Your taxpayer dollars buy me a frozen kangaroo.

Happy Australia Day 2007

Happy Australia Day 2007.

Australian expats in Cambodia celebrated in the traditional manner by getting their booze on at the complete expense of the Australian Embassy. I had originally planned a detailed review of the food on offer (lamingtons, Australian rib eye beef, sausage rolls, pho) but was too bewildered by the carved ice monsters and 5 metre long Harbour Bridge to concentrate or take detailed notes.

Sadly the above iced marsupial could not withstand the onslaught from a disgruntled expatriate, and was swiftly beheaded in a single drunken blow.

Happy Australia Day 2007

Angkor: Built with the blood of slaves for your tourism pleasure

I was teaching classes at a local research institution. I arrogantly would always trot out the notion of the Angkor Empire in my examples. Angkor was, in my opinion then as now, a horrendous deformation of humanity, where slave labor and mass dehumanization resulted in the piling of rocks into beautiful monuments. The vast majority of modern Cambodians, however, for a host of reasons which are increasingly well understood(2) think of the Angkorean regime as the golden age of Cambodia. Historically, this cannot have been true, at least not for the masses of people who lived under Angkor’s rule. Instead, modern Cambodians appeal to Angkor primarily as an offense against the constriction of the Cambodian nation (in terms of territory, glory, and regional power), a notion explored very well by Thongchai Winichakul for Thailand.(3) In my classes, I would ask people if they would want to have lived during the Angkor era. All my students smiled beatifically and replied that yes, they would.

I then asked them if they were under the impression that they would have been kings, queens, or if they would have been the slaves who built the palaces. Their smiles dropped, and their responses were a combination of shame and sullen silence. I was frustrated too. I supposed I had expected some sort of ‘a-ha’ moment where their eyes would suddenly open onto a vista of oppression and slavery of which they were unaware. This is what I mean by referring to my previous arrogance.

It is an extreme rarity to read nuanced and academic accounts of Cambodia as they happen, which is what makes Deathpower in Cambodia a great read. Probably less of a great read for anybody who yells “wanker” whenever I mention an obscure theorist or add footnotes (Erik listed Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus amongst his heavy holiday reading).

Oddly enough, as an outsider I tend to display the same arrogance about Cambodian food. Not many Cambodians enjoy discussing that banh xeo, loc lac and samlor machou yuon in all likelihood had Vietnamese (or even Khmer Krom) origins nor do they find it as interesting to discuss how these dishes became so intimately entwined in a monolithic idea of Cambodian cuisine and modern-day Cambodian nationalism. They’re all Cambodian foods now because Cambodians have so thoroughly claimed ownership over them and modified them to their own tastes, but it’s rare to find a local who does not believe that Khmer culture (and as an extension, food) magically appeared sui generis in the hazy Angkorean past.

See: Remembered Villages, Imagined Communities

Third World de Luxe: Luxe City Guides Cambodia and Laos

Luxe City Guides: Cambodia and Laos

Since imperial powers began extending their sovereignty abroad, Third World nations have been ripe for the picking as luxury travel destinations. What the colonial era lacked in wifi facilities and post-Orientalist irony, it made up for with linen suits and mahouts. Any colonising nation with the nous to build a hill station knew that luxury travellers would soon follow, even if those travellers were the bored ruling elite and the tuberculosis-ridden. Late last year, bespoke guide-crafters Luxe City Guides caught onto this hundreds year old trend and released its first truly Third World guide concatenating Laos and Cambodia. What it lacks in directions for Indochina’s best Directly Observed Therapy destinations for TB sufferers, it makes up for in postcolonial drollness for the jaded colonisers.

Luxe is an excellent concept notwithstanding their occasional pretentious wankery. The Luxe model is where travel guides of the future are headed: know your market niche incredibly well and then recommend where to go, as opposed to the Lonely Planet model of encyclopaedic listing and loose attempts at objectivity. People like choice but not too much choice.

The other real beauty of the Luxe City Guides is that somebody who lives in the same city as the guide usually writes them. This one is not, by virtue of covering four urban centres (Phnom Penh, Siem Reap, Vientiane, Luang Prabang). Author Jo Craig’s home province of Siem Reap receives better coverage than Phnom Penh but I wonder if this is mostly because there is so little choice of anywhere decent to eat, drink or shop in Siem Reap (if you want to avoid the “people who carry their own luggage”, in Luxe’s parlance). The tips for visiting the Angkor complex are so well known that both the free Canby Guides and the Lonely Planet mention all of them, which is not any great surprise given that tourists/invaders have been holidaying/pillaging at Angkor for a few hundred years. Angkor Wat still holds some secrets but the only way that you will find them is with a skilled excavation team.

For Phnom Penh, the recommendations are mostly a taste of the obvious. Shopping in Phnom Penh? Walk along St. 240 and St.178; shop wherever looks like a Western store. I was hoping for a few of the truly excellent local shopping secrets, like the 50s antique warehouses in Stung Meanchey or the best place to commission yourself a hand-painted Khmer road sign before the artists who make them die out. These will stay local shops for local people. The much more obvious omission is Cambodia’s markets. There’s a passing reference to Psar Thmei (Central Market) and the Sorya Mall, but that is all. Every expat in town has a Luxe-ish market secret but they’re obviously being held tightly to their chests.

The other false assumption that I have made is that when people visit Cambodia that they are keen to eat some Cambodian food (Disclosure: I write popular Phnom Penh-based Cambodian food site, Phnomenon). In Phnom Penh, three Khmer restaurants get a mention, preceded with the warning that “you’re unlikely to be swooning over Khmer cuisine”. Swooning guardedly about Cambodian food is my stock in trade but it is difficult for me to take too much umbrage when the top-end of Khmer cuisine in Phnom Penh is still under development.

The winners:
Maxine’s (Snowy’s) : Laudable bar owner Snowy pulls off a Fiji-sized coup by suddenly being considered an upscale bar instead of a wooden hovel leaning precariously into the Tonle Sap. Possibly the only bar in Luxe’s history to not have running water in the bathroom. Snow, I salute you.
Pop Café: There’s three other great Italian restaurants around Phnom Penh that I’d head to before Pop – Le Duo, Luna D’Autunno, or La Volpaia, probably in that order. Pop does beat all three on convenient location for upmarket travellers (post-Happy Hour stumbling distance from FCC), but that’s about all.
Sugar Palm: Probably gets a guernsey solely by virtue of being located on St.240 and being empty because it’s about five times as expensive as a much better Khmer restaurant anywhere else in town.

The losers:
Street food vendors: Luxe says: “..be warned, eating street food can have unsettling and explosive consequences”. I guess that it would be unsettling to discover that there are some delicious gems amongst the tasteless tailings.
Cambodians: Apart from Mali’s, the only locals that you’ll see at the restaurants mentioned will be your waitstaff and at a few of them, that may not even be the case. In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to find a business mentioned that is owned by a Cambodian national.
Japanese food: Sure, it’s not like going for a slice of kuromaguro near Tsukiji, but any of the several Japanese restaurants around Phnom Penh would be worth a mention.
FCC: It has become a tired cliché to stick the boot into the Foreign Correspondent’s Club in Phnom Penh. Luxe does anyway but for some reason holds back on offering the same criticism of FCC Siem Reap. FCC does good business because they know their market segment: scared tourists and moneyed expats looking to soak up some mock colonial ambiance at a happy hour with a great view. FCC have drifted well outside Luxe’s market, so why bother even mentioning them?

Note: map link sticks a pin in Maxines (Snowy’s) over the bridge (Chruoy changvar)

The winner is TOAST

The results are in: the estimable Ms. Pim has drawn the Menu for Hope 2007 prizes. The winner of the Phnomenon prize goes to TOAST.

For Mr or Ms Toast, please either comment or land butter side down in this post to organise your pepper, meat tray, and dinner for two at Meric. Alternately, email me at editor@phnomenon.com. Use the same email that you used when you donated. Cheers to everybody that donated a slice of the US$60,925.12; Meric and Bedsupper Club for supplying some superb dinners; my regional organiser; and the WFP (especially, my homies in Kampong Cham) for feeding hungry Cambodians.

Knee deep in the dead fish

Cambodia’s national fermented fish condiment, prahok, has just come into season with the annual explosion of riel fish numbers. To honour the occasion, AFP have published their insight (and a few top photos). The Ministry of Fish’s head honcho, Nao Thouk, sums up the situation with typically Khmer verve:

“Prahok is the taste of Cambodia. If there is no prahok, we are not Cambodians. Prahok is the Khmer identity,” says Nao Thouk, director of the agriculture ministry’s fisheries department.

“It is like butter or cheese for Westerners,” he adds, explaining that some 70,000 to 80,000 tonnes of prahok are produced each year between December and March, when thousands swarm to the rivers.

See: Got Fish?

Two recent street food regrets


Awful barbecued cake

One of the few street food regrets that I have acquired is eating the above barbecued cake. I don’t know what it is named in Khmer and despite exuding the lush aroma of roasted banana and sesame seeds, it appears to be made of either papier-mâché or its even less edible substitute, taro. Taro is proof of God’s disdain for humanity. Cooked on a stand out the front of the French Cultural Centre, its sole purpose seems to be to remind the French not to eat Cambodian food. 200 riel (US$0.05) apiece.

miniature Cambodian donuts

If you could fry a ring of lard in pure hogfat and then somehow bind it all together with toffee, you’d end up with one of the above cakes. These candied miniature donuts test my faith in the rule that deep-frying improves everything (except for taro). Possibly it is designed to mimic the edible equivalent of a looped, hardened artery. 100 riel (US$0.02) each from a guy wandering around the Russian market. He was a bit shirty that I paid the Khmer price and not the tourist price.

Cambodian food in New York and in the seat pocket beneath your tray table.

Village Voice have just reviewed Kampuchea Noodle Bar, currently New York’s sole Cambodian restaurant. Their initial thoughts on the subtleties of the 17 dollar bowl of khtieav with filet mignon:

..it’s a bit dull, partly due to the prim slices of filet flung into its depths. Use fatty stew beef, dude, and cook the fuck out of it!

They also serve up a disturbing reminder at how bad a foreign take on fish amok can really be:

For years the city’s only Cambodian restaurant was Fort Greene’s South East Asian Cuisine, offering lots of Thai and Chinese dishes, but only a handful of uniquely Cambodian ones, including the amazing amok (a gingery mousse of pureed chicken)

A recent New York Times article suggests that Fort Greene’s Cambodian Cuisine will reopen in Manhattan (1664 Third Avenue (93rd Street)) in about a month for all the pureed chicken mousse you can pour into your gaping maw. Perhaps they’ll also have Cambodian cuisine for you to try.

In other unrelated news, Bangkok Airway’s inflight magazine Fah Thai gives a top ten list of fancy restaurants in Cambodia and they’ve done well to highlight my favourite Sicilian in Phnom Penh, Luigi from Le Duo.

Cheers to John, Austin for the tip off.

See also: Cambodian food on the LES

Nouveau Pho de Paris

Nouveau pho de Paris

Should I expect a cheese plate? Pho Bo(cuse)? French onion soup with noodles? These are questions that have weighed heavily on my mind in the two odd years that I have been passing by Nouveau Pho de Paris on Monivong boulevard, Phnom Penh. Both Cambodian and Vietnamese foods have successfully integrated their former colonial ruler’s nosh in a way that makes it seem natural, but you should not fool with pho. It is one of the world’s perfect street foods like pizza, burritos, souvlaki or laksa. Like all of these dishes, there are defined limits within which there is plenty of room for play. There is no room in pho for nouveau Parisians.

Judging from the photos displayed under the glass-topped tables, the Nouveau’s menu seemed to contain a random array of Chinese, Vietnamese and Khmer foods with no obvious reference to anything French. The lunchtime crowd may have had a Parisian fresh from the Sorbonne amongst them though: my waiter was confused as to my lingua franca and opened in French to which I parried with Khmer. He returned with a fine and unexpected play in English. Unable to answer with anything witty or Vietnamese, I ordered the pho bo without checking out their menu. The atmosphere was certainly more rarefied than your average pho stall: air con; real wooden chairs; and Cambodia’s velvet Elvis equivalent, lurid paintings of Angkor Wat.

Nouveau pho de Paris

NP de P’s pho rated fairly well on the meat index with a hearty selection of cow parts – some corned beef, sliced stomach and tendon, and a pair of suspiciously buoyant beef balls. On the opposing herb front: basil, saw mint, bean shoots were provided in abundance on the side. A pile of weedy local coriander and both spring and white onions were already added to the soup. Noodles were wide and commercial and the stock was muscular and sweet but not hugely complex.

Nouveau pho de Paris

One mid-size bowl of nouveau pho de boeuf: US$1.50, tea gratis.

Location: #26Eo, Monivong Blvd, Phnom Penh