Saturday, January 30, 2010

Tarantula, For Starters

When offered the opportunity to try a food that's extreme or taboo to our first-world culinary sensibilities, I pause and weigh the pros and cons. The pros, of course, always include a new taste sensation as well as bragging rights. The cons vary. I try to be as adventurous as possible, but even I have those gut reactions that keep me from trying certain things.

With dog it's the association with the pets we've grown to love, even though the food-bred dogs are a far cry from cute domesticated animals, but rather wolflike ur-dogs. With monkey it's the incredible power Darwin has over me. In Norway I passed on whale because I didn't want to eat any animal that smart. Yet I'm told that pigs are very smart too, and nothing would stop me from eating pork, not even the prospect of 72 virgins if I so martyred myself.

Bull's penis, for some reason, didn't give me much pause. And in Mexico, recently, I finally broke the insect barrier with chapulines, grasshoppers.

So if I could eat grasshoppers, why not tarantula?

I had the opportunity to eat tarantula at a restaurant in Phnom Penh called Romdeng (of which more in a later post). It was offered as an appetizer, crispy fried with a lime and Kampot peppercorn dipping sauce. It's served whole, three to an order. You eat it all, or at least I did, from head to legs.

The frying gives the tarantula a dry, chewy consistency, almost like a jerky on the outside with a slightly mushier middle. The flavor I'd describe as crablike, much better than the musty taste of grasshoppers. I guess the crabby flavor makes sense, as spiders and crabs are fairly close relatives, both arthropods.

It turns out that the Cambodian taste for spiders developed during the horror times of the Khmer Rouge regime. It started out as a sustenance food, but people discovered they actually liked the taste of the little critters, and now they're a prized treat.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Moon Dreams

In my dream Ella Fitzgerald was singing the old '20s song "When Day Is Done."

"When day is done and shadows fall, I dream of you," she sang. She was accompanying herself on piano, though I don't believe she ever did this in real life. When she was done, she got up from the piano, turned her back to the audience, bent over, lifted her skirt (she wasn't wearing underwear) and mooned the audience.

Don't ask me why.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Ask & Tell

Our President is pushing for gays in the military but does not support gay marriage, only the putatively "separate but equal" civil unions. By my reckoning, the inability to marry under entirely equal terms (both semantic and legal) is a civil rights infringement that victimizes a hell of a lot more people than the military prohibition. Our President's credo, I guess, is "Make War, Not Love."

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Temples Further Flung

The day after I visited Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom I took a tour to a number of temples further out from Siem Reap. I had opted for a small group tour organized by the Villa Siem Reap, an Austrailian-run hotel and tour company that practices "responsible tourism." They limit their tours to eight people, and this day there were only four of us (all repeats, minus one, from the day before). For a single traveler this is a cost-effective option because you don't have to arrange your own transportation and guide, which would end up costing more. Plus you have the advantage of an air conditioned van and similarly oriented travelers to chat with. The Villa supplies lunch and water with their full-day tours, so I'd say that at $22 for Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom and $30 per person for the "Outlying Adventure" I'm about to tell you about it's good value. Their guides and drivers are top notch, their booking process is efficient, and they will pick you up at whatever hotel you're staying at. You can book by email before you get to Siem Reap or contact The Villa when you're in town.

The first temples we visited that day were the Roluous Group, the earliest temples in the area, dating from the 9th century.

Preah Ko has some fabulous carvings and amazingly well-preserved Sanskrit inscriptions:

Bakong is more majestic:

Banteay Srei has some of the most intricate and extensive carvings of all the temples, many representative, and quite a lot purely ornamental, which is not really the norm at Cambodian temples. It has become a popular destination, and my little group had to strategically work our way around the massive South Korean tour groups, often 40 at a time.

Koreans are the largest national group of tourists to the Angkor region, but they almost always travel in big groups, stay at Korean hotels, eat at the many Korean restaurants now in Siem Reap, and bring their own guides, since none of the local Khmer guides speak Korean. When visiting a popular temple it's common to see a tour leader holding a Korean flag to keep his flock together.

I noticed a similar phenomenon with older Japanese tourists in India. They see the sights, but they don't get to know the country or its people. They miss some of the best the country has to offer, and they're shielded from the worst. And the worst is an integral part of the experience.

After Banteay Srei we went to Banteay Samre, mainly for the peacefulness of the place. It's not on the major tour itineraries, so we had it mostly to ourselves.

But my favorite part of the day was easily the climb, sometimes strenuous, sometimes treacherous, but not too, to the top of Kbal Spean, a hill site also known as "the valley of a thousand lingas," as the landscape is dotted with Shiva lingas, or stylized representations thereof (or maybe Shiva just couldn't get it up on the mountain). Among the natural forestation, one comes upon beautiful carvings here and there, as if someone had set up a treasure hunt. A guide is especially useful at this place.

I think my favorite single thing in the whole Kbal Spean area is the stylized linga representation set in a pool of water, shown at the top, that reminds me of a Zen rock garden.

Plagiarism or Coincidence?

I've just learned that roughly three years after I wrote my rant about restaurant websites, titled "When Good Restaurants Do Bad Websites," the dining editor for Sacramento Magazine has penned a little piece with the remarkably similar title "When Bad Websites Happen to Good Restaurants." Her complaints and suggestions pretty much mirror mine. Coincidence? Could be, I suppose.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Dick Soup

I was looking for a place to have lunch in Phnom Penh and I wanted a restaurant that wasn't touristy. I stopped into a place that looked promising. It turned out to be a Chinese restaurant, though much more humble than the Cantonese seafood places one sees around Phnom Penh. One look at the menu and I was sold. I was seduced by the promise of Chinese herbal simmer cow penis broth.

The soup had ginseng and other herbs as well as what seemed to be other cuts of beef in addition to the penis. The penis pieces themselves had little flavor, but a rubbery, spongy texture. If you're looking for entrecote you don't go for prick.

The penis pieces looked like little Vienna sausages and their diminutive size had me wondering whether they were slices from a long, thin member, or if they were butchered in some way that did not take in the full girth: I was trying to get my head around it, so to speak.

To prove I wasn't just a one-dick pony, I also ordered another, more pedestrian dish. It was listed on the menu as chicken with spicy leaves. When I tasted it the first thing I got was the flavor of ginger, but as I tasted further I realized it reminded me of another dish, the Vietnamese preparation known as ga xao xa ot, or chicken with lemongrass and chilies. Indeed, it was better than any Vietnamese version I'd ever had.

Cafe de Coral, #99 Road 136, corner Road 13, Phnom Penh

Watch National Geographic's Bull Penis video here:

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Eating Ice Cream in Siem Reap

When I was planning my trip to Cambodia I hadn't really given any thought to ice cream, but a tip on Chowhound pointed me to Blue Pumpkin, and I took the bait.

Blue Pumpkin is a popular bakery/cafe whose original branch in the Old Market/Pub Street area has a sleek, modern downstairs area and a futuristic stark white upstairs room. They've branched out and have a number of outlets in town, some for frozen treats only. Blue Pumpkin is a true local success story (though I don't know if it's Khmer or foreign-owned).

The ice creams are moderately creamy, with a reasonably pleasant texture--quite respectable, though nothing to rival the best Italian, French or American artisanal ice creams in the body department. But the flavors can be intriguing, and some are memorable.

My first time out I started with two scoops, caramel-pecan and four spice. The four spice was fabulous, though I can't identify the spices (I suppose likely candidates include nutmeg, cinnamon and clove). The caramel-pecan had a deep, slightly bitter/burnt creme caramel flavor.

I made two subsequent visits, for the sake of my readers, of course, and tried single-scoop cones. The star anise and Kulen honey was good, though with only a hint of anise flavor, mostly honey--I was hoping for a more prominent star anise presence. Apparently the honey from Cambodia's Kulen highlands is quite prized. Banana-galangal was excellent, with fresh bananas mixed in. The galangal element was subtle, but may have added a certain tartness. And the waffle cones are good too.

So if you go to Siem Reap, visit Angkor Wat and eat prahok, but leave time and room for ice cream.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Burnt Beef Restaurant, Phnom Penh

One late morning I was walking around Phnom Penh, scoping out restaurants as possible lunch and dinner prospects. I passed by one place where I saw two whole steer carcasses out front. I went in and talked to a waiter or kitchen guy, who was able to tell me, "Every night barbecue whole cow." I was there.

I went for dinner at 8:30PM and the joint was jumping, full of people inside and at outside tables, and it was a big place. All Cambodians, I was the only Westerner, and there was a real party atmosphere. Some of the young women were dressed as if this were a big night out. Outside a guy was tending to a steer on a large charcoal grill while another spit held the barest remains of a former steer.

I went inside and the manager showed me the menu. In English, the barbecued beef was called "burnt beef," and there were two sizes of plate available, at 15,000 and 21,000 riel ($3.75-5.25). I ordered the small plate as well as some seafood fried rice. The fried rice was quite good, full of cilantro and garlic.

And the beef was really flavorful, a plate of pieces cut from various parts of the animal. It was accompanied by various dipping sauces, soy, spiced salt into which one mixes lime juice, and a curry that you add peanuts, herbs and red chilies to. I was really glad I had found this place. You don't find places like this in guide books.

The restaurant is located at the corner of 19th and 148th Streets in Phnom Penh.

The Remains of the Day

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Music in and around Siem Reap

By some of the ancient temples and also by the night markets in town you see these groups of landmine victims playing traditional Cambodian music. The music is very beautiful, and I always gave them a buck or two, just like I do with good buskers back home. The groups by the temples tended to be more professional. The ones in town usually had one adult mine victim and a bunch of street kids.

My first afternoon in Siem Reap I was walking by the river to the main cafe and restaurant area. From the other side of the river I heard what had to be live music, but it was 4PM on a weekday. The tune was "Black Magic Woman," an instrumental version, and they were doing it justice. When I came to the next bridge I crossed over and backtracked to where the music was coming from. It was on the grounds of a public ministry, and there were tables set up. I found out that the musicians were doing a sound check for a party that night. They did a long Santana medley, of which I caught the last ten or so minutes up close.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Haiti on Our Minds

For updates on the situation and to make a donation to an effective organization with a long-term commitment to the country, take a look at Partners in Health's Stand with Haiti website.

Stand With Haiti

"Haiti is here, Haiti is not here." - Caetano Veloso & Gilberto Gil

See performance video HERE.

I chose this version because of the English translation overlay. Check YouTube for other versions with better audio. Or listen to the original recording, from Tropicalia 2, below.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Just Ask for MaMa

I stopped at a roadside noodle soup joint. On the menu they listed three types of noodles: noodle, yellow noodle, and MaMa noodle. I figured yellow noodle was wheat noodles, and just plain noodle was rice noodles, but I didn't know what MaMa was, so I ordered it, with pork.

It seems that "MaMa" is what they call ramen in Cambodia.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010


I ate prahok kh'tih at a restaurant called Sugar Palm, an upmarket place that serves Khmer food to foreigners, mostly. Khmer restaurants that cater to foreigners fall into roughly three categories: places that serve food with flavors watered down for western tastes, places that serve traditional Khmer cooking as Cambodians usually eat it (which can range from uninspired to pretty good, as with any cuisine), and places that do a refined version of Khmer cuisine that is loyal to its roots. Sugar Palm falls into the last category.

Prahok kh'tih is a dip made of minced pork, coconut cream, herbs and, of course, prahok. Prahok is a very funky paste made from dried, salted, fermented river fish. It's a staple ingredient of Cambodian cooking, and subsistence diets may consist solely of prahok and rice.

In prahok kh'tih, the taste is tempered by the other elements, and the version I tried was quite delicious. It's traditionally served as a dip, warm or cold, with crudites, though I found it easier to eat it over rice.

The following day I had the opportunity to see a neighborhood full of home-brew prahok makers. Boy did that neighborhood stink!

The river fish is crushed, salted, dried, and left to ferment for months or longer. Then it's boiled in big wood-fired cauldrons with salt water to reduce the fish to a paste.

For me the chance to shoot stinking, fermenting prahok fish is much more interesting than taking photos of some old temples.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Underwhelmed by Angkor Wat, Believe It or Not

I'm jaded, sure. I've seen so many magnificent antiquities in Asia, Europe and South America that when I finally got to Angkor Wat I didn't quite say, "Ho hum," but I realized it just couldn't live up to the hype for me. I think a lot of the lure and the romance of the place has to do with it having been a "lost city," rediscovered in the early 20th century, when so many antiquities were rediscovered. It became the stuff of dream and legend, like Machu Picchu, rediscovered at nearly the same time.

Sure it's magnificent, beautifully proportioned with many spectacular carvings and bas reliefs, and the scale of the place is impressive. But for pure aesthetics I've been much more moved by the Hoysala and Chola temples of South India, roughly contemporaneous with the major Cambodian sites. Also in India, I found the massive temple complex of Hampi in the south and the ghost city of Fatehpur Sikhri in the north more atmospheric and enchanting. But it could have a lot to do with the fact that Angkor Wat is positively crawling with tourists while the antiquities of Karnataka (Belur, Halebid, Somnathpur and Hampi) are quieter and much more peaceful to wander through. The great monuments of Java, Prambanan (Hindu) and Borobdur (Buddhist), also give the Cambodian sites a run for their money. None of those places, however, have the cachet of having been lost and found or the name recognition of Angkor Wat. At some point I'll digitize my photos of all those places and post them on this blog.

But it's not all about Angkor Wat. The region around Siem Reap hosts a multitude of antiquities of great beauty, some in their way even more impressive than Angkor Wat. I've already posted photos of the Buddhist Bayon temple at Angkor Thom (Angkor Wat was originally Hindu), and photos of other sites will follow.

Life on the Lake

Tonle Sap lake, Cambodia

Monday, January 11, 2010

Delinquent Dosas, Well-Preserved Wall Paintings and Memorable Photos

Siem Reap has a number of Indian restaurants, but Samsara, in Pub Street Alley, is the only one I noticed that specializes in South Indian cuisine (along with Northern staples, though not Swingline (groan)). The Old Market/Pub Street area, the main tourist restaurant and nightlife magnet, is crawling with restaurants, easily over a hundred I'd bet, especially if you include the outdoor noodle stalls at the market. Many of them are small places, some simple, some a little more elegant. Samsara falls into the more elegant category. I decided to have lunch there today, taking a break from my exploration of Khmer cuisine (stay tuned for a full report).

I ordered an onion dosa, opting for something smaller than the full Monty masala dosa, as I wanted to try another dish too. Unless this was a fluke, Samsara's dosas definitely need work. Mine was quite the paleface, and not nearly as crisp as it should be. The sambar, however, was very good.

I also ordered the Malabar fish curry. The sauce was great, but I wasn't thrilled with the fish. I hadn't thought to ask what kind of fish it would be made with. The taste and texture told me it was a river fish of some kind. The waitress couldn't tell me the name of the fish, but confirmed it came from the Mekong. Based on the quality of the sauces I wouldn't write the restaurant off.

After lunch I took a walk to Wat Bo, a Buddhist temple on the other side of the river. The temple itself was locked, but I walked around the grounds, chock full of stupas (but not the heavenly coffee--sorry again). I was approached by an Australian man about my age who said, "My guide book says the temple has some well-preserved nineteenth-century wall paintings. Do you know where they are?"

"I guess in the main temple," I said, "but it doesn't seem to be open."

A minute later I saw him return with an old man wielding a key, the caretaker. We entered the temple and agreed we should give an offering. One of the boxes was for a maintenance fund and another for the monks' food fund. We each dropped a dollar in the latter. On a Buddhist monk's diet, a buck goes a long way, especially in Cambodia.

On my way back to my hotel I stopped off at the McDermott Gallery, to look at the wonderfully atmospheric Angkor photos by John McDermott, who the New York Times called "the Ansel Adams of Angkor." If you find yourself in Siem Reap, be sure to visit the gallery.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Dinner Music, Of Sorts

Gyeongju closes early. I ventured out a little before 8PM to the restaurant area nearest my guest house, as I didn’t feel like taking the further walk to downtown Gyeongju, especially since the restaurant pickings in that area didn’t seem any more remarkable.

The Chinese restaurant I had my eyes on was closed already, as was the Korean restaurant next door to it, which I had scoped out earlier. I didn’t want to go back to the ssam bap place I had eaten at the night before, nor did I want to go to the bigger, glitzier ssam bap restaurant in the area.

Language is a major problem for the foreign traveler in Korea. Few people speak English, and menus and restaurant signs rarely have names in any kind of Romanization (I know the names of many Korean dishes, but I certainly can’t read Hangul). So in order to scope out restaurants I have to announce the names of dishes I might want and see if I get a nod of the head. I pity the diner who is clueless about Korean food. Ssam bap, I must admit, is a handy solution, since there’s nothing to order.

I was thinking I might have to go to another area of town when I passed a place with no sign. There were a bunch of men, only men, inside, eating and drinking at traditional floor-seating tables. I walked in and took my shoes off. There seemed to be two groups of boisterous soju drinkers, one group behind a screen. I got the impression that this was a pub of sorts. I was greeted by a woman. “Menu? English?” I said.

“Menu!” she said, and pointed to the Korean menu on the wall. “Bibim bap?” she asked. I had quickly learned that’s the first dish to be offered to Westerners, perhaps because it’s an iconic Korean dish that’s pretty easy to put together, and perhaps because it doesn’t have the extreme flavors of a number of Korean dishes. But I didn’t want bibim bap. I don’t really like bibim bap. I figured I’d ask for Korean pancakes, since I’m always up for those. “Haemul pajeon?” I asked, hoping for seafood pancakes. She smiled and nodded. “Haemul pajeon!”

“And a soju,” I added. “Small.” I made a hand motion to indicate small.

Actually, I think all the bottles were the same size, about 12 ounces. Soju, similar to the Japanese shochu (though I find the Korean ones generally sweeter), is a kind of distilled grain spirit, often made from barley, that might be considered vodkalike, though milder, about 40 proof. Still, a small bottle of soju would have the alcohol content of about four bottles of beer.

My soju came and I started sipping. About a third of the way in I started getting a buzz. I was quite enjoying sitting there alone, sipping soju, taking in the social exchanges around me that I could make absolutely no sense of. Then my food arrived. “Haemul pajeon! Korean pizza!” the woman announced (indeed, it’s cut in wedges). It was an excellent pajeon. I ate and I drank. About halfway through the bottle I was getting a serious buzz (I can’t drink like I used to). I slowed down, but kept sipping. I wondered if women were welcome in a place like this, or if it was strictly a male preserve, as it seemed that evening. As a guy alone out for a bite, it was OK with me either way. In my soju-mellowed state I started focusing on the animated foreign sounds emanating from two groups of men in different areas of the room. I embraced it as an odd dinner music of sorts. About two-thirds into the bottle I called it quits.

Saturday, January 09, 2010

Screw the Temples, Get a Load of This Tree

I think natural occurrences, like this tree at Angkor Thom, are more beautiful than any work of art created by man because they happened by accident, like us.

Not far from the tree, by the way, is Bayon temple.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

My Nose

As I was walking by the Phnom Penh riverside yesterday I was approached by two cute little beggar girls, sisters, they said. They started with the usual, "Where are you from?", etc. Then, at one point the younger girl pointed at my face and said to me, "You have big nose." She touched her own nose. "Me little nose."

I'm sure she meant western nose, not Jewish one.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010


I arrived in Phnom Penh late Tuesday night, just in time to go to sleep. I was awakened early the next morning by the sound of birds. But not just birds--perhaps the most beautiful chorus of bird calls I've ever heard, different birds, different sounds, all together. It was the best alarm clock ever, even if I'd have preferred to sleep later.

Throughout the day, around town, I heard the birds.

I'm sure Olivier Messaien, the composer who collected and reveled in bird calls, would have considered this the most sublime music.

Late in the afternoon I visited the notorious killing fields and the genocide museum, housed in the former detention barracks. As I meditated on the horrors I wondered about the birds, back then. In 1975, when Phnom Penh was forcibly evacuated in a matter of hours, did the city birds take notice?

And the birds at the killing fields: did they have any awareness of what was happening in their midst? Did they hear the screams and cries, or just go about their bird lives, singing their bird songs in blissful ignorance?

I know that birds grieve for their own. Do they grieve for us?

A bird at the killing fields

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Swellfish, Blowfish, Puffer, Fugu, Bok

Daebokjip, in Bukchang-Dong, an enclave chock full of restaurants, specializes in bok, which is Korean for blowfish. In fact, that's really all they serve, prepared numerous ways. Not only was this my first time eating the potentially poisonous fish (known as fugu to sushi aficionados), but it was also an adventure in communication. The owner, Namhee Song, doesn't speak English, so it took several phone calls to his son Ken to help me get my order straight.

First of all it looked like there might be two kinds of fish, but it turned out the prefix on some of the dishes meant they were prepared from live fish. I went for live. Then there was some misunderstanding about whether I wanted my bok soup spicy (it's often hard to convince Asians that you like food as spicy as they do). We eventually got it all straightened out and my soup, which started mild, was spiced up.

They also serve a savory dipping sauce for the fish to which one adds wasabi.

Bok is rather expensive, I guess due to its rarity and the need for trained chefs. My fresh bok soup cost over $25, and for a multi-course bok dinner you can pay $100 in this unassuming room. I didn't really know what to expect, and to tell the truth, it didn't do much for me. The fish really isn't that flavorful. It's very low in fat and the pieces were full of cartilage surrounding the flesh.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the meal for me was my drink: warm rice wine with toasted bok fins.

Oh well, I did enjoy talking to Ken Song on the phone.

65-2, Bukchang-dong, Jung-gu, Seoul, Korea,120-710
Tel: 82 2 755-0189 (Korean only)