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Shelter From the Storm

Darren Gall Share:
A plate of typhoon shelter crab served at Sam Doo. Supplied

In a gap between the floods of Phnom Penh, we make a mad dash to Sam Doo to sample some its Cantonese specialities
 
Between Monivong Boulevard and Central Market, on Kampuchea Krom, you will find the local Cantonese restaurant Sam Doo. The upstairs eatery with the downstairs kitchen has been a local favorite of the Cambodian-Chinese or “Khmer Kat Chen” for as long as anyone can remember. It is an institution in this city and a place of many legends among travelers and long-term expats.
 
As you pull up outside, upstairs is a large windowless space that is all Formica, bright pastel colors, circular tables, booths and banquettes. My dining companion had dropped by in the morning to select a couple of large mangrove crabs and instructed the owner how he wanted them prepared. 

We ordered duck noodles, roast pork, seafood fried rice and mixed dim sum to tide us over until the crabs arrived. The menu is a 30-page opus of dim sum and Cantonese classics with most priced between $5 and $7 per plate and the dim sum about $2 to $3 per steam basket. I noted a crude, photocopied sign on the wall offering fresh crocodile meat at $25 per kilogram.

The crab arrived and while I have often found crab too much hard work for too little reward, I was immediately aware that this should be something special as all of a sudden the table is dominated by two typhoon shelter crabs glowing orange and buried under a mountain of bright red chili and crispy fried garlic flakes.

Modern day Hong Kong sees its traditions as a fishing city in steady decline, the typhoon shelters of Aberdeen, Lei Yue Mun and Causeway Bay were for centuries teeming with whole floating villages of people who fished on the junks and lived on the sampans in these shelters for generations. 

While often portrayed as a somewhat romantic and glamorous existence, the boat people often lived in extreme poverty and unsanitary conditions. While floating schools did their best to help, many children simply did not have access to education. 

Now, the descendants of the boat people have almost completely moved onshore and the so-called “Typhoon Shelter” culture of Hong Kong is being rapidly lost.  

One tradition that not only remains, but is thriving, is the typhoon shelter crab, a dish served in Cantonese and Chinese restaurants all over the world. It is even served in Hong Kong by floating typhoon shelter restaurants who have since moved their business onshore, perhaps the most famous being Under the Bridge Spicy Crab on Jaffe Road in Causeway Bay. 

Stir fried with scallions, red chilies, loads of garlic and fermented bean sauce, the dish is all about freshness and fiery, smoky spice and heat. The dish at Sam Doo is fresh, tasty and gives off a nice heat as the rain belts down in the capital while another typhoon batters the coastlines of the South China Sea. It is sating, delightful and makes one ready to paddle upstream and back to the canal that only hours ago was the street.  
 
Sam Doo
56-58 E0 E1 Kampuchea Krom, 
Phnom Penh.
Phone: +855 17 427 688.
Hours: Open seven days per week 7:00-2:00.

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