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Eating in Cambodia, tasted on December 6-10, 2005 ó (Note: continued from yesterday's post on being in Cambodia.) There are two factors I thought of as potentially illuminating in terms of what food in Cambodia would be like. 1) They were a French colony, and 2) the water isn't safe to drink. The first raised my hopes that the French/Southeast Asian mix of food traditions would result in something wonderful. (I consider the Vietnamese sub one of nature's finest creations and it's an obvious example of this type of colonial culinary melding.) And yet, how can a country where you can't drink the water have their act together enough to offer great food in abundance? And in the end, the latter factor won out... ...sort of.

My only experience eating Cambodian food in the past has been in Boston, MA at a series of Cambodian restaurants owned by the same family. And the food there us quite enjoyable. It's not Thai. Nor is it Vietnamese. It's in the general vicinity but still all its own with an emphasis (from my limited perspective) on lime juice and beef. Lots of beef. Other stuff too, but definitely more beef than I'd seen in any other Asian cuisine I was familiar with.

Iím a big planner. I like to figure out all the details in advance and I do so on a regular basis, whatever the trek Iím taking Ė Cambodia, supermarket, whatever. So, I decided I wouldnít plan things out for Cambodia. I suppose Iím trying to grow a little. A little. ; ) When I got to Phnom Penh I browsed the web for recommendations and I even sent mail to a fellow blogger (western) whoís living in Cambodia. Only later did I notice that every recommendation I got was for food within a 1 km radius of my hotel. My hotel is absolutely beautiful and conveniently located to the museums and the palace. The center of the tourist trade. And sure enough, every restaurant recommended to me was in that same zone. Frommerís only recommends restaurants in the tourist area. For godís sake, couldnít they even find one Khmer restaurant to recommend? I should have known better, but I finally relented and decided to try the 'best French restaurant in town'. I understand that there were many deeply negative effects from the colonization of southeast Asia, but that doesnít mean there was no upside. And the fusion of French and Asian food in Cambodia and Vietnam is definitely upside. As I mentioned, I figured, French food in Cambodia would be interesting and delicious. For the most part that's unfortunately wrong. It was more lame tourist crap. I knew I had to break out. After some cajoling, one of the hotel staff finally admitted to me that there was a big restaurant district a couple of kilometers away, but it was across the Mekong River, and Iíd need one of the motorbike or tuk tuk drivers to take me there and bring me back as no tourists go there, so there are no drivers waiting around to take tourists anywhere. I knew this was the place for me.

In the early evening as the sun was setting I found Ravy the tuk tuk driver. Ten dollars round trip to Prek Leap. (Cambodia basically operates on US currency.) We started the trek out to Prek Leap on a series of progressively worse roads. And while the bumps were terrible, at least I got to breathe in the pollution from the trucks that kept veering way to close to us for my comfort. (Strangely Phnom Penh seems less polluted to me than Bangkok did.)

After we crossed the river, there were literally hundreds of restaurants lining the road. Some huge monstrosities. Some tiny little shacks with a TV where all the diners appeared to be there so they could watch the soaps, news, or sports on the TVs. After much convincing of my driver he finally took me to a middle-sized place. It was in fact a restaurant located in behind someone's home. The proprietor's were tickled that I was there, everyone giving me looks like - "Oh aren't you an odd little visitor here. Maybe you're lost." But after negotiation, and with the help of my driver I got a couple of beef dishes and some beer of course (cause I'm desperately trying to avoid drinking any water or eating anything that is uncooked). The food was ok. Better than the crappy tourist lunch I had, but not as good as Cambodian food I've had in the U.S. And slowly I figured out that this place (and many nearby) were focused mainly on providing lots of beer and prostitutes for the Cambodian men that frequented the places. My driver assured me that in fact the gaggle of girls serving me dinner were not in fact daughters of the woman who owned the place and took my order, they were in fact girls from the countryside who were there to service the various Cambodian men who came into drink and then use the girls' services. They all looked super young. Scary. I went home hoping that the next day would prove more successful.

I tried one other local place. I was searching for a "crusty rice" restaurant. I never did find one. I did however end up at another restaurant where they were super amused that I was there. Two little girls (this time actual family members thank god) kept poking me in the back while I ate to try and get my attention. Eventually they were shooed away. This place was back on my side of the river but outside the tourist district near the hospital. The guide told me where to go for crusty rice, but I never did find it. The loc lac (beef dish) I got was not really cooked enough. I ate not quite enough to look like I enjoyed it but more than enough to convince myself I had contracted some sort of raw beef disease. They also gave me a pitcher (not a tall glass, but an entire pitcher) of beer. Before I left  however a little kid came by and offered to sell me this little fried rice cracker in a bag. My hosts told me it was called Noumbai kídan. It was super crunchy, savory, and delicious. Not bad for six cents.

I did try hotel restaurants as well as the rules that hotel restaurants are almost always bad doesn't usually apply in Asia. The restaurant at the Amanjaya in Phnom Penh, K West Cafe, was actually not bad, especially when I ate the Khmer dishes. I avoided ordering pizza, spaghetti, or hamburgers, but the loc lac was pretty decent. However up in Angkor I stayed at the Raffles Grand Hotel D'Angkor. The hotel was gorgeous in a very colonial way. Very old, great service, and it really transported you. I felt as if I'd just completed a three month journey from England and found a small oasis of civilization where they still served tea. Aside from feeling sort of uncomfortable in this colonial make-believe, and the fact that I don't enjoy tea, it was really a very cool place. That said, they catered to a more traditional tourist crowd (read, retired Americans). The requisite buffet was not very good. The high end restaurant serving dinner was not bad though. The soup in particular was good.

While Siem Reap (the Angkor region) is thriving on tourism (when I visited the region a new hotel seemed to be opening every week), the capital Phnom Penh is thriving in a different way. Despite the corruption, people are obviously trying and there's motion and economic activity everywhere. There's even some modern Khmer offerings. My hotel was one, and a restaurant owned by the same folks was another. The restaurant I went to - Malis - was beautifully designed, served modern Khmer food (according to the chef), had an open kitchen, etc. felt like a western restaurant in a good way. There were definitely some culinary highlights food was somewhat uneven, but they had only been open for a few days. If  I were back in Phnom Penh I would definitely go to Malis to see how they'd evolved. There's money in Phnom Penh for a very small percentage of the population. But that percentage is growing I think.

I did have a very positive food moment that involved no actual eating. We were out in the countryside when I learned that the fields we were passing were filled with rice. I realized that I didn't know what rice actually looks like. I was a little embarrassed taking pictures of the folks harvesting the rice, but it was cool to actually finally know what rice looked like as it grew. Neat.

My quest was really to find authentic and fantastic local food. I failed in the latter, and unfortunately I think I may have succeeded in the former. By no means was my five days spent in Cambodia an exhaustive food exploration. But I really did try to cover many places on the spectrum (including trips to the markets). And I felt like the food I found was pretty representative of a lot of the food available to the various strata of society. And it wasn't very good. I don't know if it's the poverty, the restrictions I put on what I ate because of the water, or something else entirely. I know from experience that Cambodia food is a wonderful and unique cuisine. I just wasn't able to find any that really made me super happy. I almost hope I get comments telling me that I blew it and chose wrong at every turn. And if only I'd done X or Y I would have had wonderful food in Cambodia. At least in that case I would learn what to do next time.

I should say that there was one exception. The baguettes. They were sitting at stalls on the side of the road every morning in various parts of town. Breakfast for the local population. More than once I asked Ravy to pull over so I could grab one and wolf it down. The baguettes were among the best I've ever had. Why is it that in this country with rampant corruption and abject poverty they make bread that's about 1000 times better than any baguette I've ever had in the U.S.? (There's some flame fodder. ; )

Anyway, even though I felt like I could have had a better food experience, don't think for a second that Cambodia isn't an incredible place. I fell in love with the country. Things are moving so fast there that I bet the food options are improving on a daily basis. I can't wait to visit again.

 

     

 

 

 

 

 

   

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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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