Whenever I mention num pang pâté to foreigners in Phnom Penh, I get the same reaction.
“Those sandwiches with the … meat-stuff in them?” they say, as their faces recoil into a disgusted sneer.
Yeah, those ones.
Crusty baguettes, greasy butter, crisp-yet-sweet pickled vegetables, oddly delicious meaty pâté and, er, that mystery meat stuff.
They should be a popular snack among expats, but everyone’s always complaining about those weird off-white – sometimes mottled pink – slabs.
They are like Vietnamese banh mi’s unloved, slightly less attractive cousin. But we’re in Cambodia not Vietnam, and love the one you’re with, eh?
Popular among Khmers as a lunch or early evening meal, there are vendors all over Phnom Penh. When I first arrived in the city, on most days around dusk I used to wander down from the Capitol 3 guesthouse to O’Russey Market and buy them from a stall on the corner of streets 111 and 182.
I found the richness of the melted butter was offset by the pickled vegetables, the baguettes were warm and crunchy and the meat … well, it didn’t bother me. With a thick spread of chili paste, they were cheap, tasty and – because the guy who sold them spoke good English – easy. I became a fan.
Recently I tried to convince a friend that num pang pâté wasn’t nearly as bad as she thought.
With a couple of other mates in tow, we headed down to the corner of streets 51 and 136 where there are a bunch of restaurants that specialise in the much-maligned sandwich.
We ordered three and while they were being prepared I asked the serving lady about the nature of the meat.
It’s really not that mysterious. It’s just good old fashion luncheon meat, the same as you find in children’s lunchboxes across the world.
Through a friend who translated, the woman said the manufacturers took what could be loosely described as “pork”, minced it up into paste, formed it into blocks and boiled it. Sometimes they added some pepper into the mix.
The worst you could say about it is that it’s a bit tasteless.
Oh, and then I found out why the pâté was so oddly delicious. She said it was finely chopped pork with salt, pepper and one other extremely important special ingredient. No, not love. MSG.
We sat down with our num pang pâté for the taste test. My other friends, who refused to let the processed meat pass their lips, had bought some sach ko ang jakak (a similar sandwich with grilled sausage meat instead of luncheon pork) from around the corner instead.
We all watched on as my would-be convert friend chowed down on one of the filled baguettes and, to everyone’s surprise, didn’t find it offensive.
“It’s actually not that bad,” she said. “You can’t even really taste the meat stuff. I might start eating them.”
Then she tried one of the sach ko ang jakak.
“This one’s better though,” she said.