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Being in Cambodia, December 6-10, 2005 ó (Note: I know this is a food blog, but I was really touched by my trip to Cambodia so today in the first of two posts on the country I want to give some background on my experience there.) I am guilty of romanticizing southeast Asia. Itís dangerous to do it as at best youíll end up disappointed and at worst it can be condescending. That said, thereís no denying the romance and beauty of the region. Iíve wanted to travel here for much of my life and have finally gotten to make the trip. And in many ways, in my mind, Bangkok was always the iconic representation of what I hoped to see. Iím not sure how to express what I was hoping for. I think the fact that I love Asian food and Asian aesthetics combined with the prospect of encountering a really different society and culture where those came from was attractive. And I fully expected Bangkok to be the highlight of my trip.

In fact, (and this is probably my fault for not getting far enough off the beaten path,) Bangkok seemed to me two dimensional. I admit this is because I only had a few days and I wasnít able to break out of the tourist routes. But thatís part of the problem, breaking out of the well worn tracks that zillions of tourists have beaten down before you. And in many ways, everywhere I went in Bangkok was optimized for tourists. I almost went down the same path in Phnom Penh. Almost.

Phnom Penh was immediately different than Bangkok. Bangkok is clearly on its way to becoming a world class city. It's decades (or longer) from having the polish of London or Tokyo, but all the basic elements are in place Ė the excitement, the breadth, the depth, the special qualities. Phnom Penh is dusty, itís small (relatively), its dilapidated, its broken. The National museum houses a tiny fraction of the treasures this country once had, but looting, the Kmher Rouge, and civil war have seen most of it leave the country. The museum itself is beautiful and sad. He objects are nice, but the building is gorgeous. Itís also worn and frayed. But itís worn and frayed from use as well as abuse. And ultimately itís sad and endearing. I know that Bangkok is dusty and dilapidated as well, and I donít mean to condescend, but really, Phnom Penh may be leaps and bounds ahead of where it was during the Cambodia civil war, but it feels (to me) like a I would imagine Bangkok felt 20-30 years ago. And yet, Phnom Penh is clearly alive.

The people are going about their day, every day, and there are tons of them. The streets are teeming with Cambodian faces. And just about all of them are quick to offer a genuine smile. Commerce is everywhere. I mean everywhere Ė stuffed into every nook and cranny that can handle someone selling something. People arenít just selling (and buying Ė though it appears thereís 10 vendors for every customer), but they are living their lives. One of my favorite moments so far was riding past a local school at 5pm just as streams of kids were pouring out of the gates of the school all in their blue and white uniforms. Tons of parents on motorbikes were picking up their kids and taking them home. It was just another day. And there it was, I found the Bangkok I was looking for, it is Phnom Penh.

It's important to remember a few things though:

  • the guy driving me around every day in his "tuk tuk" (a canopied pair of benches on wheels attached to the back of a motorbike - bigger than a moped, smaller than a motorcycle) made about $100 a month. He spent $30 for the one room he, his wife, and two boys (6 and 10) lived in, $36 a month for English and Japanese classes for his eldest son (who he hopes will be come a tour guide and earn $1000 a month - I think he's overestimating what they make)

  • 80% of the country is illiterate

  • 50% of the country thinks the king is not of this earth (descended from god)

  • the ruling party the CPP are descended from the faction of the Khmer Rouge that escaped to Vietnam to escape intra-party purges

  • the government is super corrupt

  • the leaders of the Khmer Rouge who committed auto-genocide are still around and in their 70s and 80s. While they should all be put on trial for crimes against humanity those trials have not begun and nobody expects them to begin

  • Some people believe that in the '70s the king himself (now a sort of honorary uber-king to make room for his son to be actual king) was complicit, and some people believe that trials would expose not only his involvement but China's support for the Khmer Rouge and for the murder of as many as 2 million Cambodians

  • After bombing the crap out of the country (secretly), the US supported the Khmer Rouge over the Vietnamese puppet government in Cambodia. They preferred the government who'd turned the entire country into a forced labor/"re-education" camp over the one who was pro VIetnam. (Though the Vietnamese sponsored group I'm sure they weren't much better in terms of human rights and corruption, but they do happen to basically be in power today.)

  • Everyone in Cambodia lost people either to the bombings by the Americans, the general fighting, the Khmer Rouge murdering people (Pol Pot believed anyone who wore glasses was an intellectual and murdered intellectuals), or all of the above. I met one guy who was one of 12 siblings. There were only six left. Some siblings escaped to the Thai border and were recruited to fight for the Khmer Rouge while they were in retreat. Some were recruited by the government that took power after the Khmer Rouge were chased out. Brothers ended up fighting against each other. But some of his siblings they don't know what happened to. Likely they were orphaned through all the forced moves by the Khmer Rouge and eventually forgot where they lived and live to this day somewhere in the country not being able to find the rest of their family.

  • The school where I saw all the parents picking up their kids at the end of the day was both inspiring and creepy. Inspiring because of the scene that played out at the end of the day while I was riding by. Creepy because the school looked identical to the Toul Sleng Genocide Museum (formerly prison camp "S-21"). It looked identical because before S-21 was the site of tragedy it was a high school.

In other words. This is a fucked up place. Beautiful. Lovely friendly people. But a fucked up place nonetheless.

I was lucky that I got to spend a few days not only in Phnom Penh but in Angkor as well. Angkor is essentially the icing on the irony of Cambodia. Angkor is a stunning collection of ruined cities and temples. The remnants of the foremost civilization in the world between ~1100 and ~1400. And as they pointed out in the signs at the killing fields, the Khmer Rouge tried to regress the country back to the stone age. From foremost civilization to teetering on the edge of the stone age in 600 years. Makes you think.

Tomorrow, in part 2, we talk about eating in Cambodia.











Tastingmenu is focused on superlative restaurant experiences from two perspectives: behind the plate and behind the stove. Tastingmenu is written by Hillel (professional eater) and Dana (up-and-coming professional chef) in Seattle, Washington.

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  Garlic has long been credited with providing and prolonging physical strength and was fed to Egyptian slaves building the giant pyramids. Throughout the centuries, its medicinal claims have included cures for toothaches, consumption, open wounds and evil demons. A member of the lily family, garlic is a cousin to leeks, chives, onions and shallots. The edible bulb or "head" grows beneath the ground. This bulb is made up of sections called cloves, each encased in its own parchmentlike membrane. Today's major garlic suppliers include the United States (mainly California, Texas and Louisiana), France, Spain, Italy and Mexico. There are three major types of garlic available in the United States: the white-skinned, strongly flavored American garlic; the Mexican and Italian garlic, both of which have mauve-colored skins and a somewhat milder flavor; and the Paul Bunyanesque, white-skinned elephant garlic (which is not a true garlic, but a relative of the leek), the most mildly flavored of the three. Depending on the variety, cloves of American, Mexican and Italian garlic can range from 1/2 to 1 1/2 inches in length. Elephant garlic (grown mainly in California) has bulbs the size of a small grapefruit, with huge cloves averaging 1 ounce each. It can be purchased through mail order and in some gourmet markets. Green garlic, available occasionally in specialty produce markets, is young garlic before it begins to form cloves. It resembles a baby leek, with a long green top and white bulb, sometimes tinged with pink. The flavor of a baby plant is much softer than that of mature garlic. Fresh garlic is available year-round. Purchase firm, plump bulbs with dry skins. Avoid heads with soft or shriveled cloves, and those stored in the refrigerated section of the produce department. Store fresh garlic in an open container (away from other foods) in a cool, dark place. Properly stored, unbroken bulbs can be kept up to 8 weeks, though they will begin to dry out toward the end of that time. Once broken from the bulb, individual cloves will keep from 3 to 10 days. Garlic is usually peeled before use in recipes. Among the exceptions are roasted garlic bulbs and the famous dish, "chicken with 40 cloves of garlic," in which unpeeled garlic cloves are baked with chicken in a broth until they become sweet and butter-soft. Crushing, chopping, pressing or pureeing garlic releases more of its essential oils and provides a sharper, more assertive flavor than slicing or leaving it whole. Garlic is readily available in forms other than fresh. Dehydrated garlic flakes (sometimes referred to as instant garlic) are slices or bits of garlic that must be reconstituted before using (unless added to a liquid-based dish, such as soup or stew). When dehydrated garlic flakes are ground, the result is garlic powder. Garlic salt is garlic powder blended with salt and a moisture-absorbing agent. Garlic extract and garlic juice are derived from pressed garlic cloves. Though all of these products are convenient, they're a poor flavor substitute for the less expensive, readily available and easy-to-store fresh garlic. One unfortunate side effect of garlic is that, because its essential oils permeate the lung tissue, it remains with the body long after it's been consumed, affecting breath and even skin odor. Chewing chlorophyll tablets or fresh parsley is helpful but, unfortunately, modern-day science has yet to find the perfect antidote for residual garlic odor.  

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