Friday, May 30, 2008

Sweet sugar cane.

Sugar-cane juice may be the ideal drink for a scorching Cambodian day. Served in frosty mugs or plastic-bags, the pale golden liquid has a refreshingly citric sweetness. Though it's available throughout much of Southeast Asia, I'd never seen as many sugar-cane juice stands as I encountered in Cambodia. It seemed that every street, market, and noodle-shop had its own sugar-cane grinder at work. So in the interest of doing as the locals do, I ordered a bag.

The vendor grabbed some stalks of sugar-cane that were chilling in water, and placed them in his grinder. Leaning his whole body into the wheel, he turned them through one, two, three times. He threw some of the mushy pulp into the bottom of a plastic bag, and then poured in the lemon-yellow juice. Dipping a straw in, I took a sip. It was not as sweet as I expected, but nicely tart. And it certainly took the edge off the midday heat.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Rained in at the Royal Palace.

While visiting Phnom Penh's Royal Palace, we found ourselves captive, held at the mercy of a monsoon downpour. But sheltered in the portico of the Silver Pagoda, we were granted time to admire some of the more unusual elements of the temple grounds. For though Phnom Penh's palace may not have the flash and glamor of Bangkok's, it's still a visually captivating place, with teal painted guardians, faded Hanuman lampposts, and a mash-up of architectural styles.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Cambodia Cooking Class.

After fifteen minutes of waiting outside locked doors, we started to worry we were in the wrong place. The sign advertising The Cambodia Cooking Class suggested that we were in the right place, but there was no on there to greet us and no where to sit and wait. Finally the doors opened, and we were greeted by a man rubbing sleep out of his eyes. “I just woke up,” he explained. We moved inside to continue waiting in the darkened shop interior. The man who greeted us disappeared out the front door, while another man, our cooking teacher, came downstairs yawning. He began sweeping out the shop and cleaning up empty beer bottles, giving us no sign of what was going on.

When Bordeaux and I first came to Southeast Asia a year ago, we set as a goal to take a cooking class in every country we visited. We easily accomplished that in Thailand and Laos, and eventually we managed to take a class in Hanoi. The classes had all been wonderful. We got to prepare some good dishes, learned a little about Asian cooking, and got to learn a little about different culinary cultures. But as this class got off to its rough start, I was wondering if I was going to have to right my first bad review.

Close to fifteen minutes later, the other guy returned with a tuk tuk. We piled in, and headed for the market. Most cooking classes begin with a tour of a local wet market as a way to introduce some local foods, ingredients, and cooking methods. At the Thai Farm Cooking School, we were shown different qualities of rice, given a demonstration on making coconut milk and coconut cream, and lectured on the differences between different kinds of curry powder. In Luang Phrabang, we were shown a variety of fresh herbs and spices. In this cooking class, we walked through the market in a hurried single file.

Thankfully, the tone of the class shifted rapidly once we got to the cooking school. This was no doubt helped by the setting of the kitchen, which was as relaxed as the market was hectic: a quiet top-floor patio, where we looked out over a busy baguette bakery and the lush garden of the Royal Palace. As we settled into the open-air surroundings, out teacher apologized for giving such a rushed tour of the market, and explained that the setting there is so crowded and busy that he wasn’t able to give any explanation. Instead, he took a selection of fresh herbs and vegetables out of the refrigerator, and talked us through them.

Over the course of the day, we each made (clockwise, from upper left corner): fish amok, a delicious custard-like curry that's steamed in a banana leaf cup; saing jayk, peppery pork and chicken 'sausages' that are fried in a banana flower roll; a citrusy prawn and pomelo salad made two ways- one with the prawns cooked, the other cured in a lime dressing; and for dessert, a creamy durian custard steamed in a pumpkin. We ate these dishes as we prepared them throughout the day, which gave the class a nicely languid atmosphere that fit with Phnom Penh's tropical heat. In between, we were given tastes of banana flower soup, and bites of fresh durian.

In the end, the class really was wonderful- enough so to make the rocky start totally irrelevant. Every class we’ve taken has had its strengths- whether it was the atmosphere of the class, the setting of the kitchen, or the glimpse into local culture afforded by the lesson. In this class, our guide was a trained chef, and there was a strong focus on food presentation. He gave us great tips on how to make our food look its best, and as a result, these were some of the most professional looking dishes I’ve ever made in a cooking class. He was an outstanding teacher, who helped us to make the cooking as effortless as he made it look. And most importantly of all, I left the class with the strong desire (and ability) to make some delicious Khmer dishes at home.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Spirithouse glam.

The spirithouses in Cambodia had a distinct style all their own. I particularly favoured these rather glamorous models, painted entirely gold.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Kep overgrown.

Though the presence of luxury Landrovers and sparkling new condos attest that Kep is on its way to becoming a hot destination again, for the moment the oceanside jungle still conceals ruins of the past. Rooms that once hosted cocktail parties and lavish dinners now shelter lizards and moths. The soil in the province is famously fertile; so fertile that even abandoned properties grow as lush as tended plantations. Banana palms cluster in shaded alcoves, jack-fruit trees burden their heavy fruit among exposed beams. On the other side of Cambodia, Angkorian ruins are held in the grip of strangler trees; that overgrowth is mirrored in this seaside paradise, as once elegant compounds are swallowed by the hungry forest.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Spirit houses of Kep.

The Cambodian town of Kep was once a glamorous seaside resort, its rocky coast edged by Modernist villas. The civil war struck the town particularly hard though, and many of the houses were deserted, to be overtaken by the forest's growth. Yet even though the houses seem abandoned, some betray their habitation through their well-tended spirit houses.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

eating culture/eaten: Mystery Cambodian Ice Cream.

After a lunch in the seaside town of Kep, we were passed by a man on a bike. Our attention drawn by the clinging of his bell, we noticed that he had a blocky orange cooler strapped onto the back of his bike. We stopped him, and ordered one ice-cream each. Instead of the frozen popsicles we had been expecting, he took out a long white block, set it onto a small wooden cutting board, and sliced it neatly into sections. Sliding each one onto a bamboo skewer, he handed them to us.

As he chimed off on his way into town, we walked back to our guesthouse, taking licks of the ice cream as it melted in the afternoon heat. We had assumed it was just coconut ice cream, but we instantly detected a strange, subtle flavor. After a minute, we realized what it is: the infamous durian, which is currently in season. Though the fruit has a flavor most visitors find abhorrent, when mixed with the creamy ice cream, it offered just enough of an unusual, exotic flavor.

Vote at 'Best of Blogs'.

Just a quick note to mention that voting is open at The Best of Blog's, for which I was honored to be nominated. You don't have to vote for me, though- in addition to Primitive Culture, there are some other great blogs, like Prêt à Voyager and Places I've Never Been, which are both favorites of mine. To vote, just leave a comment with the blog of your choice at their website. Thanks!

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

River monsters of the Bayon.

The bas-reliefs that line the outer walls of Angkor's Bayon depict scenes from life under the Khmer empire. Many of the stories are of historical battles, of Khmer soldiers in combat against Cham armies. Other scenes are of everyday life: citizens gather at the market, men watch a cockfight, women groom their friends' hair. There are also some more unusual scenes tucked between the chatting old ladies and the armored elephants: an old man climbs a tree to hide from a hungry tiger; a parade of unusual circus animals march through town. This empire of stone is watched over by a host of river dwellers: lazy crocodiles and giant fish that seem to observe the procession of human history with only a passing interest.

Some of these creatures seem truly monstrous, like the crocodiles that wait for the victims of war...

... or the fish that swallowed a deer.

But in most cases, they seem merely indifferent to the lives of the humans around them.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Siem Reap Treats.

Long a gateway for visitors to the ruins of Angkor, the town of Siem Reap has in recent years been seeking to promote itself as a destination its own right. It now boasts hip hotels, attractive art galleries, and inviting coffee shops. Bordeaux and I visited Siem Reap last August; after a bit of rough traveling through Southern Laos, Siem Reap offered some wonderful comforts. We could have well-prepared espresso drinks, eat delicious baked goods, and find some other hard-to-find treats from home (this may be the only city in the Mekong Delta where you can buy Dr. Pepper). On this return trip, we enjoyed being able to resample some of these treats.

For coffee and cake, we headed directly for The Blue Pumpkin. Located across from the Old Market, their kitchen bakes up treats that strike a good balance between East and West. I tried the milky Coconut Flan, while Bordeaux had the tasty Pandan Coconut Cake. With its spare white walls and stark furnishings, the upstairs lounge may be a little too Bed Supperclub, but with comfy lounging space and strong air-con, it's hard to complain.

Blue Pumpkin also deserves mention for making what may be the most delicious ice cream in Southeast Asia. In addition to perfectly executed Western standards like mint or strawberry, or superb Asian options like durian and coconut, they make a few more unique flavors. During our first visit, Bordeaux developed a very strange affection for their cashew and caramel flavor, which he nurtured on this return trip. I opted instead for the ginger and black sesame. It was sharp and flavorful, but still creamy enough to offer refreshment on a balmy tropical evening.

We visited the Raffle's Grande Hotel d'Angkor primarily to check out the retro '30s style, but I was also tempted by the glass jars of cookies in their tea shop. The most interesting was a turmeric cookie, which had the crumb crunch of buttery shortbread, with a softly spicy taste.

And to end our evenings, we headed to the FCC Angkor for cocktails. The FCC is housed in the former Governer's Mansion, a two-story art deco pile with swirling fans and delicate columns. On a rainy evening, we sat upstairs, listening to the sound of the monsoon downpour as it splashed onto the garden. On a clearer night, we sat on the patio downstairs while overhead giant fruit bats stretched their wings in the sticky night air.

*These sweet treats and dry drinks aren't the only reasons to linger in Siem Reap. For more ideas on things to do, eat, or buy in Cambodia, check out the listing at Stay Another Day. They seek to connect interested travellers with organizations, shops and restaurants that are helping to preserve local culture, and benefit local communities. A few examples they suggest in Siem Reap include Singing Tree Cafe, which offers healthy Khmer dishes in a relaxed garden setting, and Senteurs d'Angkor, a shop that stocks local spices and handsome silk scarves.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Angkor Colors: Orange and Gray.

Photographing Angkor can be difficult. It can be hard to capture forms and contrast when the entire landscape is a dark shade of gray stone. But in between the slate walls and granite columns, there are spots of activity lite in splashes of bright orange. Though most Western visitors come to Angkor for its ruined 'Lost City' atmosphere, it's still a living site of religious importance. Sculptures of the Buddha are still lovingly draped in saffron silk robes, towering tangerine candles are lit in hallway altars.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Brunch in the shadows of gods.

For our day in Angkor, we scheduled sunrise in Angkor Thom. We scaled the crumbling steps of the Bayon as the first breath of pale-indigo sunlight drifted over the forest. We’d planned ahead, and as we watched the giant stone faces brighten in the morning light, we had a breakfast of Earl Grey muffins and slices of banana bread that we’d purchased at a café in Siem Reap the night before.

By the time we finished exploring some of Angkor Thom’s more overgrown temples several hours later, the muffins were starting to feel a little insufficient. We scanned the open dirt centre for food, not expecting to find much other than touristy Khmer food stands. Thankfully, we spotted a woman selling one of my favorite Indochine foods, baguette sandwiches. While Bordeaux waited for our order, I picked out a ripe mango from a bicycle fruit shop.

With our brunch in hand, we found a shaded spot among a ruined wall. A stone face smiled up at us, it’s eyes worn away with age and its jaw trimmed with moss. The sandwich was just what I had been craving. The crusty baguette had a nice crunch that complemented the soft filling inside. Compared to the sandwiches I’d enjoyed recently in Vietnam, this one was less salty, and quite a bit sweeter. Rather than a combination of pate and cold cuts, it had chunks of fatty pork and a dressing of sweet chili sauce. In place of cilantro, it had strips of green papaya, which added a nice crispness. The mango too was steller- so soft that it slid off the bamboo skewer as we pierced it, so rich and melting that it tasted like ice cream. It was the perfect brunch for Angkor; as exotic and engaging as the ruined city itself.