Siem Reap Food Tours

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While in Siem Reap, we semi-splurged for a guided food tour. At $75 per adult and half that price for kids, it was a little spendy by Cambodian standards, but food tourists that we are- we were excited by the prospect. I realize this sounds like a gluttounous crawl from roadside cafe to street vendor to kimchi pub burger, packing ourselves full of far more than is prudent or humane, but as suspected, one’s guide makes all the difference. I had a poolside conversation with a fellow traveler who’d just returned from a “culinary tour” herself. She groaned with overindulgence while the other members of her family slowly digested their lion’s shares in the comfort of the room’s AC. “Don’t do it,” she moaned, clutching her belly in regret. “It’s just TOO much.”

Despite her graphic warning, we carried on with our plans. When I’d made reservations the week before, I felt confident in our choice. The tour’s organizer informed me that this would be a “private” tour because we had a Bushbaby along and assured us that they could alter the plan as necessary to make sure she (or we!) weren’t too overwhelmed.

Her partner, Steven, a Scottish chef with knowledge surpassed only by his curiosity, picked us up at our hotel; tuktuk stocked with a cooler full of water and wet wipes. My first request was for coffee since our hotel’s machine was broken and instant was their unfortunate solution. We loaded in to our transportation for the day and bumped off in search of breakfast.

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We wound through the main parts of downtown, passing by organic juice and smoothie cafes and vegan bakeries. I’ll admit my brow furrowed when I detected freshly brewed coffee beckoning and we kept on rolling by. I wondered if he hadn’t heard me or taken my request with the urgency I’d intended.  Lucky for us all, we soon arrived at our first stop, the Cambodian version of a diner.

It was nondescript from the street view with a cafeteria atmosphere inside. All of the tables were occupied. One gentleman, just there for a coffee, invited us to join him with a wave of his hand. Bowls of fresh noodles and pork steeping in an herbal broth were passed through a small window at the back of the room to the waitresses who delivered them to the hungry diners. The morning’s nourishment was balanced alongside the convivial spirit of the morning rush. We ordered three bowls, since there was no menu, and three strong iced coffees, served with sweetened condensed milk. Divine!

Once we’d had our fill, we set off for the markets. I knew that between the heat, the smells and the crowds (not to mention the tangle of freshly skinned snakes, still writhing with nerve impulses), this would be a tough segment for our girl. When the tattered canopies or low ceilings bumped her from the safe haven of her dad’s shoulders, she stuck close and muscled through.

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Our guide was the wealth of information that I had been craving since arriving in Cambodia months before. He offered insight into the way the food culture has transformed during the past 4-5 decades from the strong colonial influence of refined french preparations stripped to one of survival through foraging. Fishweed- from the marshes, used to lend a fishy depth of flavor to soups and salads. Multiple types of basil, all with their own uses. Lotus root, galangal, kefir lime, water convulvulus. So many others with names and flavors equally unfamiliar. Still other curiosities like giant goopy buckets of sugarcane sap with a similar extraction process to that of maple syrup. And you’ll know it when you smell it, Prahok, a fermented fish paste that is distinctively unique to Cambodian cuisine.

One prahok master sold at least 10 different types, each one aged for varying lengths of time and chopped to varying consistencies, producing flavors and odors so complex and unusual that the uninitiated chef or diner may prefer fasting. (My one experience with prahok was when my housekeeper/cook prepared a dish that overtook our kitchen with the odor of a gangrenous wet dog. IT WAS EXTREME! I had the Daisy troop over on that particular day and they carried on dramatically horrified about what we were having for dinner that night.) Our guide, Steven, assured us that with the right balance of acid, salt and sweet, prahok could unlock a magical umami balance and elevate a simple dish beyond your palate’s imagination. But if the cook was heavy handed with one or more ingredient and the scales were tipped too far in any direction… prepare for the assault.

As we passed through the market, Steven gathered random items for us to snack on and assembled a couple of generous bags filled with herbs, fresh pork belly, starfruit, winged beans and more to offer the families we were going to visit at their homes in the neighboring villages later that afternoon.

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On the ride out of town, the landscape opened up to rice fields and stilted family compounds. We stopped at one of the many which had a roadside grill selling sausage stuffed frogs and a prahok mixture steamed in a banana leaf. Our guide expertly supplemented this with a dab of mango salad, sliced cucumbers and an omelet he’d picked up at the market. He chose this particular spot due to the fact that a litter of puppies was born just 3 weeks earlier. Colette was delighted to play and watch them tussle. She opted for a nibble on a Lara bar I expertly supplemented from my own bag of tricks.

The next stop was at the family compound of multi-generational rice noodle makers. They’ve been using exactly this same “machinery” for centuries. I didn’t catch the entire process enough to explain in much detail.  Below is the grinder, the press and boiling water and finally the hands with the muscle memory required to loop the delicate noodles into silky nests arranged neatly in the baskets headed to market.

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Next we passed by a family farm where they were proud to share their dedication to self-reliance and sustainability along with a generous splash of sake straight from the still. Our guide translated with good humor and a skill to make what could’ve felt awkwardly intrusive seem more like a visit to your grandma’s place in the sticks. This country mouse felt right at home.

As the tour wrapped up, our final stop was at a cafe in the village center to sample what this region is known for, at least nationally if not beyond. Rice noodles in a prahok-spiked coconut milk broth served along side an overgrown bowl of foraged herbs and long beans meant to be snapped off and added to your bowl. It was a sublime balance of sweet and savory with a hint of lime anchored by that luscious depth of flavor as Steven had promised. I felt a timelessness to this ancient dish and a connection to these kind and generous people from whom it had come, a metaphor for the delicate balance of connection we all seek to the past, present and future.

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Last weekend my 43rd birthday coincided with the Cambodian national water festival AND the super moon! This holiday marks the end of the rains and the beginning of fishing season. Phnom Penh is flooded with over a million visitors from the provinces and the city transforms into a festival of celebration. The Tonle Sap river plays host to hundreds of long boats zipping down the waterway. With both Snakes and the Bushbaby free from work and school, we decided to pack our overnight bags and head up the river instead, away from the crowds and visit Siem Reap.

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We left before dawn on Thursday. The drive took us around 5 hours. Had it not been for google maps and their suspect directions, we’d have made it even sooner. (Note to self and others tasked with navigation while driving in Cambodia: if map suggests turning down a two track path, there’s most likely a much better route. Thankful we have 4-wheel drive and a sense of humor and adventure.)

There is a huge variety of hotels and guesthouses to choose from, catering to every single budget. I chose a lower-mid range (Tanei Resort, near the big circus tent) since we were going to be staying for five nights. It was one of the many new developments on the outskirts of the central city. A fabulous pool with a shallow end for kids, spacious, clean rooms and a private outdoor rain shower were highlights that drew me in. The food was fine, the instant coffee less so, but none of that mattered with the wealth of options available in town.

The week before, I had reserved a spot for us on the Siem Reap Food Tour. (A separate  post which is forthcoming.) It’s run by a couple who got a mention in a 36 hours NYT article a while back for their fantastic and super informative tour of the markets and a surrounding village. They were happy to cater to the fact that we had our Bushbaby along and switched things up as necessary. If you are interested in food, culture and the delicious ways in which they inform one another, steeping in one big ancient pot, this tour is worth every penny.

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Although the tour operators offered us tons of suggestions and dining advice, we had no problems finding great food and interesting shopping. It was fun to wind through the markets- which I found to be stocked differently than ones we’ve visited in Phnom Penh- nicer choices of fabrics for the ubiquitous though necessary breezy dresses and much better cuts. Colette was thrilled to find a talented henna-master Nepalese lady nestled into a stall of the night market. She couldn’t wait to return to school this week to show it off.

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We rose early each day with the neighborhood roosters and set off for the temples. Visiting Bayon and Ta Prohm one morning and Angkor another. The midday heat makes visiting temples in the afternoon a real test of one’s constitution. With the gorgeous pool back at the hotel beckoning and the knowledge that we will be returning multiple times in the coming years, it made it easy to honor that voice in our heads that kept insisting that this was actually meant to be a “vacation”. No need for a self-imposed death march. Back to the pool, let’s order up some frosty drinks!

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In the wee wee hours of my birthday morning, I left solo to catch the sun rising over Angkor. It was fun to be up and chugging through the silvery cool air of morning. Once I arrived at the temple those moments of peace and solitude were gone. There were hundreds of others eager to sop up that same experience. Tripod photographers had staked out all the best vantage points so I snapped a few shots and carried on exploring. I put my camera away for a good part of the morning, reminding myself to be present and sometimes expand my perspective beyond the Nikon’s viewfinder or an Instagram composition. With all of the frustration and grief in our world right now, it felt good to get lost in these ancient corridors, at liberty to stop and meditate when the mood struck.  It was a solid start to my new year. I was so ready for the last one to end.

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crab market and beyond

As I mentioned in the last post, our family would be perfectly content to fritter away an occasional weekend at the Veranda Resort in Kep with nary a concern for what might lie beyond. Though in the event of a longer stay, like our second visit, curiosity got the best of us and we loaded in to our trusty land cruiser, Old Yeller, to do some exploring.

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The main attraction in Kep is the crab market. Shown above, it is located directly on the Gulf of Thailand, with fishermen/crabbers (?) dragging in their haul by the basketful. There’s a collection of restaurants stretching down the boardwalk serving massive plates of grilled fresh crab for around $5. The market itself boasts an array of seafood, sold by the kilo, and packaged into coolers for safe transport back home. Buyers crowd in to inspect the catch and haggle for the best prices.

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This region is also known for its peppercorns. They were widely regarded as some of the world’s best before the devastating collapse of the country decades ago. Kampot peppercorn farms are making a comeback and reclaiming their place on the culinary scene. Vendors sell little bags of dried black, red and white ones and bundles of fresh green ones, still on the stalks. There are farms in the area open to visitors. I’m sure we’ll visit on a future visit and stock up for holiday care packages!

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We had also read about a nearby temple, Wat Kiri Sela, in our Lonely Planet guide. It’s a 30 minute drive from where we were staying in Kep, near the town of Kompong Trach. It was the final weekend of the Cambodian religious holiday, Pchum Ben, Day of the Ancestors. We were thrilled to have this opportunity to visit a temple during a holy time and light sticks of incense, offering prayers for our ancestors.

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The doorway to the Wat is carved into the foot of a giant limestone karst (a new word for me- bigger than rock, smaller than a mountain). A disco buddha with colorful blinking lights flashes his garish welcome. Once visitors descend into the caves, a well trodden path leads you to a central opening, surrounded on all sides by the karst formations reaching skyward. The air is sweet and hazy with incense.

Around the perimeter are endless caverns, passageways and free-standing altars to explore, with multiple shrines throughout waiting silently for worshippers to pass and offer their prayers, food, or money or add to the firework bouquets of incense. As one might expect with food involved, the monkeys weren’t far behind.

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We bought a bundle of incense from one of the entrepreneurial local kids. Colette loved to catch the candle’s flame and wait to see it glowing before she’d blow it out and tuck it in next to the others. We said prayers for Grammy and she whispered that she’d really like a pitbull puppy or a kitten or a snail. It was a memorable experience for us all and has piqued my interest to explore temples closer to the city. And a visit to the Wat capitol of the world, Siem Reap, is in our near future (my November birthday!) I can’t wait!

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finding peace

We arrived in Phnom Penh in late July. It began as one of the softest landings we’ve had. The trans-Pacific flight was predictably brutal but our excitement overshadowed all of that. We went to temporary housing for ten days, happy to have an immediate internet connection and access to two refreshing swimming pools. The Bushbaby had recently hit her stride back in the States with cannonballs and independent swimming and she was eager to continue in this 90 degree heat.

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Things went smoothly as we moved into our beautiful home in a great, walkable neighborhood, a ten minute tuk tuk ride from the embassy in one direction, 10 minutes to Colette’s school in the other. All of our household things met us at our new place the day we moved in, having traveled from Chile back in March. Snakes’ new truck had even made it here unscathed. I was amazed at our good fortune.

13920213_10153543233431710_5492241385250318703_oI snapped some quick “before” shots so I could do my favorite presto-change-o blog post to welcome you all into our new home once I got things sorted. We were humming along, Snakes adjusting to his new position, me and the Bushbaby unpacking and organizing things. I felt like we had finally shaken the wicked jet lag which had taken nearly two weeks!

And then….

I received an urgent text from my sister to call her immediately. Aw, I thought, her 12 year old family dog, a sweet old lady, weimy-mix had been up and down with health issues recently and I feared the worst. I signed in to skype and dialed her up, ready to listen to dog stories and offer comfort to my niece and nephew. But I was wrong. It was our mom. And she was dead.

This all happened a month ago, and now as I glance at the date- I realize it’s to the day. Nothing can ever prepare you for this. My mom was healthy. I HAD JUST SEEN HER. She was turning 70 in October. She was vibrant and creative and strong and funny. She was the lady you wanted to have a glass of wine with and brainstorm about everything, if you could only stop laughing long enough to jot some things down. She was my best friend. She was so many people’s best friend.

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Snakes got out of bed and onto the phone with his boss. We are given an allowance from the State Department for one bereavement ticket. The cost for my family to fly the next day to Michigan from Cambodia is something I’d rather not discuss, but I couldn’t understand the idea of doing this alone. I desperately needed those two with me for the 23 hour flight back home. This is why we have credit cards, right?

My sister and her family had gotten in a day before us from Colorado and started with the funeral arrangements. I admired her so greatly for finding the strength to discuss embalming and select appropriate casket-wear. I still couldn’t understand what it meant that our mom was dead. I stumbled through her house, running into her everywhere. Tripping over her shoes in the hallway, picking up her jacket that kept falling from it’s hook when I walked by. I looked at the tomatoes arranged on the windowsill in her kitchen and wondered if she’d bought them. I ate one whole. I put all of her clothes on, step-sistered my size tens into her size eights and wrapped myself up in her scarves. I slathered myself with her expensive face creams. I searched her lipsticks for a kiss she may have left behind. I replayed one of the many many many messages I have from her on my phone. “Hi Dollface! It’s your mommy!….”

Snakes took the kids out to movies, breakfasts, Lake Michigan and anywhere else in a 30 mile radius that seemed remotely like fun. My sister and I pressed on the best that we could. She went to the florist to commission a big tangle of wildflowers to be draped across her casket. Absolutely NO carnations!! Stop on the roadside for Queen Anne’s lace if you have to. She dropped the clothes at the funeral home. She touched up the electric yellow fingernail polish that had chipped from my mom’s nails. She met my mom’s hairstylist and dear friend who had offered to style her hair one last time. I wish I could say she was beautiful, but there is no beauty in the unexpected death of your mother.

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I spent my time organizing an after service luncheon in my mom’s garden. A neighbor had generously offered to have it catered, but for any of you that know me or have been following my blog- you know I couldn’t sit by while ham buns happened. Not while I was still drawing breath. I resolved to honor my mom in the only way I knew, throw a party. I hadn’t slept in days and the jet lag had me running on fumes. About the only thing I was capable of was chopping and whisking.

Snakes did a pulled pork. I threw together a tangy dijon potato and green bean salad, broccoli slaw, a giant pile of crudite with my mom’s famous blue cheese dressing. I juiced bags of citrus for carafes of grapefruit-forward margaritas. Girlfriends from Detroit brought lemon bars, a rhubarb blueberry pistachio crisp, coconut corn muffins with pineapple butter and chocolate chip cookies. When I tired in the kitchen, I went outside to string up these bamboo fans I’d found in one of the markets in Phnom Penh the day before we’d left.

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Everyone came back here after the funeral service. We played Loretta Lynn and BB King and Lucinda Williams. We drank margs, toasted to my beautiful mommy and watched her grandkids chase each other through her yard. This should’ve been her 70th birthday party. I kept imagining it was. That any minute she’d walk around the monster rose of sharon bush and squeal with laughter. I’d hand her a drink and give her a huge squeeze. She’d marvel at the Willy Wonka “lollipops” hanging from the trees, wheels already turning on how she’d fashion them into an elaborate mural on her dining room wall. I’d kiss her on both cheeks and look into the smiling eyes that are my own. I’d tell her what an incredible lady she is, how greatly I admire and love her. How much she inspires me every single day. All of these people would. All of these people who’s lives she’s touched, here in her backyard. What fun!!  All of these people eager to line up, raise their glass and share a laugh.

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I don’t know how to begin to handle this grief and this loss I feel.  It’s a dark cloud that follows me everywhere and I know once I slow down it is going to consume me. I keep moving forward. I know I can’t outrun it and I will eventually need to turn around, brace myself and step into it with as much grace as I can muster.