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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Sampling a slice of Cambodian Life

Pulling the zip shut on an increasingly full rucksack every morning has got a little trying, and it was good to get to Cambodia last week, knowing I was able to finish the first leg of my tour and settle here until Christmas. However, before waving my traveling team off back to Oz, Switzerland and Blighty, we had enjoyed two of perhaps the most ‘real and local’ suppers of my trip so far.

Birthday looming, it is tempting to feel old but the truth is I am not old, and I have found it profoundly emotional to think that the worst of the many atrocities these poor people have been subjected to, have happened within my lifetime. Up to a quarter of the Cambodian people – including all teachers and anyone considered to have a skill – are estimated to have been executed by the Khmer Rouge between 1975 and 1979. They were determined to exterminate all but the ”lowest common denominators”, thereby creating complete and unchallenged power.

A whole generation was all but exterminated; I have, after nearly 10 days, seen only 3 grey heads of hair. Our age-group, therefore, represent the new wave of hope for a Nation that was once an undisputed leader in S E Asia, despite having very limited education.

Forced evacuation from the cities to work all day in the paddy fields was the future chosen for all Cambodians. Ex-city dwellers had no knowledge of agriculture and whilst the terrified people were forced to up the nation’s rice production by 300%, the produce was not theirs to keep. A huge percentage of those who died during the Regime, died in fact of starvation. Any attempts to rear chickens or animals of their own, risked immediate death. Rats and other vermin became delicacies.

This and so much more is the stark backdrop to the culinary culture here in Cambodia. It is a miracle that its culinary heritage as an Empire giving rise to Thai and Vietnamese cuisine, has not been buried deep into its hideous number of mass graves.

Our first two dinners in Cambodia were around the simple but lovely tables of Cambodian families. The first was in the bowels of Phnom Penh (shanty-esque) suburbs, under a blue tarpaulin, suspended between a telegraph pole and a rickety corrugated iron shack roof. A rat – lit, by the lovely blue tinge of electric strip lighting – joined the scene. He is apparently a friend of the family’s pet dog. I was just pleased he wasn’t being served up for supper.

We were treated like kings with delicious pork and beef curries – very mild and usually reserved only for celebrations – with mounds of steamed rice. Spring rolls and BBQ fish from the huge central fresh water lake were served with sauces made of stuff which looked and tasted like pond weed. It probably was. The most interesting, however, was the re-hydrated fish sauce (Ref. Laos Blog) which was served with a plate of raw cabbage leaf, morning glory, wing beans and a lovely yellow flower. The idea was take a bit of cabbage and create a fresh veg roll using all the ingredients; wierd, rustic and hideously mud filled, yet a good experience……….which I will not be repeating.

Nor will I be repeating my ‘tarantula rice wine’ experience – “a medicine” I was told as some pale gold liquid was decanted from a sticky water bottle, 1/3rd full of spiders with a 10cm leg span.  Like most of Asia, nature still provides the basis of all medicine – sucking on a slice of Quinine seed is still used to cure malaria – but the spider thing seemed a bit spurious. “It give you energy”‘ the host then tried – a second sales attack. So I went for it, downed it and tried not to show my surprise at the extreme taste of methanol. C & B tasting notes would have read; Almost clear, pale gold in colour with extreme notes of alcohol on the nose. A hint of sweet natural, ‘hay’ on the palate does its best to balance the extreme taste of alcohol. An average vintage. Recommended drinking date: 2050 and beyond. Score 2/20.

The next night we stayed in a ”Homestay” in the middle of paddy fields and miles of terracotta coloured mud tracks. As with all houses in the Cambodian country (and Laos for that matter) it was built on stilts to provide a shady living space for the day below, and mosquito-safe (??) sleeping quarters above. Pigs, chickens, dogs and babies all co-habit in this calm, simplisitc, family scene. The site of my large and obtrusive camera on their table made me wince and I resorted to sketching the scene… our afternoon there was the quietest and calmest I have enjoyed for years.

OCADO rural cambodian style

Dinner was served under the starriest of skies, lit only by 2 candles and a host of partying fire flies. (The only other light provided in was in the squat loo thanks to a car battery.) I was silently hoping we might be served one of the many roosters I had already clocked providing us with a minutes’ more sleep the following morning, but no. We had a pork and veg stew thing with eggs – wierd addition but good – and a similar beef dish, with lots of rice. I couldn’t see any of the ingredients but it didn’t matter – it was simple, tasty, true and delicious. It was all washed down with home-made green tea out of a huge, dented kettle and topped off with one of their own little, sweet bananas – yum.

A little mention has to go to the outrageous and incredible – in the truest sense of the word – noise the local cicadas make around here. Forget romantic, muted mediterranean tones, these guys sound as if they have tried some of the local happy mushrooms. The noise is similar to the most disgruntling of high-pitched fire alarms and it took me hours to be convinced that it was, in fact, nature’s way of dressing the little blighters in spangles to attract a hot date. They would be better placed, deep fried on the market stalls with their cousins if you ask me.

Out of the Homestay and into epic Temple tramping. My poor camera was in need of a holiday after such a visual overload and I was in need of some post-colonial relaxation. Luckily, Siem Reap provides this in abundance and a vodka tonic in the fan-whiring environment of Raffles, (whilst naugtily taking advantage of their super-high speed computer) was heaven; I can do showering with buckets of cold water out of a pig’s trough with a smile, but being served a cold vodka tonic in a place like Raffles is the Yin I need to balance my inner Yang.