Europe has the latke. Japan has the oknomiyaki. All over the world there are different versions of savoury pancake. In Cambodia it is the meaty banh chao. I had previously tried its Vietnamese cousin, bánh xèo, and was curious to sample the Cambodian variety.
When I mentioned my interest in banh chao to a friend, his eyes lit up. He knew the perfect place across the river adjacent to the massive grey bulk of the Sokha Hotel construction site. Following his lead we drove across the Japanese Friendship Bridge and went southbound on the riverside road. Well away from the city centre, the neighbourhood was a quiet residential suburb with not much around except for the usual mechanic shops, pagodas and street-side vendors.
The unnamed restaurant, owned by 28-year-old Horn Rasmey, was little more than a charcoal stove and a dozen tables underneath a pavilion. Mangy chickens and ducks wandered freely around the tables, pecking at whatever they could get their beaks on. It would have been charming had they been less grotesque: they were little more than feather and bone, save for a single fat duck covered with red warts.
Thankfully, Rasmey proved a superb host and cook. Though we arrived at around 1:30pm, well before the restaurant opens at 3pm, she obligingly went to work preparing the fire. As we waited for the final ingredients of the banh chao to arrive, she gave us 10 sticks of grilled beef (10,000 riel). Hot, chewy and juicy, the simple yet savoury snack was a promising sign of things to come – given the ghastly condition of the poultry running at our feet, we had been nervous.
Eventually, a large platter of four pancakes arrived at our table along with a plate of lettuce, herbs and cucumbers. It resembled a large crepe packed full of pork, onion and bean sprouts. The wrapping was made from a batter of rice and egg. Ginger was also added, giving the wraps a yellowish colour.
With no cutlery presented, we used the lettuce to scoop the morsels into our mouths the same way one eats Indian curry with naan. The flavour was undramatic but appealing. It contained a much heavier dose of salt than most Cambodian dishes, giving the meaty pancake a welcome punch. But the most important component, Rasmey said, was the sauce. Although the recipe is a closely guarded secret from her aunt in the Kandal countryside, we surmised that it contained a combination of fish sauce, peanut, vinegar, sugar and salt.
Rasmey’s restaurant is a bit out of the way and difficult to find (English-language signs drop close to zero in the area), but the excellent home-cooking is worth the trip across the river. Just watch out for the birds.