The assignment seemed simple enough. Track down somebody who makes a Cambodian pastry known as “akor” and find out how they do it. I’d seen pictures of them—little white puffy balls sitting in a Styrofoam container, covered with threads of shredded coconut—and immediately wanted to eat one.
The search started at the Russian market, Phsar Tuol Tumpong, but the vendors there said the woman who sells them had already left. “Try O’Russey” market, they said. Winding through the food stalls at that market, vendors kept pointing in different directions as we wandered past skinned frogs, fermented fish and other delicacies. Finally, we located a young woman selling the treat already neatly boxed up in Styrofoam. Her aunt made them, she said, but had gone off to another market. “Try Central Market,” Phsar Thmei, she said.
There, we finally tracked down the woman who claims to be the kingpin of Phnom Penh’s akor production.
“It’s the real Cambodian cake—not from Vietnam,” said Uk Ra. She was busy steaming a fresh batch of akor in two large stainless steel tubs perched on burners. Inside the tubs sat hundreds of small cups, a dollop of akor batter plopped in each.
The 47-year-old said she came up with the idea after the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime, when she was 19 and trying to figure out a way to make money. Although her grandmother and mother both had made akor, Uk Ra said she came up with her own original recipe and has been perfecting it ever since.
The process starts by soaking rice in water for several hours—Uk Ra said she goes through about 100 kg of rice per day.
The rice is then ground and compressed to squeeze out the water. The resulting flour is mixed with sugar, coconut and palm sugar into batter. The batter sits for several hours before it’s steamed, sometimes with milk on top, sometimes plain. Crushed nuts, sesame seeds, grated coconut or fruit are often sprinkled on top.
While akor tastes approximately how you’d expect—something of a cross between rice pudding and a donut—it is remarkably good, well outstripping the mediocre expectations brought on by its modest appearance. It’s not overwhelmingly sweet and has a yeasty complexity, almost begging for a fruit accompaniment.
Uk Ra sells the pastry at several markets around town. “I can earn maybe 700,000 to 800,000 riel ($175 to $200) a day,” she said. Does she have any competition? “Only me—nobody knows how to make it,” Uk Ra said.
But although she may appear to dominate the capital’s akor market, her boast doesn’t seem quite borne out by the facts.
Joannes Riviere, pastry chef at Meric at Hotel de la Paix in Siem Reap town, has been serving the pastry at his restaurant and sees it regularly at markets around town. “It’s very common here,” he said.
Traditionally, the dessert is made with natural leavening, in much the way as sour dough bread. As the dough rests, it picks up tiny yeast molecules from the air, causing the dough to rise. But you can simplify the process with a dash of commercial yeast to cut the rising time to about one hour, Riviere said.