Savoring Cambodia

9 Jun

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Bright pink and ruffled dragon fruits are poised gracefully in a large pile on a wooden table. Deep bowls filled with yellow turmeric, green kaffir lime leaves, and scarlet red hot chilies complete this illusionary sunset. To the left a woman sits indian style trimming meat in preparation for drying, her golden silk veil eluding to the expansion of Islam in traditionally Buddhist Cambodia. A woman walks through the tight market alley ways with a long pole stretched across her shoulder. From each end of the pole, two baskets hang down perfectly balanced. One is filled with a heaping mound of shredded green mango mixed with shredded carrots. On the other side there are a series of smaller bowls filled with fresh lime slices, dried fish pieces, ground peanuts, and a jug of fish sauce. These are makings of the Khmer version of mango salad. She carefully opens a plastic baggy and places a fistful of mango slaw inside, then she tops it with a bit of peanut, dried fish, squeeze of lime and a dash of fish sauce. She hands it over to her customer, lunch is served, and the she is paid 1,000 riles (25 cents). These are just some of Cambodia’s simple everyday culinary wonders.

Bright pink dragon fruit in the market
Fresh produce of all sorts is abound. I walk around the market with the tuk tuk driver I befriended, Pan, and we contemplate which place would best for lunch. At another stall a young man mixes turmeric, rice flour, water and egg into a thin batter for Khmer pancakes. This seems like an ideal stop. He laddels some batter onto a hot flat cooking surface, with a spoon he distributes the batter evenly and forms a large bright yellow circle. There it sizzles for several minutes before we carefully turns it over with a long flat wooden cooking tool. He then places mixture of cooked ground chicken, fresh crisp bean sprouts, spring onions, and a sprinkle of chiles into the middle of the cooking pancake. The pancake is then carefully turned over, closing in on the savoury filling and forming a bright yellow half moon. After just a few moments he slides the pancake onto an oblong plastic dish, its browned & crispy edges hang over the side of the dish. It comes out served with a small bowl of sauce – a concoction of ground peanuts fused with freshly squeezed lime juice and fish sauce – a handful of bright green lettuce leaves and slices of fresh cucumber. Mr. Pan shows me how to ea this delectable ensamble. Using your hands, you place a piece of the stuffed turmeric pancake on top of a leaf of lettuce and drizzle a spoonful of the sauce on top, allowing the sauce to run through the pancake & crevices of the lettuce. One bite and the blending of the fresh and bright ingredients is refreshing and satisfying. It’s the Cambodian version of the Turkish gozleme, the Costa Rican chorreada, or a savoury French crepe. And this is just one of a multitude of divine Khmer delights Cambodia has to offer.

I spent the afternoon afternoon taking with Pan. It gave me the opportunity to listen and learn about Khmer culture and daily life in this fine country. He is one of the older Cambodians I have seen and met, and he is just 41 years old. Cambodia has a very young population because the genocide in the 1970s left so many young children without parents or elders. Pan remembers well but he has made peace with it in his heart. He is also deeply motivated to strengthen Cambodia at all different levels. He has a vision to start an eco-tourism cooperative by getting together a diverse group of local Cambodian owned businesses (tuk tuk drivers, small hotels, family run restaurants, artists, photographers, local farms, etc.) and organizing unique cultural & nature oriented tours for foreign visitors. For now he is a very successful tuk tuk driver enjoying life with his wife and two children. Our conversation carries on into family, education, and the like. His son is 18 years old and just finished high school, the first in the family to go through school. His daughter will be turning just 3 years old in a couple of months. He later shares that he and his wife adopted their daughter, Myste which means ‘among the flowers’, from the local hospital in town. In Cambodia there are many orphaned children and its obvious that most do not have the means to provide for large families and at the same time birth control is also a commodity for the privledged. Pan and his wife told the Doctor at the hospital that they wanted to adopt a baby, the hospital did due diligence checking on their home, and bank account. Several months later Myste, at less than 4 weeks old, came into their lives. Chills came over me as he told me the story and showed me pictures of his wife & daughter, so much pride for his family. And even more beautiful is to see Cambodia’s effort to place orphaned children in average income-level local communities, where they can be loved by their communities and stay close to their roots. Ten years ago this was not as prevalent, as the tourism industry hadn’t grown enough to fuel the local economy to a scale that could foster this type of community development. This is just another way I see how deeply Cambodia is restored in peace and stability.

We continued to talk about life – and all things related to food. Like in all cultures, food is an important part of daily life here in the Kingdom of Wonder. Food is prepared and sold everywhere you look. On a little dirt road on the outskirts of town an older woman sits in the street. He has prepared a little fire, no more than 4 by 5 inches using just a couple of wooden sticks. To her right side is a small red plastic bucket. She takes a spoonful of batter and places it inside a small hand held waffle iron that rests on the hot coals. A slight sizzle sound is heard. After a minute or so she turned the piping hot iron, ensuring both sides are cooked to a perfect golden brown. Children on their way to school line-up at her street kitchen to savour a Khmer waffle.

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Lets talk about where the food here comes from. About the Land. And the people that work the land to make this bounty available. Siem Reap and its surrounding area is as flat as that turmeric pancake I had for lunch. There are also several natural and man made lakes here that provide water for irrigation, especially in the dry season. This land has been heavily famed for several thousand years. Over 1 million people survived by the ground I walk on during the Ancient Khmer Empire. Cultivating the land has always been a way of life for Cambodians yesterday and today. Like most “lost” civilizations, there is no exact proven fact as to why the ancient Khmer civilization here collapsed. Like the ancient Mayans and Incas, it is believed that the ancient Khmer civilization fell due to famine caused by desertification of the land after over a thousand years of over farming, leaving the land stripped of vital nutrients & minerals required to sustain productive soils. Much of the land was given a rest from these intensive agricultural practices for at least a few hundred years, allowing the Earth to rest and regain its strength through natural succession. Siem Reap has grown significantly in the last 35 years, and along with this is an increasing demand for greater food production. Many small villages survived by subsistence agriculture (producing only the food needed for their local community) but with the pressures of a globalized and tourism-driven Siem Reap, many have converted their land into larger mono-cultures producing a single variety of rice, cattle, crocodile, bananas, or pineapple. Ultimately provoking the same problems that led to the theorized fall of their ancestors. Worse yet is the rise of aristocrats from China and the Middle East (namely Saudi Arabia) that are buying up whole farms – and even entire villages – to produce rice & other agricultural commodities for export. Whole villages, and their people, are getting the land pulled right out from under them as it is being sold to these foreigners by the Cambodian government. These once sustainable and subsistent farmers loose all their autonomy – dignity & pride. Their land, once again being stripped of life. This is a grave injustice. And, I can’t help but ask why? After the Cambodian civil way in to 1970s, all existing records of land ownership and titles were burned. Leaving the villages and people without any evidence of their ownership of the land they survived by for hundreds of years. Without these records, the government is able to sell the land to foreigners at great profits, while destroying the livelihood for many at the same time. Cambodia is not alone in this nasty land-use transition. The same phenomenon is a growing problem in Laos and throughout much of Africa.

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Despite this sobering picture of Khmer agriculture, and its globalized demise, there are also a growing movement of small scale home grown organic agriculture. Several NGOs have sprung up that are dedicated to facilitating women’s empowerment through micro-economic development vis-a-vis home-based gardens. One of the major activities fostered by this movement is supporting women to use their existing land resources around their homes for small organic gardens. First they feed their family with the bounty they produce and whatever is left over is sold to one of a few socially & environmentally conscious restaurants in town. While this movement is one a much smaller scale than the foreign-owned mono-culture movement, it is still a powerful example for Cambodians. And with Pan’s vision and the home-based organic farming movement, Cambodia has a good chance at much brighter & peaceful future where future generations can flourish in the Kingdom of Wonder.

 

Recommendations in Siem Reap, Cambodia

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