Editorial | Articles about Cambodia | Khmer

Monday, March 01, 2010

Cambodia Cooking: Czech Out These Angkor Nuts

An Asian bar, I believe, is a private corner in hell for any man from the Czech Republic. Consider the setting: balmy nights, dim lights, beer pouring forth from brassy taps-all good signs on the surface. But then, the Czech man lifts lips to glass and the local lager slips across his tongue. Perhaps a bit flat, possibly sour, often skunky. And always followed by a vague but perceptible sensation of something likely toxic. It offends any connoisseur of worldly beers.

It is among such brews and shared lamentations that my husband, Jerry, and I meet Ota Veverka one night in Siem Reap, on the edge of Cambodia’s exalted Angkor temples. Four years with mediocre beer in these climes, and Ota still maintains a smile. I later learn he has no intention of living at home again; life is short, and he wants to view it from an unfamiliar vantage. He chose Asia, moving first to northern Thailand, where he met his now-wife; then Siem Reap, where they can live amid the spiritual aura of the Angkorian colossus.

We chat pleasantly, and exchange addresses and numbers. Later, when the night has ended and the beer taps drool their last, I see on Ota’s card that he runs the Angkor Harvest Family Co. He is a self-described peanut man. What does that mean? I want to know what this Czech man does with his nuts!

So we meet again, in the same quiet bar with pale yellow light, and this time Ota brings samples to munch as we sip and chat. His company consists of him; his wife, Nadchalee Chantakarana; and a young Khmer cook named Amouy, in a small kitchen beside the couple’s apartment west of the Old Market downtown. The Angkor Peanuts label is stuck on 100g packages sold at shops around Siem Reap, and the nuts are served (complimentary) with beer at several local bars. The company produces four flavors of sweet caramelized nuts (coconut, ginger, white sesame and black sesame), as well as the drinker’s favored savories-spicy salted peanuts with garlic, herbs and chiles.

Nadchalee learned the recipes from her mother in Chiang Mai. I know well the addictively hot-salty-crunchy-crumbly-garlicky good little nuts, which are sold by the kilogram across Thailand. Something extraordinary happens to shaved garlic when you drop it in oil and fry it to just the right crispness, before it turns too bitter. Something equally phenomenal happens to Thai bergamot leaves when you do the same. Mix them with nuts, and suddenly Asian beer tastes better.

When Nadchalee brought her recipes to Siem Reap, she also brought a few new ideas. “In Thailand, they have just one or two flavors,” she says. “Not coconut, not ginger,” both of which add complexity to the sugary-sweet nuts.

Ota invites us one afternoon to their little purple kitchen in a Khmer neighborhood that falls somewhere between city and village. A giant wok rests upon a gas burner full of peanuts and long, white shavings of coconut with the thin brown edges of their shell. Nadchalee gets to work, preparing a 2-kilogram batch, which Ota will deliver by motorcycle to customers in town.

“Everything is handmade,” and the nuts are prepared to order. “We are not a factory. We always make fresh,” Ota says. “Call the day before, and the next day you will have fresh peanuts.” Order a special ingredient-palm oil, cashews, brown sugar-and they will try to accommodate. “Because we are small. A factory won’t do that.” They’ll even ship overseas, if someone asks, though no one has ever asked.

They buy their ingredients from the local markets, though Ota suspects the nuts are imported from Vietnam (he’s trying to find Khmer suppliers). They purchase dried red chiles, then sort them by hand, removing impurities and sad specimens. Eventually, Ota hopes their garden will supply the herbs-but alas, their little bergamot (Kaffir lime) tree stands just a foot tall.

It’s a hot day, and the room grows toastier. I watch Nadchalee sweating and stirring a mountain of nuts, margarine, coconut and white sugar. It smells like a carnival, with a childlike sense of sweet warmth.

“It’s not easy. It looks easy but there is a timing that is very important,” Ota says. A good batch requires careful balance over the flame. “You are one minute late, and it’s burnt, and you can throw it away.” Plus, the skins must remain on the nuts. “It is very important. If there is no skin, the sugar won’t hold.”

When Ota first arrived in Asia, he ate raw peanuts by the handful. He quickly learned the consequences in his digestive tract. “You will fart a lot,” he says. Nadchalee agrees. He farted a lot.

“OK, done,” she says after half an hour on the burner. Ota’s fresh nuts (freshness, he says, is key to his product’s quality) sizzle like Rice Krispies, smothered in a coating of sugar and butter transformed. The crescent-shaped coconut has tanned, like thin slivers of pencil shavings. I have never before tasted such a fresh, warm handful of nuts.

But these aren’t Nadchalee’s favorites—and neither are they mine. It turns out, we’re all partial to the spicy type. She prepares an alluring plate of peanuts with curled green leaves and golden garlic, topped with rufous chiles on long stems. It’s a snack that calls for beer.

Which is exactly why Nadchalee says she prefers salty over sweet. “I like spicy more because I’m a drunker.”

Ota laughs. “This is the reason she loves me-because I am from the beer country.”

Angkor Peanuts are sold and served at about 20 Siem Reap outlets, usually less than $2 for a 100g bag. Email Ota at otakarv@volny.cz or call him in Cambodia at +855-11-380-421 for more information. He is willing to entertain individual requests, and to negotiate overseas shipments.

Photos by Jerry Redfern. See more images from the story on Rambling Spoon.

Karen Coates

When she’s not crashing her bike or running up mountains in New Mexico, Karen Coates covers food, environment, science, health and social issues. She splits her time between the American Southwest and any other place in the world that interests her (particularly Southeast

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