At the start of March I had my wisdom teeth taken out, which, for a person who eats professionally, is like someone nicking all your tools. I planned the whole week around the impending absence of my teeth; my dental practice is in Temple Fortune so the ‘last supper’ (as I was calling it) timed perfectly with the opening of the new Moroccan-Israeli cafe Balady Alaesh, where I met my friend and fellow Eater London contributor Feroz Gajia for a blowout order of the whole menu. I also made sure to take home some of their hummus topped with bright, sour amba for the aftermath.
On the days after the extraction I was on a one man mission to prove I could eat well on a liquid diet. If you’ve had your wisdom teeth removed you know that suddenly you become vividly aware of the process of eating, how food travels around the mouth, how it gets broken down, stuck in crevasses. This meant only eating things I could suck or immediately swallow without rogue particles getting pushed towards my molars. Kitty Travers’ ice cream, of course, became a daily fixture.
In the rain, I paid an overdue visit to Faye Gomes at Kaieteur Kitchen, who I’d rarely seen in recent months due to work commitments. She was pleased to see me, but I was ganged up on by her and another Guyanese woman called Pauline - who I had just met - and told I shouldn’t be out, that I would catch a cold. I was sent packing with a freshly made ginger beer. I paid a call to Thuy Nguyen at Pho Thuy Tay and asked for just her pho broth, no noodles, no accompaniments, which would be enough to get me through the whole day. She was having none of it - she sat me down and brought me some congee that she had just made for her sick son, cooked in the broth from her pho ga. I was too touched to complain that rice was probably not a good idea. I felt looked after. Some men have a girl in every port but I have something much better: an aunty in every borough.
I was touched by the offer of plain congee because it is so explicitly not a restaurant dish. Thuy sometimes makes an intestine congee, which is much more glutinous and porridge like, but this was just rice soup. It reminded me of the congee my mother would make for me when I was ill. This is something that unites cultures, from Japan to Greece: a congee belt defined by the dish your mum cooks for you with love when you’re sick, whether you call it okayu or avgolemono.
Or bobor. In today’s newsletter by writer Madévi Dailly, she talks about the special place bobor has in Cambodian history - rice being both the symbol of abundance and the food of famine when there is nothing else left. For Madévi, there is a promise in plain bobor “that we eventually recover”. It is a dish that has no need to impress its flavour upon you, its only job is to sooth you, to sustain you enough so that you can eat well in better times. And when you do recover, you can have it again, only this time topped with a real feast: meatballs, herbs, fish sauce, and at least “six cloves of garlic, fried until golden and crispy”.
The promise of bobor, by Madévi Dailly
When I think of my grandmother, my mind’s eye strays to the glass jars she had lined up on a shelf above the kitchen counter. She had survived the Khmer Rouge and, with my grandfather, had left Cambodia for France as a refugee; the jars were stuffed with dozens of the free sachets of seasoning she’d squirrel away whenever we ate out. She told us about the ration of salt they’d been allotted each week in those terrible hungry years, and how preciously she’d held onto it. She out her palm to us, tracing with one finger the shape of a mound of salt, no larger than an almond – the difference, in a thin bowl of bobor rice porridge, between life and death. She told us, too, of the watermelons she’d grown from seeds in a hidden plot of land, and the corn cobs she’d stolen from neighbouring fields – both offences punishable by death. For her, leaving salt and sugar sachets behind was unthinkable.
Cambodia is a land of rivers and plains, flat and fertile, flooded seasonally by the nutrient-rich waters of the Mekong and the Tonlé Sap. It is a land made for growing rice. There’s no meal (niam bai – literally, ‘eat rice’) without a generous heap of the stuff. Frog-green paddy fields stretch out for miles, dotted with sugar palms, weathered houses on stilts, and skinny cattle.
In a good year, when the monsoons are kind and the floods in check, food is plentiful. There’s blue crab from Kep, salty and sweet; complex, pungent Kampot pepper; catfish, squid and tiger prawns; mangos and durians; wild leaves from the fields. Boiled jasmine rice is the foundation of Cambodia’s cuisine: the plain, fragrant foil to its rich curries, barbecued fish, sour soups and zesty salads. Ansom (parcels of sticky coconut rice stuffed with pork, banana or jackfruit) are wrapped in banana leaves and left to grill on hot embers until they’re gently charred and smoky. Cold rice noodles, doused in hot fish curry, are tossed with beansprouts, tofu puffs and big handfuls of herbs. There’s rice with grilled pork for breakfast, served with a punchy shot of coffee poured over an inch of condensed milk; rice in the golden batter of bánh xèo, borrowed from neighbouring Vietnam and devoured for lunch on the dusty streets; rice for dinner, fried with tomato paste and heaped with cubes of lok lak beef.
Rice is the foundation of abundance. But strip away the trimmings and it sustains as the food of famine. Rice gets you through the dark times. Cambodian survivors have penned a whole sub-genre of memoir devoted to life under the Khmer Rouge, all of which detail the gnawing constancy of hunger, the fixation on food and on its absence. Most describe in similar terms the watery bobor they were forced to live on: the pale liquid drunk too quickly, the pleasure of biting into the too-few grains of rice left at the bottom of the bowl. When disease and dysentery struck, bobor became a lifeline – a life-sustaining broth for a whole country.
I thought of this when, a few weeks ago, I lay shivering in bed with coronavirus, my breathing increasingly laboured, my sense of taste gone. “Think I need to go back to the basic foodstuffs of my ancestors”, I texted the friends who had hand-delivered a delicious fish stew I hadn’t managed to keep down. I knew my body was getting weaker, and I was afraid. Bobor was what my mother had always prepared when we had been unwell. She swore by its rehydrating, restorative powers. I dragged myself to the kitchen, found the last dregs of corner-shop rice in the cupboard, and threw them in a pot of boiling water. A bowlful later, I felt more alive, more human. This is the promise of bobor: that we eventually recover; that, even when the light dims to a faltering flicker, there is always something warm and comforting to cling to.
In healthier, happier times, like its congee cousin, bobor makes a wholesome lunch or a virtuous dinner. But it’s at its best as a breakfast of champions: light yet filling, and packed with zingy, crunchy goodness. In Cambodia, family-run cafés offer it alongside kuy teav noodle soup and hangover-busting rice-and-grilled-meat combos. Take a seat early on a terrace, before the sun gets too hot, and wait for the steaming bowl of bobor to arrive. It’s sometimes cooked in a rich chicken broth, but I prefer it plain and pale – silken, clean-flavoured, cloud-like.
Bobor is a choose-your-own-adventure affair, mixed at the table according to personal taste. I’d have mine with minced-pork balls, or sun-dried fish caramelised quickly in a pan with a spoonful of sugar and a fistful of garlic. Next come the toppings: pickles, fried shallots, sliced chilli, a basket of bean sprouts and fresh herbs. Char kway dough sticks, if you’re lucky, hot from the fryer. Fish sauce should already be on the table.
There’s nothing easier to make at home, though it rewards patience. You’ll have to watch it closely, towards the end of the cooking time, to get the best texture. It’s best made from hard, long-grained white rice – jasmine rice if you can find some, or basmati at a push. Bobor should have a cushioned, buoyant quality to it, with the soft, willing yield of a goose-down duvet. It should be neither too khab (dry) nor too reav (watery), but, as a Khmer Goldilocks would have it: just right.
90g of jasmine rice
A pinch of salt
Wash and drain the rice a few times, until the water runs clear.
Add the rice and salt to one litre of water in a pan, and bring it to a boil. Turn down the heat and let it simmer gently, uncovered, for about an hour, stirring occasionally so no rice catches at the bottom. When it’s ready, the porridge should feel like a light pancake batter when stirred, and have a slight gloss to it. Eat it on its own when you’re poorly. If you’re feeling greedy, it makes a comforting base for grilled meats and stir-fries: plump lap cheong sausage, say, or sizzling beef and onions.
250g of pork mince
Salt and pepper
While the rice simmers, season the mince well with salt and pepper. Shape it into small meatballs, about the size of a marble. Drop them into the porridge about 15 minutes before it’s ready to eat.
Toppings and condiments
Anything goes, but here are a few suggestions:
Something fresh and crunchy: bean sprouts, shredded Chinese leaf
Herbs: shredded coriander, wild garlic, sorrel, sawtooth herb, chives, mint
Finely sliced spring onion, ginger, red chilli
2 shallots, thinly sliced and fried until golden
Light soy sauce
6 cloves of garlic, minced and fried until golden and crispy
Madévi Dailly is a travel writer, occasional food writer and lapsed essayist. She's just started On Hunger, a newsletter exploring food and desire. You can find her on Instagram and Twitter. Madévi donated the fee for this newsletter to the Elephant Valley Project in Cambodia http://www.elephantvalleyproject.org/
Many thanks to fellow Balady Alaesh lover Frankie McCoy for sub-edits.
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