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Passport & Plate - Caramelised fish with bobor

Cambodia | Thursday, 13 March 2014 | 2 photos

One sun-dried freshwater fish.
Marinated in a flavoured brine before being left to dry out in the sun, you’ll find this fish at most Cambodian markets. Choose a stall whose owner takes care to bat the flies away; if you travel overland between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, you’ll find particularly tasty specimens at dusty, ramshackle Kompong Thom market. Buy them small: the fish will have been caught wild in the river, and have far more flavour than its fatter farmed cousin. You’ll probably struggle to find the dried fish in Europe. Try smoked haddock or kippers; the taste will be very different, but you’ll hit the same salty, sweet and smoky notes.

8 cloves of garlic, finely chopped.
One tablespoon of white sugar.
One teaspoon of water.
Groundnut oil.

For the rice porridge:
1 cup of jasmine rice.
9 cups of water.
1 large pinch of salt.


How to prepare this recipe
For the bobor (rice porridge):
Wash the rice thoroughly until the water runs clear.
Place it into a heavy pan with the salt and water; bring to a boil. Let the bobor simmer on a very gentle heat for at least an hour, loosely covered with a lid, until the rice starts to break down and the porridge is thick and creamy.

For the caramelised fish:
Wash the fish and chop it into thumb-sized pieces.
Heat a generous amount of oil in a heavy-bottomed skillet and fry the fish on both sides. When it’s crispy and golden brown, remove the excess oil from the pan and add the chopped garlic, mixing it in well. It will start to colour and smell heavenly; sprinkle the sugar and water in, and stir well until the fish has caramelised.

Serve with a bowl of steaming hot borbor and some beet or radish pickles.


The story behind this recipe
When we were little, my mother treated all illnesses with the same remedy. No hot water bottles or strawberry-scented calpol for us, oh no. We could have had anything, really: a fever, an upset tummy, the bubonic plague. She’d just scrape some Tiger Balm out of a small glass jar and rub it briskly onto our backs and sternums. The scent – menthol, camphor, something oily and lingering – was sinus-clearing, and when we felt well enough to sit up she’d bring us a bowl of hot rice porridge.

Congee, okayu or juk – Asia has many names for it, but for my sister and me it was Cambodian bobor, a soothingly bland, faintly salty liquid. Silken-soft rice in a clear medicinal broth: that’s all we’d be allowed, at least until we got better; a little bowl of comfort and warmth. Then tasty toppings would appear: thin strips of beef flash fried with onions and soy sauce, slow-simmered chicken, some fresh bean sprouts or golden shallots. The caramelised fish in the recipe, flaky and crispy and intensely smoky, is a more recent treat.

I’d been working in Singapore, on a long, harrowing project that had taken its toll. When my contract finished I took refuge at my mother’s house on the outskirts of Siem Reap. I slept and I read, a little lost at sea, letting the slow rhythm of the Khmer countryside lull me back to health. There was the barking of dogs at dawn and, somewhere beyond the paddy fields, the distant chanting of monks. My mother said little, but when I came down for breakfast every morning the bobor would be bubbling away on the stove. “Chop the garlic”, she’d say, and when the fish had turned that deep amber brown we’d take our bowls out onto the terrace, beneath the swaying palm-trees, and eat together, quietly.

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