Way back when I was just a baby journalist I got the gig of a lifetime – a three-month internship at The Phnom Penh Post, an English-language paper in Cambodia. Nothing prepared me for the intense culture shock of poverty-stricken southeast Asia and all that went with it – amazingly friendly locals, shamelessly corrupt officials, blinkered Western aid workers who lived in fancy compounds and the desperation of a country still so scarred by war.
I was way out of my depth at the paper but I learned a lot (including when to stay out of the way, which is a valuable life lesson whatever you’re doing). In retrospect, one of the weirdest things about my time there was that I didn’t cook. I bought bread – light, crusty baguettes – from the man who cycled past our little wooden house every morning – and I practiced my Khmer on the ladies selling fruit at the street market down the road. I avoided going to Skon, where locals famously eat tarantulas, and I laughed every time when my favourite rice noodles seller offered me a deep-fried cricket, but most of the time I ate things that were often unidentifiable (and utterly delicious).
Seeing some old photos from those halcyon days reminded me of the salad I used to make when I first came back from Cambodia. I don’t claim any authenticity, except that eating it takes me back to those days in Phnom Penh, watching oxen pull carts heaped high with clay cooking pots down Sihanouk Boulevard.
In my tattered recipe notebook this is written up as ‘Pseudo-Cambodian Dipping Sauce’, but I mostly use it on shredded carrot (and very un-Cambodian red cabbage, as in the photo). It’s also excellent for cold rice noodles, rice and steamed vegetables or grilled chicken.
100mls lemon juice (use a bit of lime juice if you can find good limes)
100mls fish sauce
2Tbsp brown sugar
1 red chilli, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, finely sliced
a good grating of fresh ginger – about a tablespoon or so
Put everything into a clean jar, screw on the lid and shake until well mixed. Taste and adjust the seasoning – it should be pleasantly hot, sour and salty. This can be stored in the fridge for up to two weeks. Add handfuls of fresh mint and coriander just before using.