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Crafting Culinary Stories in Cambodia Day One and Two – Cambodian Home Cookery to Cuisine

Your going to Cambodia?  Wow. Why? When? Has been the reaction of a number of people when I mentioned Cambodia in the recent past.  I have to admit I didn't advertise that I was going broadly and for a trip for me, I decided last minute, just about four months ahead of time.  And in that four months a lot has happened.  Either way, here in Cambodia I found myself, completely nervous, more so than I had ever been for a trip, about to meet a group of like-minded foodie writer photographer individuals to dive into my favorite subject – the food of a culture.


I had no reason to be nervous, but I was.  The life of the extroverted introvert – so happy to have friends to travel with but so nervous to meet them. 


After settling into Viroth's, taking a shower, and generally beginning to feel human again after my morning temple marathon – I unpacked, unwound and decided to venture out into the world to find some cash and to go to Sombai to sample the local rice wine of Cambodia.  

When I left the front door of the hotel I had every intention to walk on my adventure and learn the lay of the land surrounding my hotel.  But before I could make it past the tuk-tuk drivers I had five offers to drive me, to which I answered "I don't have any cash to pay you – so I must walk to the ATM and solve that problem."  One industrious driver understood my dilemma and my lack of understanding of the Siem Reap tuk-tuk driver process and said "Its OK, ATM too far away to walk, I'll drive you then wait for you."  What a concept!  In a few days this concept of drivers waiting would be an old hat, but at this moment in time it was completely novel and extremely handy.  So we went to the bank just as huge gusts of wind started blowing and the afternoon sky turned ominous.  Not so tasty Siem Reap street grit in my teeth and eyeballs I navigated the cash machine outside the bank. It gave me two very large US bills, not-so-helpful in a town where even a 20 is hard to change, so I went inside the bank and took a number hoping this new problem could be solved.  I was soon handed a very large wad of 10 dollar bills that I tried to nonchalantly tuck away in my traveler purse before stepping outside into the afternoon windstorm. 


We drove by cows and tropical flowers and businesses and garbage heaps and other strange  and interesting things I failed to photograph as the evening breeze blew warm dirt across my neck and shoulders.  


Eventually we found Sombai, which is not located in the business district (so it doesn't look like the photo above), but in a residential area – which is why the driver couldn't find it.  I got a tour of the infusion "facility" and a tasting of the 11 flavors of rice wine they make accompanied by very interesting descriptions of what the flavors tasted like as I helped my server practice her English.  


Evening was approaching and it was time for my second shower of the day to get the dust storm grit off and prepare for dinner and meeting everyone.  

While preparing I enjoyed some of the lavish luxuries the hotel had to provide, like $3 dollar glasses of Chenin Blanc.


Then faces started to appear, "hello my name is" and "oh you are's" happened left and right as we recognized each other from our email introductions. Then we loaded into a few tuk-tuks and headed to our hosts for a home-cooked Cambodian dinner.  

Our hosts, Lena and Steven run Siem Reap Food Tours in the on and off season.  Lena is also an avid goose and duck keeper. Here she is with part of the family.  Poultry-keeping is just a part of life in the modern Cambodian lifestyle.  


As our hosts are an expat and Scottish chef – the neighbor was the cook this fine evening, to ensure we got an authentic Cambodian home-cooked meal.  The star of this evening, beyond the introduction to Cambodian food, was conversation and getting to know our workshop leads -David, Dianne, Robyn and each other.  Small talk came easy as we all had a lot of common interests, but many unique perspectives.  


Cambodian food basics – 1. There are a lot of vegetables and herbs (but mostly not herbs known by westerners and there is generally not an English translation for the name of the strange herbs). The strange herb of this evening was called "fish basil" because it literally tasted like licking a fish.  I had to pluck three out of my salad just to confirm, yes, yes it does taste like licking a fish.


2. There is fish, and probably a fermented fish paste called prahok, in just about everything.


3. There is always something with broth, herbs and veggies and usually fish – but other meats are sometimes available.


4. Morning glories are food you eat with garlic, lemongrass, and other herbs. But the thing they call Morning Glory is more like water spinach – not the invasive weed that chokes your gardens in Western North America.  


5. Traditional desserts are not pretty and they in most cases involve beans.  


6. Most places aren't really "inside" as we know it, nor do they have all four walls in some cases – so when you are eating at a restaurant or in someone's house, you are eating outside.  If it is nighttime and you are me, wearing profuse amounts of bug dope, you will still be eaten by mosquitoes. 

7.  The food will be yummy – no matter what it is you are eating.  (But the fish paste may take some getting used to for westerners).

8. Rice – which I never took any pictures of because its rice – but the rice actually has flavor in Cambodia.  Cambodia was once home to over 2000 varieties of rice, they are now reduced to roughly 400.


Meanwhile, this is what Cambodian hotel's feed westerners for breakfast.  Or at least Viroth's hotel – all the western things and, my favorite non-western item, watermelon juice.  So good.  


The first full-day of the workshop was predominantly classroom sessions focusing on food and travel writing and documentary photography technique. But we did stop for lunch and a two-hour break to explore. My group of explorers found


big random pots


crazy electrical wiring


Buddha with his innards being eaten by large crows


shiny pagoda animals


a tame cat that lives inside an air conditioned store


pretty old doors


and sacred cow statues.  We made it back to the hotel just in time to avoid the extreme downpour.  As the area is in a drought the downpour was welcomed and made the world smell a lot better.

After class was over for the day we headed to Mie Cafe for dinner prepared by Chef Pola Siv.  Chef Pola is a Cambodian home-taught chef (when asked who taught him how to cook – he emphatically says "my mother"), who through a culinary scholarship of sorts trained in Switzerland then cooked in the Cayman Islands and Bahrain before returning to open his own restaurant in Cambodia.  


The result of this unique background and Chef Pola's extraordinary talent is truly what a foodie might call Cambodian cuisine.


The restaurant is very beautiful, creatively using everyday items you can find inexpensively in Cambodia for decor (and for tools in the kitchen as well).


This phenomenal photo, I just happen to star in, was taken by my workshop-mate Su Ling Ung – capturing some of the techniques we learned earlier in the day for photography and the creative decorations at the restaurant.


Then there was the food – who knew that mango, avocado, and tuna tasted so good together?  The texture of the fresh mango picked from a tree nearby matched the soft creamy texture of the avocado – like they were brother and sister.  The slightly sweet of the mango married the tangy of the tuna and the sauce – every bite was a soft dance ending a delicious swallow.


This is the traditional fish soup dish, plated in a very modern cuisine way with the most exceptional ingredients to make it light yet completely filled with deep flavor.


Traditional curried prawns – the curry paste of Cambodia is based on lemongrass which grows like a weed everywhere – followed by ginger, galangal, turmeric (all put into the paste a whole root not powdered versions), garlic, and a little bit of chili and lime.  It is very different than Indian curry mixtures because of the lemongrass but it is phenomenal – it is floral and tannic and earthy simultaneously. 


It all culminated in everyone's favorite dessert, well at least my favorite dessert, that is not a Cambodia specialty but a great dessert choice by chef – molten chocolate cake.  It erupted perfectly, sending its chocolate lava down the plate.


We ended the evening full of food, ideas and curiosity about what tomorrow's adventure to the market would hold.




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