If your habit of mind is at all like mine, the first thing you must do upon arrival in a strange place is find something familiar.
The first crepe I had in Phnom Penh was very good, sitting in the high breezes of Nature & Sea just off Sihanouk Boulevard.
But the second crepe I had was the genuine artifact, made by Francois Simoneau at the Melting Pot Cafe. His parents are Gerard and Marie-Therese, and they come from La Salaire, a village in France just south of Brittany, the geographic and spiritual home of the French crepe. He spent his childhood summers gathering white strawberries from the forest, which his grandmother would then make into jam—for crepes, of course.
When I first experienced the crepe, years ago, it appeared under an alias: Swedish pancake.
My father had gotten the recipe from his mother, a Norwegian American from Minnesota who is large-minded enough to overlook a long Nordic rivalry when it comes to Swedish pancakes and Swedish meatballs. My father wrote the recipe on an index card, which he taped to the inside of our kitchen cabinet.
To him the actual ingredients mattered less than the fantastic power of his high-speed blender-an engineer by training, the only other thing he cooks besides Swedish pancakes is steak. We would eat them with melted butter and sugar on Sunday mornings. It was always a contest of sorts to see who could best stuff them down, farmhouse-style, five, six, seven, eight at a time. Then we would all lie down.
Crepes are old, so old that despite their strong Breton roots, they cannot properly belong to the French or the Swedes. Pancakes in Europe date back to ancient Rome. At the turn of the 17th Century in England, William Shakespeare wrote about them. And their subsequent genealogy must somehow allow for the tortilla in Mexico, the blini in Russia, the blintz in Jewish cuisine, the flapjack in England, the injera in Ethiopia, the dosa in India, the qata’if in the Middle East, the dadar gutung in Indonesia, and the bao bing in China, which incidentally is where buckwheat flour—the base of the savory Breton crepe—came from.
Which brings us back to Phnom Penh. Francois has been making crepes since he was five years old. On a recent day—not long after he and his wife Evelyne opened the Melting Pot Cafe near Phsar Tuol Tumpong, or Russian market—his cousin Arnaud told Francois he was hungry and would really like to eat a crepe. So Francois pulled out his grandmother’s recipe. “All my family uses this recipe,” Francois said. “I have changed nothing.”
Under these circumstances it is an admittedly stupid question, but I asked him nonetheless what his secret was to making a good crepe
“I am French,” he said, laughing. Then he said: “Do you know Nutella?” I nodded.
The second crepe I encountered was the Nutella crepe. By that time, I was older and living alone in Paris, where I learned that one might eat roast chicken for lunch and salad after dinner, and that cheese is a glorious, living thing.
Though I am from Los Angeles, where we did not have Nutella when I was a child, the Nutella crepe has become, to me, the emissary of the glamorous childhood I always wished I’d had. The childhood I was granted—with its macaroni and cheese, meatloaf and boiled tongue—was full and delightful enough, but it all just seemed so prosaic, as most childhoods do to the one living them.
I was poor when I lived in Paris, and in consequence grew ever thinner, even as I gorged myself—standing alone on some street corner on a cold night—on a single, hot crepe with Nutella. Paris was everything I thought I could ever want, a world that was utterly closed to me, but which I dreamed I might one day inhabit, beginning with that hot, sweet, and eminently affordable mouthful of chocolate.
Eventually, I was able to weasel out of Francois the secrets to his grandmother’s crepes. They are simple enough: respect (of good butter), patience (with milk) and attention (to temperature).
One morning, I went to the Melting Pot Cafe and followed Francois up a narrow staircase to the second floor, where he pulled out some small bowls and, without measuring, concocted from the simplest things—butter, flour, milk, eggs, salt, sugar—a smooth yellow batter that smelled of spring, Sunday mornings and a hint of sweet hay.
“For me I prefer a whisk because it’s an ancestral recipe,” he said. “But if you use a blender, I believe it’s good too.”
Then we went up another little staircase and looked down on the hectic traffic around the market as Francois heated up the pan. This part is sacrilege: For the moment he’s using a non-stick skillet; his father will bring him a proper crepe pan from France when he comes to visit in a few months.
Without adding a drop of butter, Francois swirls just enough batter into the pan to form a thin layer. The batter immediately pricks with holes and you can hear the snapping sound of butter cooking. Then he flips the crepe and paints on some Nutella, which gives off the thick, heady scent of cooking sugar.
For the next one, he adds an unashamed dollop of butter and a spoonful of sugar—just like the Swedes—which ideally will melt just a little without fully giving up its granularity.
Outside it is Phnom Penh, but here, at the plate, it is Sunday morning, it is a cold night in Paris, it is a childhood spent picking strawberries. “It is a souvenir of France,” says Francois.
Even in Cambodia, the crepe remains a thing of my childhood and a thing of my dreams, at once familiar and strange, a living memory of the first time I found myself pressed up against a new civilization I wanted very much to taste.