Neil Sowerby checks out the only UK Cambodian restaurant outside London and finds it quietly terrific
BADASS chef/author Anthony Bourdain penetrated deepest Cambodia seeking a ‘Heart of Darkness’ infested with the remnants of the Khmer Rouge...
I went to Marple.
The writer of Kitchen Confidential (no franchise of ours, alas) devoted his travelogue follow-up Cook’s Tour to some hellish foodie ordeals in far-off places, though his foray into a land still haunted by the Killing Fields is more about macho posturing in the jungle.
My mission (no bandits or snakes to brave en route) was to check out the only UK Cambodian restaurant outside London. Indeed the capital boasts just the one, in Camden… and that doesn’t have vintage vinyl for sale in the basement like Angkor Soul on Stockport Road. Curiouser and curiouser.
So a cuisine definitely under the radar, unlike that of neighbouring Thailand. Still that means its own refined take on the flavours of South East Asia – chillies, lemongrass, coconut, kaffir lime, pandan leaves, fermented fish sauce et al – has not been degraded to the gloopy slop of a microwaved pub Thai green curry.
Angkor Soul’s chef/proprietor Y Sok (pronounced E-Soak) is a formidable woman, who makes everything from scratch bar the inevitable Sriracha fix among the condiments – every sauce paste, pickled vegetable, roasted peanut, spring roll wrapper. If the River Goyt yielded the freshwater fish treasures of the Mekong or banana leaves were indigenous to Romiley she’d be sourcing locally. As it is, the quest for true authentic raw materials is hampered by geography, she tells me as I take in my surroundings, which I like immensely, uncluttered with exotic gewgaws (a fault of our Thai chains).
I am lucky the Cambodian American is front of house the night I drop in. Usually she is backstage, marshalling the brigade to feed the 30 covers in her simple but smart cafe, open little over eighteen months.
At lunchtimes they do hot drinks, cakes and snackier treats including those spicy, filled baguettes the Vietnamese call banh-mi, a relic of a shared French colonial past, while ‘Creative Wednesdays’ are a one evening a week no menu ‘exploration of culinary possibilities’.
Frustratingly I’m there on a Friday after a bitingly brisk canalside trek up from Marple Station, almost baying for heat and spice off the a la carte. Lesson One: while the Thais rack up the Scovilles, those devilish measures of chilli pungency, the Cambodians go easy on the tonsil-cauterising bird’s eyes.
Such restraint is evident in a trio of starters, where all is subtlety and clarity of flavour. A couple of cold prawn and pork summer rolls (£4.50) are enlivened by a whoosh of fresh mint, the sweet-sour lime and palm sugar tuk mey dipping sauce just peanutty enough.
Peanuts feature again in a hoisin-style sauce that accompanies delicately fried tofu (£6.95), lightly crisped, the curd interior avoiding any rubberiness, though it is the house pickles I can’t get enough of. Angkor cauliflower (£5.95) is battered and smothered in a balanced chilli and honey sauce. Nicely al dente, just too hefty.
The two mains are her take on two Cambodian classics – Loc Lac and Royal Amok. The first features strips of beef marinated in sweet soy, garlic, chilli, then caramelised. It’s a distant cousin of Korean bulgogi and many other swift Asian stir-fries, served on salad, but it’s the lime and black pepper sauce on the side that establishes its Cambodian credentials. Until Pol Pot and his genocidal Khmer Rouge put a stop to all exports Kampot pepper from the province of the same name was one of the world’s most cherished.
I don’t ask if Y Sok uses this particular revived treasure but pepper pips chilli as the key seasoning in the cuisine. The Loc Lac beef (£13.95) was pleasingly chewy, but it was that tinglingly aromatic dressing that lifted it.
In contrast, the catfish curry called Royal Amok (£12.95) tastes initially quite Thai, steamed in a banana leaf with a lemongrass paste, kaffir lime leaves and coconut milk. Spooned upon jasmine rice, though, it feels more soothing and harmonious, justifying its status as this fish-fixated country’s national dish.
I pass on pudding since they have sold out of the only authentic offering, Cambodian black sticky rice with coconut. The wine and beer list is affordable but basic. For matching the food I’d recommend the Solider’s Block Aussie Chardonnay, which has tropical fruit aromas and flavours.
Between courses I sneak a peek at the vinyl boutique (with turntable) in the basement – the personal project of Y Sok’s English husband. ‘Angkor Soul: Cafe and Records’ is the official label. I like the melding of Cambodia’s most famous heritage site and the musical genre that says ‘heart’.
The pair met in the United States where her family had fled long ago as refugees, carrying with them in their heads the recipes that kept alive memories of their homeland. She later built up an art business in Boston before the pair moved to the UK two years ago.
The LPs stacked against the whitewashed wall offer a parade of the Seventies sounds I have left behind – Pink Floyd, Mike Oldfield and Genesis. It hits me suddenly – that’s the era when terrible, terrible things were happening in distant Cambodia, in the context of which food might well seem irrelevant.
It isn’t, though. More than ever it’s an important cultural marker, helping a poor, troubled nation’s unique identity survive. Of course, if you are such a lone ambassador the menu has to be good and Angkor Soul Food is quietly terrific.
Angkor Soul, 12 Stockport Road, Marple, Stockport SK6 6BJ. Tel: 0161 222 0707.
(summer rolls 8, tofu 8, cauliflower 7, Loc Lac 8, Royal Amok 9)
Simple but smart cafe and the vinyl was a nice touch
Nice to see the proprietor/chef on front of house