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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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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the new style

Mid-August we hopped a plane bound for nearby Namibia for what I believe is our last “adventure vacation” for at least a decade, maybe more. I hate admitting that, but there are some universal truths about parenthood. This is one.  It’s time to tone it down. Ten days of bumping from town to town in a little VW on washboard gravel roads with a 1 year old belted into her car seat is NO ONE’S idea of a good time. Jaw-dropping scenery, roadside baboons and warthog families be damned, LET’S JUST GET THERE ALREADY!!!!!

This vacation was inspiring and refreshing in an exhaustingly different way. In the close quarters of a hotel room, it’s hard to get a respectable nights sleep. I don’t think I had one in those ten days we were gone. I just kept soldiering on. One drizzly morning, trying to get a nice early start for another 7 hour drive, I requested that we locate a cup of coffee before leaving town. Snakes actually had the nerve to say, “I’ll never understand people who absolutely need their coffee in the morning.”  I could smell the smoke coming out of my ears and if not for the fact that the Bushbaby had just dozed off again I may have started screaming, snarling then sobbing. Who says that to a sleep deprived, caffeine deficient bushbaby mama??? Seriously.We arrived Friday afternoon, picked up the rental car and immediately headed toward the dunes. The guide book had assured us that it was a simple 4 1/2 hour drive from the airport to our lodge. I hastily assumed the “quick route” was also the most direct which I plotted on the map. (Turns out I was wrong, though consulting the guide book after the fact, I learned that we’d taken the “most spectacular route”. So there was that.) The “direct route” (or most spectacular, as it were) took nearly twice as long. In fact almost every drive did. Just when you are about 20 minutes past the point of true exasperation, you’ve got about an hour more to go. Namibia is HUGE!!!! We spent one full day “hiking” the dunes. It was like nothing I’ve ever experienced, such a dramatic and lonely landscape. I would have loved to spend entire days watching the light and perspective shifting as the hours slipped on by. As it was, we arrived late, hiked in, snapped a few shots and returned to the lodge to “relax”. The next morning we left for a couple of nights in the coastal town of Swakopmund. From there we drove northeast toward Etosha National Park stopping for one night about an hour and a half south of the park. The next couple of days were spent driving around the park on a self-guided safari. It was a pretty cool experience but I think we were all past our limit for time locked in the car. Bushbabies need their freedom. She’s on the brink of walking and is incredibly eager to show it off to anyone interested in her antics. I made the mistake of letting her “car-seat surf” while we were ambling through the park checking out zebra, giraffe, oryx and elephant herds. Even though it was a temporary solution, you can imagine how compliant she was to be strapped in afterward. I should never have clued her in that there were other options. With our second R&R  just around the corner in October, we’ve decided to rein in our ambitions. Initially I was planning to visit friends in London, then Brussels and maybe swing through Paris for a few days where we could meet up with Snakes and continue on to explore Portugal for another week or so. Haha. That idea makes me laugh, then immediately look around for a place to lie down and take a nap. So we’ve decided to distill it to the most basic and direct: a straight flight to Lisbon, renting an apartment for the week then onward to Porto where we’ll stay for another stretch of time. I want this vacation to take shape around the loose structure of time and location. And the rock solid promise of a nice cup of coffee each morning.

there and back again

After a grumpy week of confused late night adjustments, I believe we have all recovered from our jet lagging travels. My wits are just now starting to return. I wanted to write while I was back in the states, but quite frankly, there was just too much to catch up with. The Bushbaby and I began our journey in mid-March with a 3 week visit with my sister and her family. I can’t imagine a softer landing. The french doors from the guest room opened to a generous Colorado sky and the snowy mountains beyond. America the beautiful, dressed in her modest and rugged heartland finery.

The air was cool and clean, a nearly consistent and perfect forecast in the mid-60s, low 70s. Daily walks through her foot-hilly neighborhood flushed our cheeks pink and challenged my low-lander lungs and muscles. I snuggled my little african bundle tightly into the stroller and marveled (AGAIN) over the things I’ve taken for granted in my life. Trash bins and public parks with cute little baby swings, countless places to just WALK. My God, how simple and lovely this life can be.

After 3 weeks of spicy baby salad greens, sweet cousin kisses & squeezes, rich creamy lattes and plenty of retail therapy, we said our teary goodbyes and flew into Michigan to reunite with Snakes and visit with the rest of my family in the Grand Rapids area. Since it was the Bushbaby’s inaugural visit, my dad took a few days off work to spend some time getting to know his newest granddaughter. He also arranged a SERIOUS pinball fix for us one evening at the home of one of his pinball buddies. Honestly, this guy had no fewer than 20 different machines, all in mint condition. I strapped Colette on with a forward facing Bjorn and played, uninterrupted, for about an hour. It is our greatest regret that we never bought a machine before coming to Luanda. It would have been money very well spent.

Many visits with family, friends in Detroit, a couple of old favorite food haunts, and the week flew by. We spent the final week in Bethlehem, PA with Snakes’ family. My MIL had arranged a big brunchy party for everyone to come and meet the Bushbabe that weekend we arrived. Though exhausting, it was a great way to pack A LOT of visiting into just a few hours. That week we managed to squeeze in a date (!), more shopping and visiting and a family photo shoot. Even though we promised ourselves to have a relaxing R & R, I wonder if it’s really possible. There is always something more to do, see and EAT.

As the week came to a close and our flight time loomed large, I could feel my anxiety building. Life is SO easy in the states. The ideas of “seeing the world” and “experiencing other cultures” (and learning so so so much about ourselves in the process) remain enticing. But when the lilac bushes are bursting at their seams, begging me to pick an armload and press my whole face into them and we’re stuck inside rearranging, weighing our luggage, organizing our stash of broccoli, asparagus, cheeses and miso paste, the reality of this life hits me. It’s incredibly hard work. Living so far from family, friends and the ease of familiarity.

I can’t think too much about what I’m missing now that we’re back, it’s a dangerously slippery slope. I need to find that little space where I am simply grateful for each and every thing. I need to take that “little space” and work on making it much bigger. I need to make sure I force myself out of the house every day. I need to find time for my studio. One year over. One year left. It’s getting better all the time.

little trip to heaven

About a month ago, we packed it up and took our show on the road for our first family vacation in Cape Town, South Africa. The bushbaby returned to her motherland.

This area of the world is GORGEOUS. While stationed here in Luanda, a visit to Cape Town is on the must do list. Our first day there, my eyes welled with tears. Such beauty exists! All on its own, such lush and natural beauty. I took over a thousand pictures but they never do justice. The air was so thick with salty oxygen, no trace of the bitter diesel fumes and steamy urine to which I’ve become accustomed. We could breathe deeply and fully for the first time in months.

We stayed at Chapman’s Peak Hotel in Hout Bay, just 20 minutes from the city center. I debated renting a 1-2 bedroom apartment but decided on a decent sized hotel room in the end. I may revisit that option in the future. We made it work with the hotel-furnished pack-n-play, but it would have been nice to have an actual door to shut once she was snoozing. Those of you who travel with kids, do you prefer to rent self-catering apartments?

Our immediate area was a fishing community with loads of fresh catch restaurants and fishmongers. Every morning the Bushbaby and Snakes would go for a nice long walk on the beach across from our hotel (pictured above) while I slept in or sipped coffee on our patio. We spent our days exploring the peninsula: penguins in Simons Town, a baboon sighting on our way to Cape of Good Hope, an ostrich farm, endless empty beaches, Table Mountain top vistas, shopping in the city. (Funny side note: while searching for a camera cord on the V & A Waterfront, I ran into this FSO, whom I immediately recognized from her blog! It’s a little weird to know so many intimate details of people’s lives when you’ve never even met them before. And a kinda creepy too, right?)

My one regret (rather predictably) is that we didn’t budget more time for the wineries. (Reason enough for a return visit!) We had rented a car for the 10 days we were there and drove the 45 minutes to the Stellenbosch countryside one Sunday afternoon. By the end of our ONE (and only….) winery visit, we were already reformulating our retirement plans. And I was the only one who had a glass of wine.

Now, with the news of our next post coming down the pipeline this week and only 4 more sleeps until the Bushbaby and I set off for the first stop (of 3) on the 2012 home leave whirlwind tour, excitement looms large! First stop: Denver. Second post……?…..stay tuned!

home again, home again

Just got back home to DC after spending a fortifying week with some very dear friends in New Orleans. I was lucky enough to call that intensely magical place my home for six years. Despite the seeping (gushing) black sludge that is suffocating the marshes and wildlife preserves as we live and breathe, it was a lovely respite. Unfortunately my darling Snakes was unable to join me even for the weekend. I’m hoping we’ll get a chance to sneak in a visit before we ship out for our first post. I brought him back a signed copy of Real Cajun by Donald Link (which just won the James Beard award for new American cookbook), some housemade sausage from Link’s phenomenal eatery, Cochon Butcher, and a CD collaboration recorded to benefit Preservation Hall. Had a great time with my ladies but I surely missed my guy.

I stayed with my dear friend, Miranda Lake. She is a wickedly talented encaustic and collage artist whose home never fails to make my head swell with inspiration and my heart ache with beauty. I spent many lazy hours sipping white wine from a glass as slick sweaty as my brow, wandering through her home and yard, snapping photos. I kept it fairly low key with just one girls night “out on the town”. Ahhhh…. New Orleans. You just don’t disappoint. On our way back to the car, walking through the residential section of the quarter, we ran into these guys, out for an evening stroll.

They’ve recently started a mobile petting zoo. They live in the Treme with two pygmy goats, a pot bellied pig and these two gals, Teeny and Rascal. For $175 they’ll show up at your kid’s party and let the animals romp around your house for about an hour. They can hardly keep up with the demand. Just one of the infinite reasons that New Orleans sets my soul at ease. A foursome like this, wandering the streets, having some cocktails on a Saturday night after a long day of toddler parties.

And speaking of toddler parties, that brings me to the real reason I was there, a baby shower. I helped put it together from afar, arriving in time to assemble a nice menu. This friend and her husband have just finished building an impressive home literally ON the bank of the Mississippi, one of maybe 11 waterfront properties in NO. A walk onto the back deck often greets you with the low resonant blast of the passing barges. Such a beautiful place: the city, the homes, the strong and resilient culture, all of my gorgeous friends. It is always good to come home.

paris

We had an overnight flight directly from Detroit to Paris, departing Thursday evening and arriving around noon the next day.  To prepare, we studied a few different books and magazine features to lay out a rough sketch of destinations. Restaurants, chocolatiers, boulangeries, patisseries, markets and museums too good to be missed.  Excitement spoiled my plan to catch a solid nap.

We rented an apartment in Montmartre just a few steps behind the Sacre Coeur. Though pretty musty, it served it’s purpose and it was great to be in a neighborhood.  I would strongly recommend visiting in early November. Very few crowds, temperate weather and not a trace of the infamous French attitude.  The people were lovely. Often when we sat down to order at cafes, we were treated to little impromptu French lessons by our waiter or waitress. We spent our days wandering the streets, sampling cheeses with crusty hunks of fresh bread, marveling at the architecture and restraining me from falling to my knees in reverence outside of each and every chocolatier.

We had gotten the 6 day museum pass which allowed access to most every museum in Paris. It was nice because we didn’t feel compelled to wring ourselves out getting our “moneys worth” at any particular place since we could always revisit later. My limit is right around 3-4 hours for any one museum anyway. It’s like smelling perfume, after the first 5 sniffs your senses are dulled and all subtleties are lost.  Best to return with a clear head later.  Having said that, we visited the Louvre, the Musee d’Orsay, Notre Dame, Saint Chapelle cathedral, Musee de l’ Orangerie, the Rodin Museum, the Pompidou Centre, and Versailles. Whew… centuries of culture packed into 10 measly days.  Faves:  Pompidou,  l’Orangerie, and the Rodin.  Almost forgot- the Paris Sewer tours were included on our pass.  One guess who couldn’t pass on that “opportunity”.

Ahhh…and then there was the food. The Food…  Friends who have already seen our pictures said, “why do you take so many pictures of food?”  And to that I say, “because food is what forms the backbone of all cultures,  it gives structure to our travels, and our lives. ”  And come to think of it,  our actual backbones. We’d plan each day starting with where we’d eat later that night. Spend the day sightseeing, eating pastries, touring, window shopping,  until 7-8-9 o’clock rolled around and then the fun really began.  Time to sit down (finally) to enjoy an apertif while pondering the menu and wine list. So many possibilities. Menues written with careful consideration for seasonal ingredients and just the right amount of creativity.  Never inaccessable nor predictable.  Oh dear god, and the cheese course. Just when you don’t think things can get any better you’re offered some gorgeous small batch family-made sheep’s cheese from the Pyrenees drizzled with a little lavendar honey.  Such perfect contentment at the end of each meal. Then a chilly stroll back to our little Parisian apartment, bellies full and backbones amply fortified, certain that this was the first of many visits to come.