Phnom Penh residents need not go to Burger King for servings of deep-fried gluttony. For all the foreign-inspired fast food outlets now open in the capital, traditional Cambodian cuisine also has its share of grease injections available for diners choosing to forsake calorie-counting.
Despite being labelled the world’s healthiest eaters in an Oxfam study last month, enjoyment of fatty food is likely an evolutionary trait that goes way back in the human family tree, and people here are no exception. Deep-fried bananas and sweet potatoes are ubiquitous on street carts around the city, and fried chicken has caught on well in recent years. But I did not realise just how greasy Cambodian food could get until lunch last Tuesday.
At Lu Chan’s restaurant, a nondescript hole in the wall with no English signage on Street 178, diners are treated to a deep-fried rice cake packed with spring onions called nom ka chai. Arguably the Cambodian equivalent of chips, its selling point is that it satisfies your basic desire for fattiness and sodium without offering much in the way of taste: the predominant flavours are salt, spring onion and grease.
Every day for the past ten years, the owner Lu Chan prepares around 400 cakes at his home by leaving rice overnight in water. In the morning, the rice is ground into a powder and packed with spring onions before being fried in vegetable oil over a wok.
The result is a plate of crispy golden brown flat cakes. As they are fried on the spot as orders come in, they arrive piping hot as the oil settles.
Bottles of store-bought sauce are offered, as is garlic, but we did not find that it added much to the enjoyment - some reptilian part of my brain recognised a fat source that was in need of being devoured, and that was enough for me to eat three. Although the spring onions hopefully provided a nutritional silver lining, I left with the sensation that I had just eaten a plate of French fries for lunch.
Was the nom ka chai good? It could work as a snack in moderation, but my experience left me with a bloated feeling in my stomach that left me feeling stuffed but tired when I returned to the office. It is the ultimate hangover food, perhaps, but no way to fuel yourself through the day.
Lu Chan’s restaurant is located next to the Indonesian restaurant Warung Bali at #25Eo Street 178. It is open from 1:30pm to 9pm.