Sunday, November 28, 2010

Loung Ung in TCWL

Unless you have been living under a rock, you'll be aware that my guidebook, To Cambodia With Love has finally seen the light of day. I've actually got a copy in my hands as I type, which makes the keyboard a bit tricky. Over 120 articles, sixty-plus contributors all contained in a nicely-packaged 242 page book, with colour photos by Tewfic El-Sawy. To get you in the mood, and persuade you to buy your own copy, those kind publishing folks at ThingsAsian have posted 11 essays from the book on their community website here. The first story in the book, in the chapter Moveable Feasts, belongs to none other than the acclaimed memoirist Loung Ung (right).

Loung Ung dines on chive rice cakes in Phnom Penh
Excerpted from
To Cambodia With Love: A Travel Guide for the Connoisseur, available from ThingsAsian Press.

The motodop stops in front of a row of dusty wooden shops, all selling pirated CDs and DVDs. He announces, "Psar Tuol Tom Pong." Immediately, the smell of fried food beckons me in, making my mouth water and my stomach expand in anticipation. I enter the market, walking quickly past booths selling factory-second Gap T-shirts, blue and white ceramic plates and bowls, bicycle tires, and strange, silver looping wire contraptions that hang from the ceiling like metallic animal innards.

I duck, sidestep, and march my way through the maze of stalls, ignoring the vendors' calls, until in front of me I see my destination, the market's food court-a vision of heaven for those of us who call ourselves foodies. Like vaporous hands, its smell floats toward me and hooks its fingers into my nostrils, pulling me forward. I eye the many stands hungrily. Spread across their tables are rows and rows of pots and plates full of crispy brown egg rolls, red sizzling chicken teriyaki, golden fried dough, hot red curry, cool cucumber salad, and yellow crepes, all making my taste buds stand at attention on my tongue.

Fighting the urge to plant my butt down at every table, I head to the stall where a pleasant looking middle-aged woman stands frying chive rice cakes in a giant skillet. I sit at her booth. We greet each other. I am a regular, and I order for one.

Chive cakes come in two shapes, round and square. For the square cakes, the rice batter and chives are mixed together, while the round one is made with an outer rice cake wrapping and filled with fresh green chives mixed with garlic and salt. Personally, I prefer the round chive cakes for their crispy shell and juicy chives inside, and I watch as the woman silently scoops two brown, crispy cakes with her silver spatula, drops them on a plastic flower plate, and hands it to me. Immediately, another customer calls her attention away.

The temperature at the booth is oppressive, and instantly I go from glowing to sweating like a pig. I watch as Meang hovers over the hot stove, one hand on her hip. The other grips the handle of the heavy spatula. When she adds a ladle of oil to the skillet, it splatters and sizzles, causing bright orange flames to nip at her skin. I am astounded that her face barely glistens as she pushes the round cakes into an upside-down arc, which reminds me of the connected rings of the Olympic symbol.

Most cakes are automatically served with a Khmer sweet-and-sour sauce. I don't have a sweet tooth, so I like my cakes with soy sauce, hot sauce, and vinegar. I turn away from Meang to add a spoonful of each to my order. I take two plastic chopsticks and split open my cakes, letting the steam burst forth with the fresh aroma of sweet chives and garlic. The first bite turns on the faucet in my nostrils, the second opens the pores in my face and skull, and the third burns the roof of my mouth so that I am hissing and sucking for air as my body empties itself of moisture. But a smile forms on my lips as I chew and swallow, wiping my dripping nose and lips in between each bite.

Once I clean my plate, I give Meang my 50 cents, thank her, and leave, satisfied. Along with immersing myself in authentic flavor, eating at a local stall like Meang's is perhaps the simplest form of paying it forward, and the most appetizing. I love knowing that my money will stay in country and help her provide for herself and her family. To me, it's a win-win situation for everyone.

FACT FILE: Chive rice cakes in the Russian Market
While chive rice cakes (nom kachay) are sold in most outdoor Khmer markets in the "food court" from eleven-ish in the morning to two-ish in the afternoon, at Psar Tuol Tom Pong, Meang's stall is the only one selling these cakes. To prepare, she and her family wake up every morning around three to make her cakes. For the day, they will make approximately four hundred each of both the round and square cakes. They use only fresh ingredients. Because they serve many foreign customers, the daughters know a bit of English. Chive cakes are best eaten at the stall when they are still hot and crispy. They generally sell for 800 to 1000 riel. Psar Tuol Tom Pong, also called the Russian Market because of the customers who shopped there in the 1990s, is known by all the tuk-tuk drivers and motodops in Phnom Penh.

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