The Ox Cart and the Range Rover – a place of extremes

Stirring the bubbling sugar palm syrup to cool it down..well, pretending to..

As I was trundling out of Phnom Penh in a trusty tuk tuk last week, bones shaking and ear drums bursting (they sound like mini chain saws,) I saw a pair of bony white oxen pulling a cart laden with hay and endless numbers of clay pots in all shapes and sizes. Naturally every wheeled thing on the road was overtaking them on their slow and unbearably hot route: 2 tiny, dusty children peddling a bike on which neither could reach the seat, a moped carrying a family of 5, a moped/trailer combination carrying a team to the paddy fields, a combi van stuffed full of bananas from floor to ceiling and …. a ‘fat’ black range rover.

Although it can be dangerous to read too much into foreign snap shots, it struck me that this particular one was a pretty good visual metaphor for life in this lovely country. Like many countries racing to develop and establish themselves, the extremes are made increasingly evident and cover a wider cultural range than we westerner’s have trouble comprehending. Extreme rural poverty in Cambodia is still a huge problem for the country and it falls into an increasingly dark shadow created by the super-rich; government officials (you do the maths) and foreign investors, primarily Chinese and Korean.

So it is that I am sitting in the uber-modern ‘Browns’ café in Phnom Penh with a lavazza cappuccino rivaling any italiani and writing about the photo above – me making (well pretending to make) sweets from palm sugar, which sold for the equivalent of 15p per carefully packaged bundle; and that’s the tourist price. The cost of my coffee alone would by their whole day’s production. Extremes indeed.

Palm sugar is one of the many great products from Sugar Palm trees. These are perhaps the most important trees is Cambodia – our local guide even went as far as suggesting that while Angkor Wat (phenomenal 12th century temple) was Cambodia’s greatest asset, the sugar palm tree came in second. Some may argue differently, but the point is, these trees are essential to the rural community as a free and lucrative resource.

The incredibly durable leaves are create the sturdy walls of houses and all important matting for drying the husked rice in the sun. The bright orange pulped fruit, when young, is great to eat and is made into deliciously sweet puddings. The old fruit isn’t so good but apparently the fibrous pulp is used by villagers as shampoo!  I also saw a goat munching on an old windfall fruit, getting its daily sugar fix. The wood from the trunks is also used for anything from bangles to furniture, but these trees are protected, as the real nectar is the palm sugar ‘juice’.

Drawn off in long bamboo pipes reaching all the way from a cut in the ‘fruits’  hanging at the top of the tree, this thin sugary juice is collected and from it is produced bright orange sugar crystals (the taste is much richer and more like maple syrup than refined sugar,) palm syrup or even sugar palm wine. I felt compelled to buy a bottle of the latter and opened it one drunken evening in Siem Reap. More sherry-like than vinous, it was pretty basic and while it added an ‘interest’ factor to the evening’s drinking, it wasn’t really discussed beyond the theatre involved around the downing of it..

The famous palm sugar sweets are a result of extreme reduction of the juice in a giant pan – in photo – over charcoal. The pan is then removed and the bubbling liquid is stirred around the edges of the ”wok” with a big stick, to cool it. It turns white and dense, and at just the right temp, is decanted into little circular rings made from the palm leaf. Within minutes, it is set and the gooey-sugary sweets, whose nearest cousin is fudge, are put into carefully created palm-leave tubes and sold on the side of the road to gauping food bloggers. Needless to say, their earthy sweetness is so extreme that they make your jaw and teeth ache, and the taste of just one stayed lingered in my mouth for hours. Good but not great. 4/10!

Back in the city, the use of palm sugar is diluted by cane sugar (you see it being prepared and crushed in every street) and refined sugar – to accompany posh lavazza coffee.

Sitting here (with a now very empty coffee cup) I am the first to admit that it is pretty hard not to get tempted by the top end of these extremes. Ex-pats can live a very good (some might say superficial) life here in Phnom Penh, with new Boutique hotels and brunch cafés opening literally daily. But my first week helping at the NGO ‘Cambodian Living Arts’  has been a good balancer.

It also included a picnic at a simple hammock bar on Friday with the office team, providing me with my first introduction to chicken foot (and every other chicken part) soup. Anyone who knows my feelings towards avian feet, will appreciate that I was not the first to dive in. But I did go for it and can honestly say that it was totally disgusting – mostly due to the addition of a preserved lime I think. The smoked fish and snake bean salad, grilled fish with lemon grass and pudding of persimmon and milk fruit were however delicious. Yum.

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