Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Why I hate Khmer food

The delicate art of flavouring has been replaced by monosodium glutamate and piles of sugar. The proud tradition of tasty vegetarian food as been ditched for a headlong dash to eat as many gross animal parts as possible.

The food lacks both the flair and taste of Thai dishes and the innovation and variety of Vietnamese cuisine.

It may not be their fault – the Khmer Rouge killed off knowledge and culture and the cuisine was no exception – but the sad fact is the food here is not only frequently dirty and laced with chemicals, it is also just bland and boring.

Ten worst culinary culprits:

10. ‘Special’ Eggs: Why settle for a perfectly good boiled egg when you can include a semi-formed chicken faetus?

9. Fried Spiders: Or maybe they’re tarantulas. Not that that makes it in the least bit better.

8. Pig’s head: Only for special occasions, mercifully.

7. Cake: They look the part, with artistic and colourful decorations. Unfortunately they taste like cardboard and sour cheese.

6. Dog, Rat, Snake: All gross (though why isn’t eating pig, chicken or cow equally distasteful?).

5. Angkor beer: “My beer, my country”. An unfortunate flag-bearer, this bland, mass-produced swill is hard to swallow and harder to forget given its bitter chemical aftertaste.

4. Fish sauce: This putrid concoction can spoil the tastiest of veggie stir-fries, and without specific interdiction will pollute most dishes when eating out.

3. Dog-hair bread: The bread itself a poor, sweetened mockery of delicious French baguettes. So why not ruin it completely by adding a layer of dog hair (some claim it is shredded pork – same difference).

2. Durian: “Like eating raspberry blamonge - in a lavatory” according to Anthony Burgess. “A mixture of cheese, onions, sherry, rotting meat, and drains” suggests the BBC’s Christine Finn. Either way, you can see why many hotels and taxis don’t even let you carry let alone eat this gruesome fruit.

1. Cow intestines: A delicacy, ‘the best part of the cow’. Or, more accurately, a gross-out plate which looks like worms and smells like shit, which of course is uncomfortably near to the truth.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Why I love Khmer food

I love Khmer food.

The country is blessed with fertile land on which grow a wonderful range of fruits, vegetables, cereals and nuts. Subtle spices and interesting herbs abound.

Propagandists for Thai food conveniently forget that much of the country’s cuisine is based on Khmer recipes. Detractors of Cambodian cuisine often repeat old prejudice rather than taste the food for themselves. Simple maybe, uncelebrated certainly – but the food here is frequently delicious and those dismissing it are missing out!

Top 10 culinary champions:

10. Pumpkin: I can’t believe I never ate this before. Now I eat it every day. Cambodian pumpkins are large, rich and intensely flavoursome. Gently fried with noodles they soften to a delicious texture. Even better, simmer with potatoes and carrots in coconut milk and flavour with local spices and a squeeze of lime for the simplest and most exquisite curry this side of India. And then there’s pumpkin pie…

9. Kingdom Ale: At last Cambodia has produced a decent beer! This Phnom Penh brew is a tasty, highly drinkable pale ale. Cheers!

8. Cashews: Grown in the Eastern hills, and underappreciated even in their country of origin, these nuts go beautifully in a stir fry with pineapple or tofu, or on their own salted. And they cost a fraction of the price you’d pay overseas.

7. Rich fruit, dragon fruit, rambutans, and treefulls of fruits which don’t even have a name in English. Sure, bananas and melons can be great, but at their best these fruits are tasty, succulent and truly exotic.

6. Ban Sum: Thick rice noodles served cold with cucumber, mint, beansprouts, chilli, and chunks of veggie spring rolls. Best in Stung Treng market - for breakfast.

5. Noodle soup: More noodles for breakfast? Don’t knock it until you’ve tried it. Koy Taeo is a lip-smacking soup, the veggie version coming with spring onions, beansprouts and a zingy wedge of lime. Soak up the sauce with chunks of fried Ta Kwai bread. Now you’re set for the day.

4. Coffee: The sweet and chocolaty coffee from Cambodia’s North-East may not be for aficionados but it is undeniably tasty. Add an unhealthy dollop of MyBoy condensed milk and serve over ice and you have a delicious, teeth-janglingly sweet morning pick-me-up.

3. Tofu: Who needs meat when you can get all the goodness and none of the nastiness from this wonder food? Simply chunked and deep-fried with veggies and noodles it is awesome; my girlfriend Katja’s tofu-burgers fashioned with carrot and onions and flavoured with Kampot pepper were so delicious they’ll send Burger King shares into freefall.

2. Rice: Not just a staple, rather the very essence of Cambodian food (‘to eat’ in Khmer – nyam-bai - actually means ‘to eat rice’). Methods of production may be less mechanized than in neighbouring countries, and sadly brown rice is still tarred with memories of the Khmer Rouge forcing its production. But don’t worry: the nutty taste of the jasmine rice here is unsurpassed, and the sweet sticky rice is an unmissable dessert.

1. Mangoes. Sugary, smokey and succulant. The most tantalising treat in this Kingdom of Wonders.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Flicks in the Sticks

The Flicks has to be one of my favourite places in all of Cambodia.

Tucked away on street 95, a jump-cut from the bustling Monnivong Boulevard, it’s a cute little set up, with a friendly wooden-floored lounge-bar giving way to a cozy air-conditioned auditorium. DVDs are projected onto a great quality, floor-to-ceiling screen, which you can enjoy from the comfy seats, or even lying down if you prefer.

You can have a few while you view too – I’ve quite a taste for the palm wine, and even braved the Mekong whisky, albeit well disguised with Coke – it must have been a lean month-end.

Martin and Jeanette came from New Zealand to start the place not much more than a year ago, and they give the place a lovely welcoming feel. Jack the dog is equally friendly, though thankfully less demonstratively following his recent operation. I’ve also developed a soft spot for Barraing, the lodger / bartender whose name means white-man (Frenchman), but is in fact 100% Cambodian – there’s a story there.

The film choice is great too – essentially whatever just arrived at the Russian Market. Favourites have included New Year Baby, a revealing documentary about a Cambodian woman returning for the first time since she fled as a child; Micmacs, a stylish comedy from Amélie director Jean-Pierre Jeunet, and The Lives of Others, the powerful drama about life in communist East Germany. There is often also a Kiwi flavour, with Topps Twins, Boy, and Kenny recent hits. A caveat to this is Men Who Stare At Goats which was a monumental stinker, but you can’t win them all.

As well as Flicks, Phnom Penh now also boasts a newly renovated MetaHouse, part of the German Cultural Centre near the waterfront. It’s a cool, white concrete building, housing an excellent art-gallery below and semi-outdoor screening area above. Apart from films, they also serve up dreamy Hoegaarten beer and lip-smacking Flammenkuchen (pizza-breads). They show a commendable range of local documentaries, giving many young filmmakers their chance to shine. I recently saw the Cambodian premiere of Enemies of the People here, reviewed in an earlier blog. The cinema manager showed it three nights running (to packed houses), despite being denied a government screening permit – big respect to him for sticking his neck out.

These two gems more than make up for the lack of any bigger cinemas showing Western films in Phnom Penh. In fact there are very few other cinemas at all – I do intend to see a Khmer film soon, though I haven’t rushed to watch the stock martial art / shoot-em-up fare they seem to churn out.

This is actually quite sad – there was something of a golden age of Cambodian cinema in the late 1960s, when the French influence was still felt. King Sihanouk himself contributed by producing no less than nine feature films, and for a time Cambodian films looked set to make it on a world stage. Tragically this cinematic heritage was wiped out, along with so much else, by the Khmer Rouge in the late 1970s – and there are still only glimpses of a recovery.

So much for the cinematic delights of Phnom Penh. I am a day’s journey and a world away in my dusty little village on the Thai border. Cinemas there are none. There aren’t even many tellys, and these often draw quite a crowd to watch the twin delights of Khmer boxing or karaoke hits. And I do miss it – DVDs on my computer are great, but it’s not the same as cinema is it?

Imagine then my delight tonight when I was told that the racket coming from the grounds of the primary school wasn’t in fact another bloody wedding, but rather a traveling cinema – joy!

Even better, entry was just 1,500 riels, even less than the 2,000 (half a dollar) I was quoted. Before the film there were numerous distractions - first I headed for the dicing games. I was soon persuaded to place my remaining 500 riels on a lucky fish. And so it was, winning me four times my money back, even though I had no idea how to play – definitely beginner’s luck. This windfall was quickly blown on the throw-the-wobbly-darts-at-extra-tough-balloons game, but my mate won a bag of biscuits with his go. A good job, as there was no popcorn – and I don’t class stinky salted winkles or raw turnip as suitable alternatives.

The crowd of several hundred (a good chunk of the village populace) then sat down and waited expectantly. That was sitting on the earth of course, though the smart locals had brought rice bags for comfort. Luckily I was shown how to sit on my shoes, though I would still get a bit fidgety after the first 17 hours.

So to the film – and so disappointing. Far from an avant-guarde slice of young Khmer talent, or even just some easy Hollywood blockbuster, what we were offered was an episode of the intensely irritating slapstick ‘comedy’ which plagues my bus journeys to Phnom Penh. The funny man – a creepy little guy with a bushy Chapman / Hitler moustache and an grating high-pitched voice – makes Cambodians chortle and Westerners groan.

But I stuck it out, and it got better. The feature won’t win any Oscars, but it was an enjoyable romp, including charming prince, distressed damsel, evil sister, loud ‘mood music’, and a green-faced god arriving just in time to ensure a happy ending. Not to forget the fortune-telling rooster.

And then we all swarmed happily home through the streets of my village, like a football crowd returning from the ground. And it did feel a bit like coming back from a match: in the same way as you can enjoy a game even when your granny could play better - it’s the singing and chanting, the banter and the bovril – so I loved my evening amongst an excited crowd of giggling, whispering, cheering rice farmers. Such is the beauty of cinema, what sets it apart from telly or DVDs – it’s a shared experience. And one which is all the richer when enjoyed such an unlikely place as my little village in rural Cambodia. Flicks in the Sticks – happy, happy me.

Monday, January 3, 2011

How Not To Be A Role Model - An Apology (Of Sorts)

So my last blog caused a bit of a stir. Sorry about that.

Well, sorry if it was a bit too polemical, sarcastic, holier-than-thou – point taken. And sorry if you’re one of the many dedicated aid workers who happen to be based in the city doing useful strategic work but do all you can to keep in touch with what’s really going on out there.

Not sorry of course if you’re a culturally loutish, Lexus-driving, burger-scoffing, beer-swilling, fag-blowing, bribing, privitising, abusing, proselytising bad egg.

Either way, I do believe that the issue of role-modeling is a crucial one, and would like to contribute to a debate about it. Perhaps in a slightly more balanced way this time.

One important issue I hinted at is that it’s not just what you do, it can be simply who you are. The more white, old and male you happen to be, the more respect and influence you are likely to be given here, whether you deserve it or not. (This of course is not only true here, but it is a strong tradition).

This is a dilemma – I often ask my local colleagues to challenge the advice I give, as frequently they have much greater insight into issues and solutions which work in their context. I am usually frustrated, as they basically show me too much respect – largely, I suspect, due to my whiteness, maleness and increasing baldness.

We are conspicuous and what we do is noticed, commented on and often taken as best practice. The cleverest (and most cynical) exploiters of this are advertisers working for big tobacco in developing countries (how can they sleep at night?). Phnom Penh billboards are packed with Alain Delon ‘The Taste of France’ and Davidoff ‘The More You Know’ adverts, always with beautiful, happy white models. This is because people here think white is good and want to be like white people. (Literally too – the market for creams including whitening agents is a multi-million dollar industry even in this relatively poor country).

Sometimes it is hard to know how to respond. Frequently I am ushered to the front of meetings, just because I am a white man. Yesterday I was asked to make sure I spend as much time on the hospital wards as possible – sadly not due to my hospital management expertise, but rather ‘patients like to see a white guy around’. Should I refuse, pointing out that these attitudes are based on and likely further fuel prejudice? Is it enough to merely acknowledge the issue and limit a response to gentle discussion with trusted colleagues?

So much for what we can’t control. But our behaviour we certainly can influence.

Now I’m no angel. I’m just as guilty as the rest of the volunteers and ex-pats when it comes to whinging about the irritations of living in a developing country. I certainly won’t drive a Lexus and make sure I’m seen out and about on my bike – but then I have just jetted off for a carbon-busting Christmas break. I will never darken the doors of KFC, but would give just about anything for a home-delivered pizza (unlikely in my village). I don’t smoke but I enjoy a few beers at weekends. I accept that there is a degree of moral compromise here – but I hope I can hold my head high.

I don’t pay bribes of course. Well, actually, I haven’t had one directly demanded yet, but if I am stopped by a gang of traffic police I may find it hard to refuse. And thinking about it, every single time I leave my village the driver of the shared taxi pays the police 2000 riels (half a dollar) – am I morally excused just because he pays this on my behalf? (A bit like getting my mate to buy the burgers?).

One thing I believe I can be proud of is that I have offered two years of my life to try to help improve the public health system here. This may well sound a bit pompous, but I worked for the UK’s National Health Service because I genuinely believe people should get the best healthcare possible based on their clinical need, not on their ability to pay. The NHS is of course far from perfect, but that principle seems to be going strong (please don’t tell me I’m wrong!). Here it’s a very different story – those with money get the best care, those with a bit can at least access hospitals and pay for food, and those with none often just suffer or die quietly. And I am doing it in a poor, rural area – noone can accuse me of relaxing in an airconditioned office (well, apart from when I go to work in the big hospital down the road to cool off!). And yet even here there’s a moral quandary – if I get really ill (several volunteers do), should I seriously demand to be treated just like everyone else here, and refuse to go to the nice posh hospital in Bangkok?

Just to finish the scorecard: I don’t do sex-tourism, I don’t buy from kids, and my only contact with orphanages is to channel donations directly to reputable institutions. I don’t try to change anyone’s religion (though I have been known to enquire about some of the apparent contractions in Buddhism). I obey the lights, I work afternoons, I leave the room to talk on the phone. So maybe I am a bit of an angel after all.

And one more thing. Can I claim to be role-modeling a questioning attitude, freedom of expression, an open society, by writing what I feel and opening myself up to criticism? I’m sure you’ll let me know.

New Year's Resolution: How Not To Be A Role Model

You can do no wrong.

Really, as a rich Westerner in a poor Asian country, pretty much anything you do is seen as good, based on nothing more than your wealth and skin-colour. Like it or not, you’re a role model.

If you don’t like it, here are a few tips for how to fail:

· Disrespect the culture: it’s important to show a complete disregard for your hosts. Talking loudly helps (never in ‘their’ language), and make sure you include plenty of ill-informed criticisms of the country and its people.

· Show them how to travel: a Lexus is a great way to get around – it keeps you insulated from the unpleasantness of street life, and the aircon and western music help you forget you’re here. Never walk or cycle – that would make it look sensible and acceptable, and lead to awkward questions about parking the Hummer on the pavement. If you must ride a motorbike, make it an unnecessarily powerful one – and ditch the helmet.

· Eat: as with the big car, so with the Big Mac: show them that to emulate our wealth they must love burgers and KFC. Don’t worry, the Buddhist respect for animals is already shaky, and people don’t yet realize that eating heaps of cheap factory-farmed flesh will destroy both their bodies and their environment.

· Drink: show them how glamorous it is to get horribly hammered. You could always have a fight or drive home afterwards for bad measure.

· Smoke: enjoy your right to enjoy smoking tobacco, to drive home the cool impression created by the pretty white models on French cigarette adverts. And don’t miss the chance to toss your butt on the floor with the other trash.

· Bribe: beat them at their own game, give and take ‘informal payments’, make sure you show that only money talks. If you work in the oil or logging industries you’ll be well placed for this.

· Go Private: make sure you demonstrate that there’s no way you would use the public health or education systems, and encourage others to aspire to get out too – you can help people to understand that money is power and greed is good.

· Contribute to some abuse: a bit of sex-tourism maybe, or at least encourage kids to stay out of school by buying stuff from those who work on the streets. Orphanages make great freak-show entertainment.

· Show them who knows best: steamroller centuries of Buddhist culture and get them to change religion. You can do this under the guise of charity. Make sure anyone working for you has to convert, and you could insist the recipients believe too, in exchange for your ‘help’.

· Reinforce bad behaviour: sometimes you don’t even need to show the way, just join in – jump the lights, skive the afternoons, shout at your mobile.

· Avoid Poverty: perhaps most important of all, make sure you stay in town, away from reaky rural rice-farmers. On no account travel to remote villages - they don’t have air-con. A good way to avoid contact with poverty is to work for a well-funded international NGO, allowing you to remain indefinitely insulated in chilled city offices.