried to auto fill “Why is Cambodian soup so…” with the words “poor”, “corrupt”, and “low”. I mean, really? People are asking why their soup is corrupt, but I have to dig deep into the bowels of the internet to find out why samlar machu, despite having exactly the description of tom yum on most menus, is so much more delicious to me than tom yum? Or why samlar korko hasn’t supplanted chili as the stew-at-barbecues of choice, with its sweet-potato-esque kabocha, thick meaty eggplant slices, and fat-lined pork ribs?
Cambodian soups - at least any one of them individually, but certainly all as a group - should have at least the following of pho. At least. There should be samlar-spiced sandwich trucks plying DTLA. (There’s wordplay in there somewhere.) Kabocha and toasted rice powder should be showing up as a topping on tacos. Blanched banana blossoms and lemongrass would make a pretty good vegetarian burrito filling, come to think of it.
What shocks me almost as much as the fact that the above isn’t real life is the fact that I never wrote about any of the soups I ate in Cambodia, while I was actually in Cambodia. I remember feeling smiled upon by the gods of culinary luck every time I sat down at some blue-tarped roadside restaurant, pointed at an indecipherable jumble of Khmer script, and was served some wondrous, vegetable-filled mystery broth full of fish so fresh from the river it was practically sweet, but I never wrote about it! This was probably because I had no idea what I was tasting, and could not, therefore, put words to experiences. How was I supposed to describe bowlfuls of total unfamiliarity? Especially when the photos were so uninspiring, sometimes containing my finger and always not doing the taste justice?
And the fish in it… now, I like catfish, but it tends to taste, unmistakably, like catfish: kind of a dirty, bottomfeedery, pungent, I-eat-mud-for-breakfast kind of thing. This fish, purportedly catfish, tasted nothing like that. It tasted clean, for all the world like it had just been fished out of the Mekong, even though that would have been impossible from 7000 miles away. What it tasted like, in actuality, was snakehead: this pure, clean, cloudlike white flavor and texture.
This flavor was perhaps the only flavor in the whole soup that could have been called mild. The rest of it was stinky and bold. The shrimp were skin-on, tiny, and sweet, but strong. There was a whole sac of fish roe just hanging out and falling apart all over everything. Prahok, the omnipresent Cambodian fermented mudfish that makes even Vietnamese purple shrimp paste taste tame in comparison, provided the whole bowl with an undercurrent of funkiness that mingled with the scent of the flame under the soup (Prahok, in all honesty, is probably the answer to the question I pose above about why Cambodian soup isn’t more popular. The first time I came to this restaurant, roughly two years earlier, my dining companion whispered from behind his cupped hand that my lunch smelled ‘like gorilla farts’. I guess I like gorilla farts!)
I took a larger group back two weeks later for what I hoped would be a soup crawl, and we did get try two new soups: Monorom’s version of samlar korko and the samlar machu. The machu was ordered despite my protestations - I can’t stomach tom yum, which, like I mentioned above, machu is a cousin to - but the whole table loved it, and so, astonishingly, did I. The same sweet, globe-traveling fish floated around in the clear yet bitingly astringent ginger/lemongrass/citrus broth. It was coated, blanketlike, in tons of morning glory leaves. As though the tom yum aversion weren’t enough to try and turn me off of this soup, I also am not crazy about morning glory leaves, because one time I had a plate of them in Chengdu that were so heavily coated with Sichuan peppercorn that I couldn’t feel my throat for hours and thought I was dying. But even with that working against it, I still loved this soup. How could I not? It was more refreshing than lemonade.
The samlar korko was less well-received by the table, and even I had to admit that Crystal Thai-Cambodian does it better. But there’s something I love about the gritty texture of the toasted rice powder, coating everything like a dry spice rub, and how the kabocha tastes like a lighter version of pumpkin. There’s also something charmingly down-to-earth about how it’s impossible to eat the ribs without plucking them out of your spoon by hand and gnawing at them like you’re sitting around a fire 10000 years ago. I do wish they weren’t overcook them, though. (Something I notice about Cambodian food - both here in the States and in Cambodia - is that they tend to cook their fish to flaky, cloudlike perfection, but turn their meat into a woody, tough [albeit wonderfully spiced and fat-coated] mess. Monorom’s beef lok lak is another example of that. Oh well. Nobody’s perfect.
While I still have a long way to go working my way down menus of mystery samlar, I would love it if anyone shared with me a site that has good recipes. There’s an adorable youtube channel that consists entirely of videos of someone's Grandma cooking delicious-looking dishes, but then suddenly - in every recipe - "chicken flavor soup base mix"! I don't mind it if I don't know it (more like I CAN'T mind) but I'm not going to use it myself. I'd feel like I was cheating.