Call it Serendipity

Posted in John's Current Blog on November 5, 2019

Phnom Penh; November 5, 2019:

Dinner at home in China with friends from the Netherlands, India, China, and Syria

You can call it serendipity or you can call it just plain ol’ good luck. My friend Grace Anne tells me that these things happen to me because people perceive me as curious and open to adventure.  But the truth is that I have no more wanderlust; I have no bucket list. After living apart from my husband for the better part of five years, we are content to simply be together. It’s true that I have already been to an awful lot of places. I have lived all over the American South and have traveled to every state except Alaska. And though I have been to several places in Canada and Central America, there are many places that I would have loved to have visited in the past. And I know not South America at all. I have lived in New York and Paris and Genoa, Italy; Bulgaria, China, the Virgin Islands, and, now, Cambodia. I have traveled throughout Spain, Italy, France, Portugal, Ireland, Sicily, and Morocco, and visited most of the European capitals. I’ve been on a safari in South Africa and spent time among Rroma in Transylvania and chefs in Istanbul. I have had a tuk-tuk driver take me all over Colombo, Sri Lanka, to find a coconut grater and loose-fitting shirts to wear in the tropics. I have picked olives throughout the Mediterranean and sailed all over the Caribbean. I have rented beach houses in  the Carolinas, New York, Italy, Quintana Roo, Thailand, and Greece. I have had one-man shows of my artwork and received awards in the culinary arts. I am humbled by any recognition I have received and am surprised by my relative success, given what a homebody I am. I have shunned organizations for most of my life and while I have a large circle of friends, I see most of them rarely.

Okra in Rabat

Therefore when I do have unplanned discoveries and magical experiences, I am amazed — thrilled, enthralled, and totally captive to the moment. They seem to happen most when I do travel.  In Morocco, I had traveled alone in a rental car from Rabat to Moulay Bousselham, a fishing village on the Merja Zerga Lagoon, famous for its bird sanctuary. I wanted to see flamingos, although I knew it was not the right season. I also wanted to explore foods other than the street foods and  the restaurant fare of the bigger cities. When I turned off the ultra-modern interstate and onto the bumpy road into the town, I immediately pulled over onto the rocky shoulder to check my map to make sure that I was in the right place. A handsome young man came up to the car, motioning to me. He didn’t speak French and I don’t speak Arabic. I had been repeatedly warned that I shouldn’t travel alone and that wherever I went I would be accosted by folks trying to sell me something or to be my guide. (I also had been forewarned not to eat street food, but I did anyway.) But the guy wasn’t aggressive and he pointed out to me that I had a flat tire. He did speak some Spanish, so we were able to communicate somewhat, though it was mostly through sign language. I understood that there was a place right up the road where his friends would fix the flat. He seemed innocent enough, so I asked him to get in the car. He refused, and told me to drive slowly behind him and he would watch the tire. Not a half mile up the road, his friends had a service station where they indeed fixed the tire and washed the car. For $4.

Brahim

I wanted to go for a boat ride out in the lagoon to see birds. I had also been told that the boatmen would be very aggressive and overcharge me. But Brahim offered to take me on a tour of the lagoon for two hours for $11. He knew where the year-round flamingos hung out. We saw oystercatchers and eagles, ospreys and herons, ibises and plovers. And we passed field after field of okra, which I had yet to see on a menu or among the street  food vendors, though it was abundant in the markets. After 3 hours we headed into town. I was hungry. He told me that there were plenty of restaurants on the waterfront, but I had seen the menus on the walk down to his boat. I wanted to eat the way I was sure he and his family ate. “I want bamiya,” I said, knowing that the Arabic word for okra was known throughout the region, and pointing to the fields.

He took me up into the white-washed village –looking every bit like a Greek isle   – where fish mongers were selling their catch. I picked out a large sea bass and they threw in several small fish. Again, $4. Across the alley his uncle had a restaurant, with a fryer and grill downstairs and no-frills tables overlooking tin roofs and the Atlantic upstairs. One uncle asked me how I wanted the fish cooked and I told him to grill the big one and fry the little ones. “Exactement!” he beamed.

Brahim  showed me to the lavatory to wash up, introduced me to his cousins who were peeling potatoes and cooking (and who didn’t mind that I took photos), and led me to a table next to a group of men finishing up their lunch of seafood couscous. They jokingly invited me to join them, though the dish was all but gone. Brahim started to leave and I asked him where he was going. “Al mercado de bamiya,” he said. They served me fried fish and potatoes, okra and tomatoes, and the grilled sea bass with cucumbers. Again, $4. It was an amazing travel experience and I had yet to pay Brahim for our boat ride. He insisted that I only pay him the $11 he had said for two hours. But first he wanted to introduce me to another uncle, who was head of tourism for the village. They wanted to show me the strawberry fields. “We produce most of the strawberries that are eaten in France,” this third uncle told me as he presented me with the key to the city! But I needed to get back to Rabat, promising to stay in touch – which we did for a while. A truly magical experience.

I thought of that day a lot last weekend down on the coast of Cambodia. Our first night in Kampot, a charming colonial town of about 50,000 that sits on the lazy Kampong Bay River (actually an estuary a few kilometers upstream from the Bay of Thailand), we were having happy hour sunset cocktails at our hotel’s outdoor bar. We were trying to decide where to go have dinner. Tertúlia, a Portuguese restaurant, was becoming the preferred choice. As we were getting up to leave, the couple next to us turned around and said, “We are the owners. We would love to have you come for dinner.”  We gave them a few minutes to get ahead of us (we were going right at opening) and then went straight to the restaurant a few blocks away.

Miguel Antunes Ferreira Afonso and Carolina Santos Jorge of Tertúlia Petisqueira in Kampot, Cambodia

I hadn’t been to Portugal since the 90s, but I knew that petiscos were the way to go. We ordered an exceptional Portuguese wine – Quinta do Noval’s “Cedro do Noval,” a brilliant respresentation of the Douro, and looked at the menu. It read:

Petiscos are generally small versions of large plates. The genius behind this model is that you can then order and taste more dishes by ordering smaller versions than you would if you ordered full size dishes. How brilliant is that? We even have a word for it: petiscar, which means eating and savoring these small sized dishes, generally best done with friends, just like tapas.

Tapas and Petiscos both have roots in the Iberian Peninsula – the portion of land that is now comprised of Spain and Portugal. The Spanish tapas have become internationally known and can be found worldwide, usually in trendy bars also serving Spanish wines. As for petiscos,  they are a part of Portugal’s gastronomy and are traditionally found in tascas – taverns or cafés. Lately, we have seen a swell of trendy bars and restaurants, known as Petisqueiras, serving them with Portuguese wines. Unlike tapas, petiscos are fairly unknown outside the country… But not for long!

Ovos Verdes and Conserva de Sardinha com Cebola Alho

I looked at our dining companions and said, “I think we should let them decide what we should eat.” Everyone agreed. For each dish, Miguel and Carolina had a back story. A personal experience. A family tradition. We began with a “tiborna”of Conserva de Sardinha com Cebola Alho – justly famous canned Portuguese sardines atop homemade bread spread with a luscious puree of onion and garlic. Truly appetizing! Ovos Verdes accompanied the fish: hard-boiled eggs whose yolks were scooped out, mashed with anchovies, restuffed into the eggs, breaded, fried, and served with an elegant cilantro-chile sauce. Yum! What’s next we wondered, as Miguel and Carolina told us their story of how they had just a few months before come to Kampot on holiday – actually Kampot was not on their original itinerary. They had seen the sign for the restaurant – “tertúlia” is a distinctly Portuguese word, meaning a gathering of friends. The owners at the time – also a 30-something Portuguese couple who wanted to return to their homeland to begin a family – had had the restaurant for four years and wanted to sell. The chef, also Portuguese, did not want to leave. Miguel and Carolina – he, a near-to-burning-out event planner; she, the p.r. wizard for McDonald’s Portugal – looked at each other and said, “Let’s do this.”

Miguel and Carolina

That was in January. They had spent New Year’s in Bangkok and then gone to Siem Reap to see the ruins. Their original plan was to spend 10 days in Cambodia. After Angkor,  a more relaxed pace in the countryside – perhaps to Kratie to see the rare Irrawaddy dolphins. They chose instead the more easily accessible southern coast – 2 nights and three days in Kampot. They returned to Lisbon, left their jobs, said their goodbyes to family, and by May they were settled in as Tertúlia’s new owners. So well trained was the kitchen crew that the night we were there, although Chef Francisco Salema was out of town, the food was prepared “as always,” Miguel noted. Carolina said that she could close her eyes and imagine that she were home.

But Francisco is from the Algarve, the southernmost tip of Portugal, and Miguel and Carolina are getting ready to redo the menu. Francisco will be in charge – he spent four years in Macau and knows Asian ingredients, but the new owners will have their influence as well. They want to incorporate more of the local ingredients, which are stellar, as well as more petiscos from Lisbon.

Slow-cooked beef cheeks with sweet potato chips

Classic fresh shrimp in the shell led us to two stunning tuna dishes – lightly braised tuna with beets and Kampot pepper and an elaborate tartare. But for me, the star of the evening was the beef. Cows are everywhere in Cambodia outside inner cities, but the beef is famously stringy and tough. Tertúlia’s 8-hour-braise of beef cheeks was so delicious that long after it was gone and we had all swiped the dish with bread, my fingers ran through the luscious sauce to taste again.

I have never had a sweet tooth, but if desserts such as Tertúlia’s chocolate mousse and their classic pastel de Tentúgal were on more menus, perhaps I would. Neither were too sweet and the beguiling egg-filled crèpe-like pastry was just as I remembered it from the convent where I last had it near Coimbra, between Lisbon and Porto. (Similar sweets are made in convents in Spain and Italy as well.) We were served an elegant white Port with the sweets as we shared family dinner tales and probed the origins of dishes.

Chocolate Mousse and Pasteles do Tertúgal

The next day while everyone else napped, I went back to see Miguel and Carolina. It had been a long day, up to the Bokor National Park and back, and one of our crew was under the weather. We didn’t want to venture far for dinner and we were all content to return to Tertúlia. But as I asked them to confirm my memory of the remarkable prior evening, they said, “No, don’t come back to Tertúlia tonight. Kampot has 100 restaurants. Most of them are very small and everyone is very focused on what they are doing. Try 23 or Aroma, the Israeli place, or go out to Green House. You will be back to Kampot. We’ll see you next time.” Such graciousness and generosity are rare in the restaurant business. We were duly impressed and will indeed return (and hope to send many folks there).

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I think the vine is the same one I saw a month ago on a fence in Phnom Penh, but I can’t tell from this cell-phone image.

Two days later we were in Kep for our spouses’ meeting. Matt and I went for a walk, mostly along the waterfront. There’s really not much to see in Kep – none of the colonial architecture of Kampot. And the restaurants are mostly concentrated next to the crab market. We passed a plant nursery and sauntered in. We don’t have much gardening space at our house in Phnom Penh, but there was an intriguing vine with purple flowers that Mikel, my husband, had seen and had coveted. Matt’s Khmer is pretty good but we were having a hard time communicating anyway, and, besides, they didn’t have it. A woman overheard us and said in perfect English, “I think I have one. Would you like to see?” I asked her if she worked there and she said, “No, I’m a customer, but I think I have the plant you’re looking for. Would like you to come to my house to see?” Uh, sure…

In Vathana’s garden

And so we went with Vathana in her car to her lovely home and gardens overlooking the bay. We walked through her garden and visited with her for several hours, eating papaya from her trees. We offered to take her to lunch and she asked if we had been to Fishermen’s Village. We had not, and so she drove us to the far east end of Kep, through bumpy, muddy dirt roads to a delightful French restaurant overlooking the bay. The menu was in English! After lunch, where we learned her amazing story of surviving the Khmer Rouge (her father and oldest brother did not), she drove us even farther out to the undeveloped Angkol Beach, near the Vietnamese border. We talked about NGOs and the work of the United Nations (for whom she worked in Geneva until recently), the dearth of infrastructure and the garbage situation in Cambodia, the continuing Chinese development throughout the country, but, mostly, we talked about gardening. And promised to stay in touch.

I call it serendipity. And meant to be.

The restaurant at Fishermen’s Village. Kep Bay, Cambodia

 

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