Nacho Phnom

I moved to Phnom Penh from Saigon for the nachos. Well, not entirely. But partly! It sounds absurd, but with ten thousand or so North American expats crowding the bars, pubs and hash houses of Ho Chi Minh City, there are only two that reliably offer the tasty little nubbin known as The Nacho. Here in PP, though, I can nibble nachos daily. Nachos are necessary for all North Americans, as well as many of those who love or tolerate them. It’s hot out on the dusty streets. And as sure as night follows day, thirst follows heat. And beer follows thirst. And hunger follows beer. You see where I’m heading here? The wise innkeeper knows that the suds will continue to flow if the throat stays salty dry. And the salty dry in the throats of Johnny Canuc and Billy Yank is well maintained with nachos, be they in West Texas or on the banks of the Tonle Sap.

So just what is this dish called nachos? It is a bastard child conceived of the Mexican kitchen, adopted by the Tex-Mex kitchen, and embellished and beatified by the Cal-Mex kitchen. At its most elemental it is nothing more than a corn chip dressed with cheese, tarted up with salsa, and perhaps besmeared with frijoles refritos (a fried mash of red beans). It may be further cloaked with sour cream, bejeweled with jalapenos, (enriched with meat, decked out with slices of olive and perfumed with cilantro. It can be either the temple virgin or the painted lady of Cal-Mex cuisine. At ballparks in the USA it is the neighborhood tramp. You will not find it in Mexico except where Americans and Canadians tend to loiter.

The nacho’s origin is largely unknown to the general population, though there are speculations about ballparks with scrappy kitchen service, convenience stores with pump-action “cheese” dispensers, and then there is always somebody’s Tia Maria twice removed. “She used to make ‘em for all the kids. Really!”

Here’s the straight skinny. It was in Texas in 1943 that a certain group of “ladies who lunch” went on a shopping trip to the Mexican town of Piedras Negras, just below the US/Mexico border. They decided to lunch at the Victory Club, where Senor Ignacio Anaya reigned over the kitchen. As with Caesar Cardini and the Caesar Salad (watch this space) he was short of goods at the moment. So he cooked up some corn chips, slathered them with what he had, no doubt liberally lubricated the ladies with liquor, and served them his famine fare. The ladies loved it. Either they or he, the record does not specify, named the dish for Ignacio, but they used the diminutive: Nacho

The simplest form for nachos is simply to pile corn chips on a platter, then cover them with salsa and grated cheese. The cook can add whatever else might be to hand. After all, Ignacio did. Sliced jalapeno peppers, sour cream, sliced black olives, shredded roasted pork or ground beef are common additions. Trout fishermen just open a bag of chips, remove about a third of the volume, then pour in salsa, cheese, and whatever else, close the bag and shake the whole mess. And that’s good for trout fishermen, but it wouldn’t go over well on Sisowat Quay. At the other end of the spectrum, such as when the king comes to call, the cook might dress the nachos individually, so that they appear like canapes. I keep watching for these at the Raffles happy hour or the Intercontinental hotel’s monthly food and drink fest (watch this space).

While there is much room for self expression in making nachos, it must be born in mind that is a simple dish. And things simple, like martinis and flying an airplane, are unforgiving of mistakes. The easiest mistake with a simple dish is to use poorly chosen ingredients. People who make nachos with cheese flavored Doritos need flogging. Mild cheese is a sin. Whole beans of any kind is simply beyond the pale. Spam is insane. And there is here in PP a popular purveyor of Mexican-like food stuffs that uses chips made from flour rather than corn tortillas. I have no words for those miscreants.

The best nachos I’ve tasted in the Kingdom are those of the Cocina Cartel at #198 Street 19, right behind the Royal Palace. You can have them veggie style (which is not considered unflattering to their creator) or with grilled beef or roast pork. The roast pork version is a song in the mouth. The meat is fatly succulent, meltingly tender and salted to perfection. By itself a simple dish simply perfect. The chips are unadulterated corn. The salsa is tomato rich with a maestro’s balance of salt, sweet, tart and spice. Big slices of genuine pickled jalapeno pepper crown the composition. The only off-note is the garnish of lettuce chiffonade. It’s as out-of-place as a harpsichord in a mariachi band. The only acceptable verdure in nachos is cilantro (fresh coriander). But brush that stuff off and you’ve got a fine dish of Ignacio Anaya. Good bye, Miss Saigon. Hello, Gorgeous. Nachos all ‘round!

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