Rice Nationalism

Ricefield at sunset, near Siem Reap

Ask anyone in Asia who grows the best rice and the answer is inevitably the nation of origin of the person questioned. In Cambodia, it’s likely to be an exact village of origin at a specific date. There is no room for objectivity because the rice harvest is chained to the national identity of every nation who eats it as their primary carbohydrate. Apparently, you can get caught up in the nationalistic fervour. Karen Coates over at Gourmet magazine’s food blog writes:

In years of bouncing around Southeast Asia, I’ve had many a conversation with locals and expats about the seeming superiority of Cambodian rice. I am not alone in my assessment. But why? Is it really better than rice in Thailand (my home for the past three years and therefore my natural point of comparison)? Or is it just my imagination?

Yes, it’s your imagination. Maytel also lands a bodyslam on the shaky agricultural underpinnings and the fetishization of poor farmers at their expense at Maytel:

But lets get one thing straight, subsistence peasant agriculture in the tropics is not some rare heirloom tomato variety found at your local USA farmers market. It’s not du puy lentils. There is nothing to glamorise and doing so often compromises the food security of these farmers. From what I found imposed ideals of ‘organic’/ ‘artisanal’ varieties, inevitably results in lower yields and is about as unhelpful as you can get in a country like Cambodia.

Getting down in Cambodia Town

Outside of Cambodia, Cambodians are practically invisible. When I tell people in Los Angeles that I live in Cambodia they tend to mention The Killing Fields movie rather than Choueng Ek; Princess Di’s work with landmines and Angelina Jolie.

When overseas Cambodians in the USA do get a mention, the press focuses on gang crime, deportations back to Cambodia and the high rates of post traumatic stress suffered by Cambodian immigrants. Issues that tend to get hidden rather than tackled. Unless you keep a close watch on the Khmer diaspora, places like Lowell in Massachussetts or Long Beach in Los Angeles, California have no special resonance.

Against this backdrop, having Anaheim St in Long Beach, between Atlantic and Junipeiro Avenue designated as “Cambodia Town” by the city council in July this year is a huge achievement in that it gives the existing Cambodian diaspora visibility. It literally places them on the map. It isn’t a town in any traditional sense; rather it is four lanes of traffic bounded by the occasional store with a sign in Khmer script amongst the local bodegas. If you didn’t know what Khmer script was, you’d probably confuse it for Arabic like the airport security at SeaTac did on my way into the USA. The surrounding suburbs hide almost 50,000 Cambodians.

After fishing around for some Khmer eating recommendations (Siem Reap Restaurant and New Paradise were discussed), we hit Sophy’s at one of the far ends of Cambodia Town. Sophy’s is both familiar and foreign: packed with Khmer people, black Landcruisers in the parking lot, tacky Angkor-Wat-from-the-reflecting-pool painting, Khmer 50s hits CD on permanent loop, cheapo aluminium soup bain maries. Their menu is filled with Cambodian comfort food with a small side business in Cambodian-style Thai, and the occasional Vietnamese dish that has drifted into the Cambodian vernacular (banh xeo, loc lac)

In a manner befitting Los Angeles, I was dining with somebody who’d finished up working on a show with both the words “makeover” and “extreme” in the title from where they’d recently moved into something that involves the trade in Third World islands. They’d never eaten Cambodian food before but were enthused when they discovered that Cambodia’s islands were up for grabs.

Prahok Khtis

Prahok khtis, a Cambodian dip served with crudités was light on the prahok but heavy on the pork and salt; which much to my consternation, rated as the surprise hit of the meal amongst the American folk. I did neglect to mention that delicious fermented fish was the central ingredient.

Sophy's in Long Beach, Los Angeles

Samlor machou yuon (Vietnamese-style sour soup) was overflowing with fish, tomatoes, pineapple and loofah gourd with basil substituting for the Khmer maom leaf; hitting the right sour and salty notes. The deep-fried pomfret with chili (trei charb chien tuk mteis) was slow to arrive but well worth the wait, and by Phnom Penh standards, gigantic. Unlike Cambodia, the fish had been gutted rather than fried whole which I tend to prefer. Plear sach ko (beef salad) was a bit dull but beef-heavy in a way that speaks to Americans and their insane farm subsidy system. While Angkor Lager was on the menu, they’d run out and when the waitstaff discovered that I spoke a little Khmer, they plied me with free Singha beer so that I’d continue to perform tricks to the delight of eavesdroppers.

Location: Sophy’s Fine Thai and Cambodian Cuisine, 3720 E Anaheim St, Long Beach, CA 90804 Tel: (562) 494-1763

KFC is coming to Cambodia

Along with bringing ATMs to Cambodia and destruction to the Bassac Theatre in Phnom Penh, Kith Meng’s Royal Group is set to unleash Kentucky Fried Chicken on an unsuspecting Phnom Penh in a new joint venture, according to the Malaysian Star.

QSR Brands Bhd is expanding its restaurant business under the KFC brand to Cambodia.

The first outlet is expected to be operational in Phnom Penh by year-end, said chairman Tan Sri Muhammad Ali Hashim during a press conference to announce the new venture Thursday.

The group plans to open four outlets initially in the capital as well as in major towns. This would be followed by two new restaurants every year.

So is the era of Cambodia being (virtually) free from international chain restaurants truly over?

Aborted Mission Mission

Angkor Borei, San Francisco

I missed rice.

Three weeks of nothing but beef, microbrews, Texas-style barbecue and varying shades of Mexican had begun to take its inevitable toll. I’d had a recommendation from a Phnom Penh friend that Angkor Borei Restaurant in the deep, deep south of Mission Street in San Francisco was the real deal for Cambodian food. They even had the bad painting of Angkor Wat on display which in my mind is the Cambodian equivalent of displaying a Michelin star. It’s easy to get there: just catch the MUNI J-Church straight to where San Jose meets Mission Street.

So close, so far away

What my friend neglected to mention was that Angkor Borei was closed on Tuesday, the only free day that I could make it there. Being out the front of the restaurant did actually make me close on Tuesday, but not actually close enough to review or eat anything. As much as I’m all for postmodernism, not eating at a restaurant precludes discussing the food.

Pho Phu Quoc, San Francisco

To add insult to injury, the Vietnamese substitute dinner was at Pho Phu Quoc, named after the Cambodian island that thanks to some French colonial geographic reshuffling, ended up as part of Vietnam.

Pho at Pho Phu Quoc, SF

Their pho was not quite right. Plenty of tai (raw sliced beef), beef balls that tasted uncharacteristically like they were made from actual cow parts, and soup that tasted like its sole ingredients were cinnamon powder and cloves. It was somewhat frightening to spot a new Vina-Malaysian fusion food on the menu – pho satay – regular pho with a hearty slug of commercial satay sauce for good measure.

Locations: Angkor Borei Restaurant, 3471 Mission St , San Francisco.

Pho Phu Quoc, 1816 Irving St (At 19th Ave) , San Francisco.

Spider Fixation

“Largely, media coverage focuses on less representative Khmer foods like spiders, as well as being covered by journalists who have never before eaten Khmer food and have no real drive to discover more about it once they have filed their spider story. Serious food journalists don’t come here.

So whinges me, in an Asia Sentinel article by Mark Fenn. Of course, the article includes a photo of a spider seller. Cheers Mark, DAS for both scooping and calling me “beer-swilling”.

Pacific Northwest = Beertopia

Pike Place Market sign, Seattle

Pike Place Market in Seattle has nothing to do with Cambodian food. The sign, pictured above, was the liveliest thing there at 6 in the morning. I was expecting it to be a real fish market with a good deal of people transacting in fish, as they generally do at that hour in a proper market, only to be sorely disappointed.There was no hiding that much of the local salmon had been sitting there for days (if not weeks) and crab that had been boiled in a previous era, time rendering it indistinguishable from styrofoam with a carapace.

Sorry for the scant postings, I’m heading down the west coast of America, attempting to avoid all of the places with Internet access and get to as many microbreweries as possible. My personal count for new beers tasted is now at 40. More to come.

Fish Sauce: Condiment and Weapon of Choice

When a liquor store owner beats up a robber with a bottle, it fills that valuable column space for any local newshound. When a bottle of Cambodian fish sauce is involved, prepare for syndication. The Eagle Tribune is there.

“I just grabbed him tight and held the gun down,” Vannarith, a Lowell resident, said in an interview a short while afterwards. Vannarith’s son joined in the fray, and together they knocked the suspect to the ground. They grabbed a bottle of fish sauce and beat the man, Vannarith said.

It was their only bottle of fish sauce, Vannarith added while cleaning up the mess caused by the fight.

Cheers, Gut Feelings

Psar Loeu, Siem Reap

khtieu stand at psar loeu
Family sits for khtieu (Khmer noodle soup) breakfast at dawn, Psar Loeu, Siem Reap

Over half a million foreigners arrive in Siem Reap every year but go to the biggest market in town, Psar Loeu, and you’d be convinced otherwise. When you arrive at daybreak for breakfast, any self-respecting tourist is sitting in front of Angkor Wat’s north reflecting pool, taking the same photo that every tourist takes with a vigour that suggests that their memories of Angkor Wat are worthless without it, instead of immersing themselves in the chaos of the market. With the average tourist stay in Siem Reap being 48 hours, it gives the traveller a scant few hours to capture the same scene that every one else captures.

loeu vegies
Random vegetable selection

While it is easy to get swept up by the madness of Psar Loeu and convinced that the founding theory behind the market is anarchy, order emerges. What on the outside looks like a random selection of vegetables is a tight selection of greens for a single Cambodian soup. Some vendors specialise in having all the ingredients for a single samlor, others for salad ingredients. It makes shopping for dinner as simple as finding the right stall. Inside, vendors arrange the semi-dried fish trei prama and the coconut husk smoked trei kes by size. The live snakehead fish is quickly subdued, skinned, and divided into regular pieces; or butterfly filleted for later drying.

What differentiates Psar Loeu from the other markets in town is both scale and target market. The two markets closer to the centre of town cater more to the tourist trade with many smaller vegetable vendors in the central Psar Chas currently being pushed out to Psar Loeu to make way for another Beerlao t-shirt stall. Psar Loeu receives scant mention in the guidebooks. The new émigrés to Psar Loeu have started setting up shop in the surrounding dirt alleyways and upon any spare patch of bitumen, both contributing to the mayhem and the size of the market. The food now occupies the entire streets surrounding the market building with the butcheries and fishmongers just inside the awnings, who in the mornings are barely finished butchering their respective meats.

Location: Psar Loeu is on Rd No. 6 to Phnom Penh, in Siem Reap