Cambodians love to eat bananas and the ubiquitous tropical fruit, which has its origins in Southeast Asia, is an incredibly nutritious and healthy part of the local diet. Bananas are an excellent source of vitamin B6, manganese, vitamin C, potassium, dietary fiber, biotin and copper. However, that is not why we love them; we love them because they are sweet, firm, creamy, delicious and just plain fun to eat.
Locals love to eat them sweet or savory, ripe or green, raw or cooked, on their own or in cakes and puddings. We eat them in salads, or we eat them fried, grilled, baked, steamed, dried or pounded into a pulp. In Cambodia there is a banana dish for every meal and there are banana snacks for all the moments in between. Bananas are also prized locally for their medicinal properties, especially with problems related to digestion.
Called Chek in Khmer, bananas come in many popular varieties and at different ripening levels. Cambodians wrap dishes in banana leaf for cooking and even use the leaves as serving mats. Banana flower is used in salads and soups, and steamed or raw with the noodle dish known as Num banh chok samlor Khmer. They even use the stem of the banana plant to make ornaments for important occasions and also grind up the stem and mix it with rice as feed for farm animals.
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One of the most popular snacks in Cambodia is Chek Chean, which is deep fried banana. I was recently taken to a small street vendor out on Street 135, not too far from Russian Market, where I was told I would sample the very best deep fried banana in town.
Sok Reth and his wife came to Phnom Penh from the rural province of Prey Veng 10 years ago with little more than their grandmother’s recipe for Chek Chean and wide eyed hope. A measure of their situation can be read into the fact that they left their four children in the province until they managed to find their feet in the Capital.
The couple started off very small, says Reth. Selling on the street was hard going, and their children ended up with an orphanage for a time because they could not support them.
But people liked their bananas and eventually they saved enough money to rent a small house near the market and to get their children back. For the past six years they have spent all day, every day, deep frying bananas out the front of their small rented home. Their children now go to school and when home the elder children help with the family business.
The bananas are chek namva, the most common variety, from Kompong Cham – firm, ripe and sweet. The family sells around 40 bunches per day, each bunch containing 12 to 18 fingers (bananas). A steady stream of cars and bikes pull up collecting take away orders by the bag. At 6,000 riel ($1.50), Sok Reth’s fried banana is a steal.
The batter is a thick paste made with rice flour, a little coconut milk, some seasoning and poppy seeds added to the batter. I notice the cooking oil is cholesterol free palm oil and it looks clean and fresh even when we arrive late in the afternoon. Sok Reth hunches over a small wooden chopping block, peels a ripe, plump banana and gently wraps it in a clear film of plastic before laying it on the block. He then takes a small wooden paddle, places it on the banana and squeezes it until it is slightly flattened. The banana is then coated in batter and placed on the cooking oil for several minutes. When the batter turns a golden brown it is ready to be drained and served.
Having watched this slow and methodical process, I am now like a small child waiting for a piece of candy; it is all I can do to stop myself from jumping up and down and clapping my hands in anticipation. The batter is golden, crisp, with a pure, clean flavor, there is a slight, crunch to the texture. The banana inside is creamy, sweet, and delicious. Next time I will get some take away and have them at home with ice cream.
Sok Reth flattens a banana before frying. Darren Gall
Sok Reth Chek Chean
No. 5, Street 135, Toul Tom Poung
Near the corner of Street 432
Behind Toul Tom Poung High School and one block from the Russian Market