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May 21, 1999
In The Steps of The Elephant Walk
It was not easy for Longteine De Monteiro to introduce Cambodian food to the Americans, though she had found the task comparatively easier in France. When she opened The Elephant Walk Restaurant in Boston a few years ago, she could not afford a pricey location. But the success of their cooking made The Elephant Walk a knockout success within a few months, people began to travel over 200 miles to eat there. There are just about six Cambodian restaurants in America; there are hundreds of Thai and Indian restaurants on the other hand.
Ruth Reichel, food critic of The New York Times, traveled over 220 miles to sample the Cambodian cuisine last year -- New York has just one Cambodian restaurant. "The Cambodian food was so delicious that I kept taking just one more bite," she wrote. And The Boston Globe praised the "universally appealing" dishes.
Articles about the restaurant have appeared in Esquire, USA Today and Time & Leisure raving about the delicately seasoned food. And now Houghton Mifflin Company, a major publisher, has produced The Elephant Walk Cookbook with over 150 recipes accessible to home cooks. The book is co-authored by acclaimed food-writer Katherine Neustadt.
'Waste no time worrying about what you don't know. Just head out to an Asian market to explore and shop, and then get into the kitchen and starting cooking Khmer,' note Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid, authors of Seductions of Rice.
The Elephant Walk Cookbook, the first volume of traditional Cambodian cooking published in the US, is not just a cultural and culinary adventure. It is also the story of how the author and her husband, a diplomat, were forced into exile in 1975 by the Khmer Rouge and eventually came to own three restaurants and a market in and around Boston. When Pol Pot began to tighten his grip on Cambodia, Longteine De Monteiro escaped to France, where she established what may have been the first Cambodian restaurant in the Western world. The success of her restaurant spurred her to moved to the United States and open The Elephant Walk.
Cambodian cooking blends influences from Asia, including India, China, Vietnam, and Thailand -- and Europe, particularly of Portugal, Spain, and France. It is a balancing act of colors, textures, and most of all, salty, sour, sweet, hot, and bitter flavors. Rice and fish are important, particularly freshwater-lake fish and a fermented fish paste, prahok.
So are coconut milk, lemongrass, kaffir lime, curry leaves, galangal and a list of other ingredients that are becoming more readily available in larger American cities. Still to most people, ordering by mail from sources provided in the book -- or a special shopping trip -- will be necessary to make most of the dishes in the book. Fish paste and fish sauce, a basic ingredient to many vegetarian, meat and fish dishes in southeast Asia, are available in the Chinese shopping districts in major cities such as New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Miami and Boston. In New York, these items are also available apart from Chinatown, in shops in Flushing.
Some of the most easily prepared dishes in the book are the salads (many of which contain chicken or pork), including Tomato Salad and Pineapple Salad, and the pickles, such as Mixed Vegetable Pickles. Loc Lac -- beef marinated in mushroom soy sauce, sautéed, and served on crisp lettuce with lime juice -- is another easy choice
Less salty than Vietnamese food, less sweet than Thai, and subtler than both, Cambodian dishes feature a rich interweaving of cultural influences and fresh, light flavors. Some of the recipes in the book, like Catfish with Coconut Milk and Red Chilies, were created in the kitchens of Cambodian aristocrats, while others, like Stuffed Cabbage with Lemongrass, have simpler origins.
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