A rose by any other name might smell as sweet, according to Shakespeare, but what about a char kway?
Street-seller extraordinaire Man Chamony’s deep-fried snacks go by vague names that change from country to country, but his many customers will attest to their sweetness.
He sells two kinds: nom baong and char kway. Nom baong translates to “round cake” and can apply to any food that is both a cake and round, even buns filled with meat.
Char kway is borrowed from the Hokkien dialect of China and means oil-fried cake. The long strips are also known as youtiao in their native China.
On a Tuesday afternoon, shortly after the stall’s opening, a crowd has already formed and more people arrive by the minute. Families and young people come and go on motos, toting transparent plastic bags full of the golden brown loops and buns as they leave.
Chamony’s client base, he claims, includes celebrities. “[Khmer singer] Meas Soksophea is a regular customer, and actors come too,” he tells me.
While it may not be the fastest operation in Phnom Penh, people are ready and willing to wait for the sweet indulgence.
Char kway begins life as a small, anaemic-looking slug, but within seconds it emerges from beneath Chamony’s nimble fingers in a twisted lock. Nom baong is moulded into shape with the help of a plastic spatula.
Both are fried in a large vat of soybean oil for some two minutes until they emerge golden brown. The flat patties balloon and the twisted locks swell in the bubbling sea of oil.
It is no secret that Chamony’s deep-fried delights are not the result of culinary pioneering. They have cousins all over the world: the Nepali roti, churros in Spain, the jalebi in India, the American doughnut, to name a few.
What is different about Chamony’s offerings is their accompanying sauce. Made from sugar, condensed milk and coconut milk, it comes in many different flavours: chocolate, orange, strawberry, coffee, taro. The alarmingly green pandan leaf is the most popular.
The dough is made from potato flour, and Chamony sometimes mixes it with different flavours, though he usually makes the char kway slightly salty.
His creations come from foods he was introduced to abroad. While working in Malaysia he came across the deep-fried dough, which was bigger and often eaten with meat. He learned the recipe while working in a bakery there.
Later he moved to Thailand, where he set up a stall selling the deep-fried dough along with sauce, which was inspired by Thai dipping custard, otherwise known as sang kaya.
When the Thai economy started to decline, Chamony decided it was finally time to come back to Cambodia, and for the last five years he’s been happily running this petite and unassuming stall.
“I don’t care how much money I make. I am just happy to work in Cambodia,” he says.
You can find Chamony on the west side of Wat Botum park every day between 4.30pm-10pm.