Category Archives: Siem Reap

Thailand defeated!

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.

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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

Shinta Mani

The Nehru jacket. The jacket so nice that they named a Pacific island after it. The crisp battle armour of Third World service staff. Beige. The person inside it greets you in a characterless patter that suggests you’ve arrived in a non-place, a refuge from whichever city the hotel is located. It is a garment that signifies that the hotel bears no relationship to the city itself. A hotel designed to impersonate all of the other hotels where the beige Nehru jacket is worn. In this case the town was Siem Reap, the simulacra of a town located next to something of significance; a town of garish, tourist-driven architectural stupidity and misgovernance. The gewgaw wasteland writ large. The hotel was Shinta Mani.

My task was simple: spend six hours on the bus, 18 hours in the hotel, eat, write an article about it that appears in today’s Wall Street Journal Asia, read a Nobel Prize winning author by the pint-sized pool, six hours on the bus back to Phnom Penh. It wouldn’t be the first time I’ve been to Siem Reap and not seen a single Angkorean temple and it won’t be the last. I had plenty of time on my hands and wrote far too much to be submitted for the article, much of it inappropriate and off topic. The following is what I omitted from my draft as well as what the editors subsequently edited out, apart from the following quote:

Unlike the growing flood of boutique hotels in Siem Reap, Shinta Mani attempts to bridge the gap between rich and poor with a unique mix of philanthropy and hospitality training. Shinta Mani selects 26 students from surrounding villages to attend a 9 month hospitality course. Students are provided with on-the-job schooling, a monthly salary, meals, learning materials and a weekly stipend of four kilograms of rice to remit to their family…

…in return for providing the behind-the-scenes grunt work for the hotel. The hotel also offers tours of local villages from where it draws students and supplies options for tourists to buy villagers a bicycle, well, or house but it is unclear whether this a well-coordinated and long-term development strategy or the exploitation of the poor as a tourist attraction. Portmanteau-minded critics have dubbed this boutique assuaging of luxury guilt as “poorism”.

Shinta Mani’s décor is relatively spartan with faux-marble tiles and minimal white walls adorned with hand-coloured lithographs of the nearby temple ruins. Its restaurant is less muted with a mandarine-painted dining room decorated with local silks. A single lotus flower in a hammered silver vase dresses each table.

My neighbouring diners were a pair of holidaying Japanese women: it was Golden Week in Japan and Siem Reap has been reaping the golden windfall. One wore a white T-shirt that said “Je voudrais un détente” and the other carried a lime-green umbrella and a digital camera. When their plate of fish and chips with caper mayonnaise (US$7) arrived, they placed it in the centre of the table and together dissected it in a way that suggested a long term friendship rather than the intimacy of lovers.

A couple from Boston sat a few tables away. They asked the waiter to photograph them to memorialize their meal before they had eaten it. The man was balding with circular glasses and looked like a minor television actor whose name I can’t recall. The woman could be described as nondescript. They both ate something meaty, possibly the roast strip loin with okra, taro gnocchi and beef jus (US$15). They ordered desserts that looked like a square of kitchen sponge in HP sauce and discussed that they expected something different.

I spotted someone I knew from Phnom Penh strut through the lobby. Someone I wanted to avoid. They didn’t see me.

Service was surprisingly modest, unassuming and honest to the point of brutality. After discussing the a la carte Khmer-French fusion options with my waiter, when asked as to whether many tourists tried the Khmer set menu (US$16), the waiter answered with a blunt “no”. The set menu is structured more like a Western meal with an entrée*, main and dessert than in the Cambodian tradition of many dishes shared by the entire table or family. The wine list is expensive even by local standards, narrowly spanning Old- and New World wines. My waiter, shadowed by one of the student-trainees, recommended me the Yering Station Chardonnay (US$10 by the glass) to match the set menu.

The Bostonian couple gave me a blank stare of incomprehension while I wrote notes on the entrée of banh chiao. I wrote “street-food sublime” and made a note that somehow I had to put the words “hospitality” and “philanthropy” in the same sentence because they’re almost anagrams. I anagrammed “philanthropy” into “Hi, python larp!” and thought to myself that I should never dine alone ever again because it encourages me to record my interior monologue and thus betray my Scrabble-hustling skills. I invented a recipe for a dried python larp with sour mango in my head.

At its best, banh chiao is an exercise in street food sublime: a turmeric and rice flour pancake that is at once crispy and rubbery enveloping a mix of dried shrimp, fatty pork and crunchy bean shoots; served with a jungle of fragrant local herbs by a roadside vendor with dubious hygiene. At its worst, it is much like Shinta Mani’s, being a soggy pancake with a bland blend of foreigner-friendly minced chicken, pork and Chinese cabbage.

The main is prahok kroueng khtis, normally served as a dip with crudités, but in this case served as a curry alongside pandan-infused rice. The menu omits to mention that the central element to the dish is Cambodia’s national condiment and one of the larger challenges to an unfamiliar palate, the fermented fish paste prahok. The dish was dominated by salt and lacked its usual lemongrass punchiness. Cheik khtis, local namwa bananas boiled in sugar and fresh coconut milk rounded out the set on an eye-twitchingly sweet note.

I sent my inamorata an SMS to see if she thought that returning to my room and dejectedly drinking the minibar was, in the eyes of a newspaper’s accounts department, a legitimate expense for a food reviewer after a forgettable meal. Angkor Beer, bottle (US$2.50) times two. Heineken, can, (US$3) times two. Beer Lao, can (US$3) times two. She recommended against it. I didn’t.

On returning to my room, the service staff had turned down the bed, fluffed the pillows, cranked up the aircon to accommodate a flock of wayward penguins and changed the television channel to Fashion Channel. I tried to think of some way to write that the pillows were too soft without sounding like a complete wanker. It turns out that you can’t do so, at least not without making a self-deprecating joke about it.

Over breakfast (Black coffee (US$2.20) times two) I chatted with one of the students, Neana, 22, hailing from Tapul village in a mix of Khmer and English. He had completed six months of the training course and despite the tourism boom was downbeat about his job prospects. He was happy with Shinta Mani and had made many friends. Do you like the uniform? I asked.

“Only the jacket”.

Shinta Mani’s restaurant is open every day from 6:30am until 11:00pm. Guests are welcome to visit their Institute of Hospitality located next door and wonder why the students eat a simple Khmer sour soup and fried fish for lunch, but you don’t.

Location: Junction of Oum Khun and Street 14, Siem Reap. Tel: +855 (0) 63 761 998.

Dried Python Larp with Sour Mango

This is in no way larp, only loosely Cambodian but it is a great way to showcase dried snake flavor.

1 boneless dried snake
1 green mango, shredded
1 handful of mixed fresh fishwort, coriander and basil
1 tablespoon of fish sauce
1 tablespoon of lime juice
2 teaspoons ground roasted rice
Palm sugar to taste

Go to your local supermarket and buy a dried snake – if you’re in Cambodia, they’re available from Lucky Supermarket. Roast the dried snake over a charcoal fire, then break into smaller pieces. Mix with green mango, mint and basil. Mix fish sauce, lime juice, ground roasted rice and a little palm sugar, attempting to balance salty and sweet, then mix through the salad.

Godspeed, you palm sap vendors II

lienpalm

The roadside from Siem Reap to the outlying temple of Banteay Srei is dotted with huge woks filled with a foaming, sweet mystery. Most tourists steam past in their tour buses and tuk tuks, desperate to hit Banteay Srei before the morning light dissipates and thus don’t get the chance to discover what those woks hold.

Lien (above) makes a living by tapping sugar palm trees, refining the sap by slowly boiling it over an open flame while removing the foamy impurities, and then selling the resulting palm sugar to the tourists with the time to stop. Tourism has created a tiny windfall for the local vendors – most roadside houses have a small palm sugar stall – but business does not seem to be booming.

lienpalm3

Trees are tapped by her husband twice daily with the raw sap collected in above bamboo tubes (ampong). The sap comes from the cut stalks of the palm’s flowers which reside in the top of the palm, and many palms in the surrounding villages have a makeshift bamboo ladder haphazardly lashed to their trunk to aid climbers. The yield of each tree varies depending on the skill of the individual tapper with a good tree yielding 5 to 6 litres of sap every day.

lienpalm2

Trees also yield the photogenic palm fruit. According to my friends at the FAO, each palm “may bear eight to fifteen bunches of fruit with a total of about 80 pieces of fruit per year”.

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The finished product is moulded into small discs of palm sugar which remain hard but slightly crumbly. Pure Cambodian palm sugar is generally the above colour; lighter sugars will often have cane sugar added.

See also: Godspeed, you palm sap vendor

Won’t you take me to funky town?

Traditional whipping boy of the Cambodian expat dining scene, the Foreign Correspondents’ Club, has hired Clinton Webber as new Group Executive Chef to overhaul its menu.

“It’s going to be a whole new thing,” says Webber. “There’s going to be lots of fusion and touches of Khmer cuisine. The emphasis is on being more funky. Think funky, rustic fusion.”

When I think funky, rustic fusion, I think of George Clinton playing a banjo.

See: FCC

Siem Reap is the next Las Vegas

Siem Reap, the increasingly popular base for visitors to Angkor Wat, is beginning to feel a little like the Las Vegas of Cambodia, with one showy hotel after another being built along the highway into town. (Is it just a matter of time before the signature of Steve Wynn graces the skyline?)

Stuart Emmerich from the New York Times rounds out his Cambodian sojourn with both a review of Siem Reap’s Hôtel de la Paix and another peculiar geographic simile. Siem Reap would be much like Las Vegas if most Las Vegans began living a rice-based subsistence lifestyle in one of the poorest provinces in the nation. At least this time, he ate some Cambodian food at:

…Meric: a seven-course Khmer tasting menu, which features such dishes as stir-fried pork with ginger (superb), braised bar fish with palm sugar and green mango (an acquired taste) and “assorted Khmer sweets” (not very sweet).

He was also thwarted in his attempt to buy a non-alcoholic beer in the kindest possible way.

See also: NY Times’ Siem Reap, Cambodia: Hôtel de la Paix, Phnom Penh is the “next Prague”, Sihanoukville is the next Goa, Sihanoukville is the next Goa 2: Electric Boogaloo, Sihanoukville is the next Goa III: Beyond Thunderdome

The Barking Deer’s Mango

The Barking Deer's Mango - Irvingia Malayana

Unlike most people, I have a high tolerance for eating things that I cannot identify taxonomically. Whenever I pass somebody on a roadside shucking something that looks edible, I’ll give it a go. Often it’s not edible. Often it’s not even supposed to be food.

This roadside vendor was undergoing the arduous process of cracking open these woody nuts scavenged from the forest and offered me a free sample. After peeling the leftover shell, the toasted kernels had a subtle peanut-like flavour. The texture and shape was a little closer to an almond. They would make a decent substitute for peanuts in any Khmer dish that called for them, if you’d like to set a new and impossible standard for regional accuracy.

The Barking Deer's Mango - Irvingia Malayana

I’m not a botanist but I do play one on television. With a little research, I’m willing to take a punt that these nuts are from the Irvingia Malayana, which has the marvellously fanciful English title of the Barking Deer’s Mango. According to The University of Melbourne it also has the much more prosaic Khmer name of Cham Mo. There’s a similar tree (Irvingia gabonensis) distributed about Western tropical Africa, whose nuts are used fairly extensively as a soup thickener and bread ingredient.

1000 riel (US$0.25) for a small cupful

Location: On the dirt track to Neak Pean inside the Angkor complex. In probably the silliest Romanisation of a Khmer word, Neak Pean is pronounced “Ne-ak Po-ouan”. There is possibly another “ou” sound or two in there.

Meric, and the nostalgia for the future.

A central problem when Cambodia watchers discuss the future of Cambodia is the sense of inevitable, oncoming doom. The local polity may not have fallen entirely off the rails yet, but the train is currently making some irregular metallic grinding sounds. This often leads to a tendency to invoke a nostalgia for the Cambodian past, be it Angkorean era glory or the rose-colored “Paris of the East” Phnom Penh of the 1950s.

What Cambodia is missing, to borrow the words of theorist Jean Baudrillard, is a nostalgia for the future. There are very few Cambodian utopian stories; or even modernising influences that seem to lead anywhere other than dystopia. Regarding Khmer food, modernisation is framed in a similarly dystopic manner: it tends to go hand in hand with Khmer food becoming either more Thai, more Chinese, or rarely, more Western. The hardest thing for me when writing about Khmer food is building a narrative where in the future, Cambodian food becomes ever more Cambodian.

Nostalgia for the future is what sets Meric restaurant in Siem Reap’s Hôtel De La Paix apart as a currently singular achievement in Cambodia: it manages to modernise Cambodian food without undermining more than a thousand years of Khmer cultural tradition, thereby hinting at an optimistic and rich future for Khmer cuisine.

The experience of stepping straight from Siem Reap’s scum-flooded streets into Hôtel l De La Paix’s serene and polished insides couldn’t be more disjunctive, and proceeding through to the restaurant reveals a pooled courtyard with a manicured fig tree that could have been uprooted from the overgrown Ta Prohm. The restaurant offers diners a choice of daybed swings suspended from the four-metre high ceiling in the covered walkway to the restaurant or a more conventional table in the restaurant’s dark and intimate interior.

Khmer Wedding Amuse Bouche at Meric

The Khmer Set Menu ($28 a head) draws on the Japanese kaiseki tradition that attempts to pair fresh seasonal ingredients with thought-provoking plateware and garnishes. The origin myth of kaiseki is that a Japanese Zen Buddhist monk, when faced with an empty larder and unexpected guests, offered them a warming stone as a meal for aesthetic contemplation. Although Head-chef Paul Hutt tells me of his Japanese inspiration, he has a typically Cambodian tale that mirrors the monk’s Zen utilitarianism: “when some of the plateware didn’t arrive in time for the opening, we started using leftover slate tiles from around the pool”.

The aforementioned slate has stayed, along with miniature scarves (krama), plinths of granite, shaped banana leaves, a piece of local broom, bamboo, and decorative ceramic tiles. It’s like descending into a cargo cult that has decided that every Khmer object of daily life is directly food-related. If you are not a regular reader of Phnomenon, I like irony more than your average blacksmith, so this concept suits me to a “t”. To illustrate this sense of irony, the Khmer Wedding Amuse Bouche (pictured above*) that kicked off the meal with a few morsels of cashew, fresh pickle and jerky left me thinking that after the gloss of eating the wedding treats had worn off, the bride and groom are left with nought but a shoddy Cambodian spoon and a broom.

Like the unconventional serving ware, the food is undeniably Cambodian and the respectfulness to indigenous flavours and freshness borders on unremitting veneration. While the presentation would scare the hell out of your average Cambodian grandparents, most of the food on the day’s set menu would be intimately familiar to them. As your Cambodian grandparents would probably tell you, getting two sour soups in one meal is a rare treat and was a real highlight. The Pork ribs with Pineapple Sour Soup was served as an individual portion in a tube of bamboo, with a silky coconut stock balanced by a wedge of fresh pineapple, and subtle kroueng mix. Meric deconstruct their Dried Fish and Green Mango Sour Soup into a shot glass of hot, complex dried fish stock, served alongside a small terracotta bowl of fresh green mango (only just creeping into season), fish, boiled egg, and soup fixings. The implication was that you mix the two, so I had to resist the immediate urge to down the ingredients straight with a stock chaser.

It takes plenty of chutzpah to place at least three items on a set menu that rely heavily on dried fish (and reptile, in the slightly astringent Green Starfruit with Dried Snake Salad) when you’re targeting the type of tourists who are laying down $350 a night to stay in the super-luxe bounds of Hôtel De La Paix. It is also an admirable marker of the restaurant’s ambitions to position Khmer cuisine in the global palate.

Outgoing Head Chef Paul Hutt and Executive Sous- (soon to be Head) Chef Joannès Rivière seem to know more about Cambodian food than possibly any Westerner has ever known. In my recollection, there are only three Cambodian recipe books not written in Khmer, and Jo is the author of one of these. While I blunder my own way through the local nosh, they are in the kitchen with a team of talented locals sniped from around Siem Reap, pushing the boundaries of Khmer cuisine both at the traditional and modern ends. And making me nostalgic for more.

Location: inside Hôtel de la Paix, Sivutha Blvd, Siem Reap

* – apologies for the dodgy photo. Shooting food on a swinging daybed at night, with no tripod is not my forte.

Colonial myths of Angkor Wat in ruins

One of the more annoying features of travel journalism about Cambodia is that it fails wholeheartedly to put Angkor in a modern historical perspective. Most travel writers tend to treat the site with breathless hyperbole, fixing the ruins within a mysterious, mythic past without attempting to locate them within modern Cambodian culture. For the most part, the movies of Angelina Jolie offer a more historically accurate vision of Angkor than recent newspaper articles. Thankfully, David Chandler was given a chance to set things right in an excellent article in The Australian newspaper today:

Cambodia is the only country that has a ruin on its national flag and it’s perhaps the only country to praise a ruin in its national anthem. The ruin is Angkor Wat, and these two facts say something about the way Angkor has become a key element in Cambodia’s national identity and its collective unconscious, especially since the country gained its independence from France in 1953.

The effect of the temples and of the myths surrounding them has been enormous and by no means entirely beneficial. Many of the myths surrounding Angkor and the Khmer developed in the colonial era (1863-1953) and only recently have been called into question. Contrary to much popular writing about Angkor, for example, the ruins were never forgotten by the Khmer, nor were the temples lost in the jungle, as many early writers suggested.

Buddhist inscriptions at Angkor Wat date from as late as 1747. When Siam annexed much of northwestern Cambodia in the 1790s, one of the provinces it took – the one containing the Angkorian ruins – was called Mahanokor or Great City. A Cambodian royal seal from the 1840s depicted a three-towered temple, much as the Cambodian flag depicts Angkor today.

In 1860, when French botanist Henri Mouhot supposedly stumbled across Angkor Wat, he was led there by a Cambodian guide and found a flourishing Buddhist monastery on the temple grounds.

See: Colonial myths of Angkor Wat in ruins

mmm…Angkorlicious

Sachiko Kojima opened a cookie factory. She was soon supplying foreign tourists from Japan and around the globe with souvenir confections from this northern Cambodia city, the gateway to the Angkor Wat Khmer ruins. Her “Madam Sachiko” cookies, shaped like the ancient ruins, are now the must-buy souvenir for tourists visiting the city.

As much as I thought that candles shaped like Angkor Wat were a slightly profane souvenir (“See the majestic temples burn to the ground in the comfort of your own home!”), to use a Simpson-ism, these Angkor cookies are sacrilicious. Thankfully the must-buy souvenirs of the “Danger – Mines” t-shirt or a Jayavaraman head carved by small child hands have been supplanted by something edible.

See: Japanese smart cookie finds niche in Cambodia . Madam Sachiko’s own website (www.madam-sachiko.com) seems to be down.