There’s a tendency amongst the Penh’s western expat community to romanticise the hamburger. And good luck to’em, but I’ve been brought up in the rural backblocks of Australia and I’m an Aussie meat pie man.
When I commenced a mission to find the perfect Aussie meat pie in Phnom Penh, a funny thing happened. I chanced upon a man who set out on the same mission a couple of years earlier, and having failed to find the perfect pie, decided to make his own.
I’m talking about true blue Aussie, Randal Laurence, proprietor of Pelican Foods which in turn is the proprietor of Pelican Pies.
Randal’s been in the Penh for eight years and only the other week sold his main venture, the Gym Bar, once home to the “Joel Garner hot dog”, about which I know nothing. Except perhaps to note that Garner was a notoriously fast cricket bowler in the West Indies team and in the late 1970s and ‘80s, and he was also one of the tallest men to ever play cricket hence his sobriquet “Big” Joel Garner.
But some time back Randal Laurence began experimenting with pie making.
“I started making pies two years ago,” the great man says, “I’d been searching for the perfect pie and was not satisfied with anything that was available. I tried to replicate a pie like I used to have at home.
“Getting it right took six months in the making. I made some shockers and I still make the odd shocker. I started off by giving them away in the Gym Bar, trialling them until I had them right enough to start selling them.”
And Phnom Penh is all the better for it, because Randal’s meat pies are pretty good.
For seasoned Aussie meat pie eaters there’s no real hard and fast yardstick by which to measure a pie: it’s either good or it bloody well isn’t. In Australia there’s a wide variance in pie cuisine – there are several major companies that mass produce them and there are hundreds of small bakery shops which produce their own pies.
But there are rules: a meat pie must contain some scintilla of meat even if it is only ground-up gristle; the “meat” mixture must be encased in pastry which is not too thick and not too thin; the top of the pie must be smothered in mass-produced “termater” sauce before consumption.
But other than that, it’s either a matter of liking the little buggers or not. Randal sums it up well when pressed on the subject of what makes a good pie, and whether or not his pies are the bees knees.
“I don’t want to get into a pie fight, it’s just what I prefer,” he says somewhat laconically in the Aussie fashion.
And, as Randal reiterates, he’s not about making a statement about quintessential Australian-ness.
“I’m not trying to be all Australian,” he says. “It’s a bit clichéd and overdone, the whole Aussie thing.”
Nor is he on about romanticising the pie, or any other form of Aussie tucker.
Some Aussies are dead keen on the Chiko Roll, a sort of super-sized spring roll invented in the bush by a Chinaman who reckoned he’d kick goals if he invented a fast food in the shape of a beer can for football fans to eat while watching footy.
Meat pies are also popular at footy games, but going back to the Chiko Roll, Randal says that a while back some nong imported a batch of them to the Penh.
“We all got caught up in the romance of it,” Randal says, “But they’re not really all that good anyway.”
Randal cranks out a variety of pie, including a steak and kidney number which he says surprises him in that it’s not as popular as he thought it would be.
Glancing at his selection, I opted for a “Chunky Beef Pie” figuring this would be as close as I would get to the traditional basic Aussie meat pie.
It immediately got a “bloody good tucker” rating.
Although digging into it was at first a cause for alarm because I detected the presence of pea – in fact three peas were buried in the guts of the pie, which to me immediately marked Randal as a Crow-eater, Aussie slang for an inhabitant, former or otherwise, of South Australia.
South Australians have some very strange habits, including the consumption of the pie floater: a meat pie suspended upside down in a bowl of brackish pea soup.
So when I put it to Randal that he was of South Australian extraction, he at first dodged the question as any smart South Australian outside of South Australia would.
“I put a few peas in those chunky beef pies because it’s just my preference. I’m not a baker by trade, it’s just what I like. There’s a little bit of celery in there too.”
One has to be careful with vegetable matter as this is alien to the meat pie concept. And after some rumination, Randal ‘fesses up. “Yes, I’m from Adelaide, I’m from a sales background,” he says, and concedes that pea thing may possibly be subconscious.
All pie makers deserve their meat secrets, so I did not push Randal to reveal the origins of the meat: the pie was scrumptious and that was all I really needed to know.
But we did have a natter about the pastry because I detected a somewhat yellowish tinge.
Pastry is important because if the pie is eaten by hand and the pastry is too thin, the pie will collapse, with the result that often scalding hot meat-type filling cascades over the consumer’s hands. Pastry that’s too thick is just a waste of space, getting in the road of the meat-type filling that is the essence of the pie.
Randal makes his own pastry. “It’s not rocket science you know. Mine is done by hand. Some people like puff pastry, but I’m not a big fan. I’m entirely a short crust man.”
As for the yellow tinge, this is down to goodness in the name of butter, Randal says.
“I add butter. That gives it the tinge. I also give each pie an egg wash glaze, but every baked product has that.”
As for the sauce, it’s Heinz, and that does the trick and is all that’s required.
The name Pelican Pies was formed partly out of a partiality for alliteration, with the p-p thing, and partly out of Randal’s fondness for all feathered things pelican, especially Cambodia’s native spot billed pelican, a bird on the endangered list.
Indeed, a long term proposal of the Pelican Food Company, owner of Pelican Pies, is to plough back profits into protecting the spot billed pelicans, another reason why the trick is to tuck into a Pelican Pie today. And don’t be frugal with the sauce.