Are we moving or anchored? Fixed or adrift? This is my first thought as I rub my eyes awake from a king-size bed aboard the Aqua Mekong. I hop across the hardwood, part the curtains and stumble backwards as I’m hit by the morning’s first rays. Though the air is tropical and the view from the floor-to-ceiling windows is blue, the Mekong River is not the Caribbean. Instead, it’s a wide, muddy ribbon of brackish water, its riverbanks teeming with life. Therein lies its beauty. And, oh, we’re moving all right, in this luxury, all-suite riverboat, cruising from the temple city of Phnom Penh, Cambodia, to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.
The Mekong’s rich water makes for bumper crops on its fertile banks, provides for its fish and irrigates its rice paddies. It gives life, and food is life. So it’s apropos that we should be travelling with David Thompson, Aqua Mekong’s consulting chef, for a special sailing that will combine a Southeast Asian food education with corresponding sights along the passing riverscape.
The Aussie-born Thompson was awarded the first-ever Michelin star for a restaurant serving Thai food for his London-based Nahm. His second Nahm in Bangkok was named the top dining establishment in Asia by S. Pellegrino’s Best Restaurants list. But I know him for Thai Food, a 668-page culinary opus that helped articulate Thailand’s food culture to an English audience.
Cambodian cuisine is a blend of fermented, smoky, sour and sweet flavours. Distinct from Thai, but just as delectable and complex.
Like us, Thompson is on board to mingle and learn more about Cambodian cuisine – a blend of fermented, smoky, sour and sweet – which we’re all finding is distinct from Thai, but just as delectable and complex. So whereas Thailand’s famous red curry is known for its spicy kick, Cambodia’s version offers the same interplay of lemongrass, galangal, kaffir lime, garlic and shallots, minus the heat. In lieu of a chili base, Khmer red curry uses zesty turmeric. It’s also served with baguette, a staple preserved from the country’s French colonial past.
In spite of the Far East’s culinary variations, Thompson iterates that some principles are universal. “All Asian recipes are loose,” he says. “You smell and you taste to achieve the balance you want.” To illustrate, the riverboat’s head chef, Adrian Broadhead, leads us ashore to the Sa Dec Market near the Cambodian-Vietnamese border.
“This is lotus stem with its flower,” says Broadhead, picking up the delicate green bloom and peeling back its stalk with a paring knife. The centre of the head holds seeds reminiscent of macadamia nuts; the stem is like crunchy daikon radish.
“This is luffa.” It’s a kind of squash – think zucchini meets okra – that’s great simmered or steamed. He points out small iridescent river lobster, snakehead fish, banana blossoms, tamarind paste: “Add water and loosen it up, then strain it. Its tart sweetness is great as a base for dressings.” Aside from the flavours and aromas, one also can’t help but notice the sellers’ pride in presentation: Their neat bundles of mint, kaffir, basil, cilantro, green onions and tidy towers of fermented fish are stacked with artful precision.
Mekong on the move
As with our market outing, my shipmates and I (a joyful clan of SPF-smeared Marco Polos) are almost always on the go with morning and late-afternoon excursions each day, taking 10-person skiffs from river to shore as we pack in as much water-borne exotica as we can muster.
One morning we visit a temple by rickshaw, the next we pedal around rice fields by bike. Come afternoon, we venture even deeper into the mangroves to find what life is like on a family farm. Watching a dragon dance that the kids learned from YouTube is apparently just one of the charms of living on this lush homestead. And while I find the family enchanting, I take a particular shine to the vast collection of local fruit laid out for us to snack on: green guava, fleshy jackfruit, juicy mango and the Mac Daddy of all Far East fruit, durian, which the family’s matriarch tells me “smells like hell, tastes like heaven.” (Though I’d say, smells like hell, tastes like mango mixed with blue cheese.)
On the skiff ride back, we pass through a stretch of river so verdant, it’s as if we’ve sailed into the Emerald City. Children out for a dip wave from the water. They’re teaching their little sister to swim, and she holds onto a banana tree trunk like a pool noodle. Nearby, their mother washes clothes on a rock while a rooster struts its stuff.
Back on board the Aqua Mekong, it’s all cool jasmine-scented facecloths and iced-tea greetings. I take a soak in the plunge pool as we glide past fishermen in small wooden boats wearing conical straw hats. I lounge in the library, and as we pass a floating market, examples of each boat’s wares (ripe bananas, fresh limes) hang like flags from a pole.
The pace of the river may be slow, but the movement is pervasive.
The pace of the river may be slow, but the movement is pervasive. We stop by fish farms where men and women sort basa fish from wicker baskets. There are sandy outcrops with lush trees and long grasses. Here, the land is also in motion: During high season, some of these island rice farms are covered in water, to be born again in late summer when the rains subside.
In the ship’s dining room, with its impressive wraparound windows, we sink into plush club chairs to enjoy a light lunch of crispy yam rolls, caramelized ribs in young coconut juice and grilled river lobster satay, before joining a cooking class with Chef Thompson.
He’s teaching us how to make a Cambodian fish curry using the ingredients we’d bought that morning at market. “There’s so much more to this delicate cuisine than I ever knew,” he says. “And this is the curry that changed my mind about it.”
For the next hour he delivers a master class, starring steamed snakehead fish, fresh coconut cream and herbs. The pounding of mortar and pestle never ceases, nor does the teasing as Thompson encourages Broadhead to eat a chili so hot, it gives him the hiccups.
“This is a dish you see on the roadside,” explains Thompson as he continues tasting his curry, adding more fermented fish paste for balance. “It’s a dish to eat with rice.” Each bowl is topped with a magical array of fresh vegetable and herb garnishes, including the morning’s luffa buds.
“What I’ve learned,” he says, as we all sit down to slurp together, “is how delicious and how overlooked Cambodian food is.” Perhaps all the more so because this bowl of tastes and textures – the gifts of the Mekong River, mere metres away – is such a beautiful expression of what culinary travel is meant to be.