Phnom Penh; October 3, 2019
I have been in Cambodia for three months now, and every day seems to be an adventure. The weather, amazingly, is not at all what I expected. I’ve lived in the Caribbean, but Phnom Penh is a lot closer to the equator than Charlotte Amalie. I thought it was going to be hot as hell and horribly humid, with lots of rain (it’s the rainy season), but there has been little rain (which has the farmers worried) — thunderstorms blow in in the afternoon, the way they did in South Carolina when I was a child, but then they blow away. It does reach 90 most days, but the sun sets at 6:30 (5:30 in the winter), and the hottest time of the day is noon — not 3 or 4 pm — and as the sun gets higher, the humidity drops, so by noon, it’s usually 50% or lower, so it never feels to me as hot and humid as Savannah did, where I last lived, for much of the year.
I spend so much time wandering the streets and soaking up the sights and smells and flavors that I have neglected to blog. But I will be here for five years, so there’s no rush.
Rice is the major crop and the basis of most meals in Cambodia. Fish – most of it from inland sources – provide 60% of Cambodians’ protein, according to government figures, which list cassava, maize, soybeans, and mung beans as their other major crops. But those crops are mostly for export. A walk down any Phnom Penh street reveals the preferred fruits: coconuts, pineapples, papayas, oranges, bananas, durians, jackfruits, jujubes, soursops, mangosteens, rambutans, longans, and snakefruit (“salak,” the fruit of a palm tree native to Indonesia). I have a passionfruit every morning. Sugarcane is ground for juice in myriad roadside stands. And I have just begun to be able to decipher the hundreds of types of local herbs and vegetables.
There are dozens of kinds of pickles. Fermentation is such buzz-word (and skill) in the food world today, but it’s always been big in Asia. Korea’s kimchi, Japan’s miso, and Indonesia’s tempeh come to mind, but Cambodian cuisine includes a vast array of pickled foods, as I have found (and smelled) on the streets and in the markets — even the supermarkets. Prahok, or fermented fish paste, and kapi, made from prawns, give depth of flavor to any number of foods, though they are an acquired taste for most foreigners. At the swearing-in ceremony for the new crop of Peace Corps Volunteers, a government official said that you become Khmer only when you learn to love prahok – “Cambodian cheese.” But the flavors that they impart (moreover, enhance) are unique and can be addictive. It’s true umami, not MSG-added. At the so-called Russian Market, I have seen pickled papaya (mam la’hong), radish, and mustard greens. Mam is made from fish, salt, and rice that undergo lactic fermentation — no vinegar involved. The process is at least 2000 years old here. A pound of the pickles costs less than $2. At the Orussey Market, I have seen dozens of pickled fruits. Pickles and various sauces are set out with many Khmer dishes, not unlike our serving chow-chow with butterbeans or piccalilli with pilau. Kapi is mixed with garlic and chili peppers and used to enliven grilled meats (and they grill everything).
Green tomatoes, cucumbers, and raw, grated eggplant also accompany many dishes here, as well as several fresh herbs that are offered with the ubiquitous noodle soups, of which there are dozens of varieties that are served at all times of day, everywhere you go. Okra, corn, and beans are common ingredients. Forget what you have heard about Cambodian (Khmer) food. It is as spicy as you want it to be, is neither Thai nor Vietnamese, and is as varied as Indonesian. What a culinary adventure this is!
And it’s not just the local cuisine that entices. Phnom Penh is one of the fastest growing cities in the world, and the restaurant scene offers Malaysian, French, Italian, Thai, Vietnamese, Cantonese, Szechuan, Hunan, German, Uzbek, Mexican, Belgian, Brazilian, Spanish, Iraqi, Lebanese, Jordanian, Ethiopian, and Moroccan cuisines, as well as the ubiquitous fast food and burger joints. There is excellent dim sum and haute French. I had the best skewered lamb kidneys in a Uyghur restaurant and was thrilled to find Genova, a tiny, Ligurian spot run by the affable Roberto, from the charming Borgo di Boccadasse, whose focaccia is autentico!