Friday, September 30, 2005

Party Politic

Tuesday, December 21, 2004 11:22 AM
Sunday NYTimes Magazine
V ietnamese? Thai? Laotian? Cambodian? What's the difference?

''Come in, I tell you,'' His Excellency Roland Eng, Cambodian ambassador to the United States said, welcoming me into the small kitchen of his spacious home (in New York, a mansion) a block from his embassy in the Rock Creek Park section of Washington. He and his cook, Puttry Tan, were preparing another of his well-known and sort-of-monthly Khmer brunches, in which this slight, amiable gentleman, 47, practices what he calls ''noodle diplomacy.''
''Running an embassy in D.C. is like running a full-time catering firm -- so many visitors!'' he said. The ambassador -- who prefers to be called Roland -- entertains at least once a week, frequently more. ''One of the tricks of Washington is to be informal within formal,'' he said as we headed into his dining room, where the table was set for 20. ''We have only one dish: noodles. Well, two: noodles with soup and noodles without soup.''

Back in the kitchen, Puttry stirred a vat of simmering broth. ''This is how we flavor the stock,'' Roland said, gesturing to the 10-gallon caldron of pork bones and water. ''First, you bring this to a hard boil, then lower the heat and skim and skim and skim, then add the seasonings.'' He fished out a bundle of jicama, dried shrimp and squid, onions, garlic, cilantro stems (at last, a use for those little buggers!), ginger, preserved cabbage and peppercorns, all wrapped in cheesecloth. ''For our Muslim guests, we use chicken broth,'' he said, pointing out a two-gallon pot containing a split chicken barely abubble. ''That's all there is to it.''
Well, not quite. His six-burner range was surrounded by bowls and bowls of garnishes -- soy, hoisin, and Chinese hot sauces; more preserved cabbage; chopped garlic fried in oil; a mixture of chopped scallions, parsley and cilantro; bean sprouts; boiled shrimp and calamari; sauteed ground pork; and thinly sliced pork heart, each to be spooned on top of boiled rice noodles. Once the shopping and chopping are done -- no small matter -- the assembly is quick and enjoyable. And you can feed hundreds on the cheap.

There are as many variations on Cambodian rice-noodle dishes as there are stars in a clear night sky. This one, Roland said, is called ku theo Phnom Penh, and is the most famous among them. In Cambodia, noodles are served only in the morning. Noodles for brunch is Roland's nod to America.
Unfailingly polite, the ambassador urged me 10 or 12 times to ''Come, sit down, make yourself comfortable'' and offered me practically everything in the house -- not just coffee and tea and juice and Armagnac and cigars and glistening slices of honeydew, but duck saucisson that had just arrived from Paris, arranged around little cheese cubes on a silver salver. He ushered me into his sunny living room lined with bookshelves and Cambodian silk, and on the way, just as I was coming to the conclusion that he was much too pleasant and soft-spoken to be effective with the roiling, colliding planets outside, we came upon a picture of a young man, stripped to the waist, wielding an enormous M-16 and looking eerily like a Cambodian Rambo. After a double take, I realized the young warrior was Roland; but it was a tough fit with the gentle man in front of me dressed urbanely in a dark blue silk shirt and black trousers.

''I was a jungle fighter for 10 years,'' he said. ''Against the Khmer Rouge, and against the Vietnamese. The Khmer Rouge killed 20 percent of our people -- nearly two million. I went through three forms of Communism -- Russian, Chinese and Vietnamese. We had portraits on our wall -- first Lenin, replaced by Mao, replaced by Ho Chi Minh.''
When Roland was 11, in 1968, he was sent to France and lived with a family for a year. When he tried to return to Cambodia, he wasn't permitted. ''I was raised by a French family in Aix-en-Provence,'' he said, ''but life was meaningless not knowing what had happened to my family.'' When he returned, 16 years later, he discovered that his family -- five sisters, two brothers and his parents -- had all been killed by the Khmer Rouge. He picked up a silver mango from a tray of silver fruit and held it as he talked. His father, he said, ''was tortured. His picture is in the Holocaust Museum, but I haven't seen it. I don't want to visit the Holocaust Museum in Cambodia, any Holocaust Museum.'' Roland eventually went to work for Prince Sihanouk, then became one of the youngest members of Parliament.
He began having noodle brunches because he found that in Washington ambassadors of smaller countries can get lost in the shuffle. ''When I had formal dinners, some people wouldn't show up,'' he said. ''In a senator's or congressman's office, you may get only 10 minutes. But on Saturday or Sunday afternoon, everyone informal, in jeans and T-shirts, invitations by e-mail only, everybody comes and stays one or two hours. We have a bill on textiles we are concerned about, and at noodle brunch, it's easier to talk about it.'' After he leaves his post at the end of this month, Roland plans to return to Cambodia and organize culinary tours. ''I will teach them how to cook!'' he said.

Cars pulled up. Roland was invariably hugged. When there were 10 or 15 of us, the gathering so diverse it looked like Kofi Annan's waiting room, he ushered us to the table. Roland and Puttry passed bowls with the long thin noodles, soup, seafood, pork and more garnishes (you have to own a bowl factory to give this party). We went at everything in a frenzy of chopsticks and spoons, the noodles' fragrance floating across the room, delicate and all over the Southeast Asian map. It was a lesson in balance -- spicy but not hot (unless you poured on the appropriate sauce), and so warming and relaxed that conversation poured from even the shyest. Informal within formal -- noodle diplomacy in action. Everyone slurped, adding the sauces or not, gingerly tossing in more bean sprouts for crackle. It was the kind of gathering where every other person seemed to say, ''So I said to the prime minister, I said. . . . ''
Several hours later the party tapered off. On my way out, Roland remembered: ''Thai is sweeter and spicier; Vietnamese uses a lot of fish sauce; Laotian has a lot of sticky rice. Cambodian is based on kroeung, the Khmer word for 'spices' '' -- like rhizome (similar to ginger), prahok (preserved fish), curry leaves, lemongrass and dried lilies -- ''but I don't have time to go into that now.'' He smiled as we shook hands. Which means I'll just have to go on one of his guided tours and find out.

Ambassador Roland Eng's Khmer Noodles

For the broth and pork:
3 pounds pork leg bones
1/4 of a large jicama
1 head garlic, cut in half
1 onion, quartered
1/2 cup dried shrimp
1 dried squid
2 tablespoons preserved cabbage
12-inch piece ginger, sliced
1 tablespoon white peppercorns Handful of cilantro stems
2 tablespoons fish sauce
1 tablespoon sugar
1 tablespoon salt
3 pounds pork (preferably heart and tongue, but pork loin cut into two pieces also works well).
For garnish:
5 tablespoons plus
2 teaspoons vegetable oil
1/4 cup (about 8 cloves) chopped garlic
1 pound ground pork
3 pounds large shrimp, peeled and deveined, or 2 pounds shrimp and 1 pound squid sliced into rings
6 cups loosely packed bean sprouts
10 handfuls (about 10 ounces) fresh or dried rice noodles
5 teaspoons preserved cabbage
10 teaspoons soy sauceFreshly ground white pepper
1/4 cup chopped cilantro leaves
1/4 cup chopped parsley leaves
1/4 cup chopped scallions Chinese hot sauce or chilies in vinegar Hoisin sauce
4 limes, quartered.
1. To make the broth and pork, place the bones in a large stockpot and add 12 quarts cold water. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, adjust heat and simmer, uncovered, skimming off and discarding any foam that forms on top of the liquid. Meanwhile, in a large square of cheesecloth, tie together the jicama, garlic, onion, dried shrimp, dried squid, cabbage, ginger, peppercorns and cilantro stems and add them to the pot. Add fish sauce, sugar and salt. Simmer for 2 hours. Season to taste, only if needed.

2. Strain the broth and discard cheesecloth and bones. Return broth to the pot, bring back to a boil and add the pork. Simmer until just cooked through, about 30 minutes. Lift out the pork and slice thinly.
3. Make the garnishes: in a small skillet, heat 5 tablespoons of the oil over medium heat. Add the garlic and cook, stirring occasionally, until just golden, about 5 minutes. Set aside.
4. Heat remaining 2 teaspoons oil in a skillet over medium heat. Add ground pork and cook, breaking up pieces, until no longer pink. Spoon into a bowl.

5. Lower shrimp into the broth using a colander or strainer (you may have to do this in batches) and simmer 1 to 2 minutes. Do the same with the squid if you are using it. Remove to a bowl.
6. Divide half the sprouts among 10 large soup bowls. Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add noodles and cook, stirring with chopsticks, until soft, about 1 minute for dried (less for fresh). Drain. Divide the noodles between the bowls. Toss the noodles with a teaspoon of the garlic and oil. Top each with half a teaspoon of preserved cabbage, 1 teaspoon soy sauce and a sprinkle of ground white pepper.
7. Add a few slices meat to each bowl, 1 tablespoon ground pork, a few shrimp (and squid, if using). Fill each bowl with hot broth. Combine the cilantro, parsley and scallion and top each bowl with about a tablespoon of the herbs. Top with bean sprouts.
8. Bring bowls to the table and serve with soy sauce, hot sauce and hoisin. Guests should squeeze lime over their soups and season them with condiments of their choice.


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