About eight hours after our memorable meal of num ban-chok we return with our resourceful tuk-tuk driver Hak (you can find him hanging out with his machine in front of Siem Reap's most achingly hip hotel) to Pradok village to see just where our breakfast noodles had come from. Brief inquiries lead us to this house, the face-to-the-road of a compound of 5 or 6 similar wooden structures shared by a large extended family.
The only sign of food preparation is a huge pot on the fire, but the lady of the house and head of the family confirms that we'd come to the right place.
'After the Khmer Rouge I had nothing. No land, no rice, no food. My family needs money. So I make num banh-chok to sell,' Madame Moul tells me, with Hak translating. That was thirty years ago. Now she and her daughter-in-law work together,making the noodles each day to sell to vendors who take them to Pradok's small crossroads market.
Num banh-chok is made from rice that's boiled until soft and then ground into a liquidy dough with a heavy stone mill.
We missed this part of the process but a few of Madame Moul's grandkids are more than happy to whip themselves into a frenzy demonstrating how the mill works. It's turned round and round with a lever that attaches to the upper stone piece.
After the rice is ground the wet batter is placed in a cloth bag and heavy weights - mill parts, in fact - are placed on top to squeeze as much water out as possible. During this time the rice begins to ferment.
The result is a sort of very firm, dryish-but-sticky flour that needs to be softened in boiling water before it can be transformed into the smooth dough - or batter, if you wish - from which the num banh-chok are formed.
Before placing the dough into boiling water Madame Moul's daughter-in-law compacts it by opening the bag and sprinkling a little water on its contents,
and then repeatedly slamming the it onto a tree stump, rotating it the bag a bit each time.
When she's finished the dough resembles a huge ball of fresh cheese.
A banana leaf-lined bamboo tray with long handles is used to lower the dough ball into the pot of boiling water,
and after about 30 minutes it emerges rock-hard and a starchy-slick to the touch. Now it's ready to be pounded in a large, deep rock mortar with a pestle that's worked with leg power.
This is where Madame Moul comes in. First she places the dough ball into the mortar.
With a few light taps of the pestle the dough lump splits in two. Only one half will be pounded at a time, so Madame Moul transfers the other back to the bowl. Assisted on occasion by her husband and/or son, Madame Moul's daughter-in-law pumps the lever attached to the pestle as Madame Moul constantly turns the dough in the mortar, exposing all sides to the pestle's force. As it's being beaten the dough gives off a strong, sour, yeasty smell (a result of the mild fermentation that, we suspect, gives num banh-chok its special chewy elasticity).
More distracting than the smell of fermented rice is the way Madame Moul's fingers lightly dance about the dough ball, perilously close to that heavy pestle. Sometimes she takes her eyes away from the mortar and talks and laughs with observers who are observing us observing, which makes me shudder. I don't want to imagine the sort of damage that the heavy wooden rod could do to a hand that strays where it shouldn't. I suppose I needn't have worried; thirty years of experience has no doubt taught Madame Moul where in the mortar her fingers should and shouldn't be
Over the course of about fifteen minutes the dough is transformed from a rock-hard, floury ball to a smooth, elastic dough. Toward the very end Madame Moul softens it by sprinkling on water.
Back by the pot on the fire, she kneads it further by hand, adding still more water. When she's done its snow white soft peaks remind me of vanilla Tastee-Freeze twirled in a cone.
And then it's time to make some noodles...