Saturday, April 18, 2009

Fish Amok (serves 4)

Fish Amok is a Cambodian curry dish that is steamed inside of a banana leaf. Like all curries, it starts with a curry paste, in this case a, "kroeung." To make the kroeung, combine the following ingredients in a food processor and blend until into a thick paste. Or, if you'd rather go the traditional route, use a mortar and pestle. That's what I have to do when I make curry here.

5 dried red chilies, soaked, drained, and chopped to a paste.
3 cloves garlic
2 tbsp. galangal, cut into pieces (a bit like ginger, but definitely different in flavor)
1 tsp. lemongrass, thinly sliced
zest of 1/4 kaffir lime
1 tsp. salt

Next, you'll have to make the banana cups. First, clean the leaves with a wet cloth, then dip them into boiling water to soften them. This is important, because otherwise they'll crack while you shape them.

Cut circles 25 cm. in diameter and place 2 together. One leaf is not strong enough to hold the mixture, so be sure to use 2.

Fold a smaller square in the center of the circle to be the bottom of the cup. Then, put a thumb on a right angle of the square and pull up 2 sides, tucking the fold and pinning it together with a toothpick. Continue all the way around until all 4 sides of the cup are held together. If this is difficult, you can try making a 5-sided cup, sometimes this is easier. Alternatively, you could forgo the banana cup and use a coconut shell, a red pepper, a small hollowed out pumpkin, etc.

To make the Fish Amok, gather the remaining ingredients:

30 g. nhor leaves (good luck!)
3 tbsp. fish sauce
3 tbsp. kaffir lime leaves
3 small chilies
500 g. any firm-fleshed fish (we used a white fish)
3/4 c. coconut cream
2 c. coconut milk
1 egg, beaten

First, slice the fish into thin (3 cm thick) strips and set aside. Remove nhor from the stem, and slice the kaffir lime leaves and chili peppers very thinly (this is for garnish).

Stir the kroeung into 1 c. coconut milk. When it has dissolved, add the egg, fish sauce, and sliced fish. Then add the remaining coconut milk and mix well.

Place the nohr leaves in the cups first, then top with the fish mixture.

Set cups in a pot with a steamer basket, cover, and steam for 15-20 minutes. Without removing the cups from the basket, dollop with the coconut cream and top with the sliced kaffir lime leaves and chilies. Steam until the mixture is solid, but still moist. Serve with rice. Chanang! (Delicious!)

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Have You Had Your Rice Today? on YouTube

Have You Had Your Rice Today? is now on YouTube at There you can find extras such as video of traditional Cambodian Apsara Dancing, traditional silk weaving, and more traffic videos. We constantly take video that's not quite blog worthy (and/or it takes a really long time to upload video to the blog on a slow connection), so if you're looking for something to watch, feel free to click on the link in the sidebar or subscribe to us through your YouTube account.

How to Not Die on a Cambodian Highway

When I'm driving and someone in another car does something I don't like, I yell at them (whether they can hear me or not).  It's something I learned from my mom.  I spent a lot of time over the past two days yelling at Cambodian truck drivers.

Warning: this video contains explicit (but totally called-for) language

I have this weird rash on my hands that seemed to be spreading to my face, so the other day Christin and I decided to hop on our rented motorbike and ride the 148 kilometers (about 100 miles) to Phnom Penh so we could see a doctor who speaks English.  It's about the same distance as Columbus to Athens (for all you blog readers in Ohio), which I have covered many times.

Unexplained rashes add a little mystery to your travels

But it's a little different in Cambodia.  For example: the drive from me home in Dublin to OU takes under two hours and is fairly uneventful.  It's a good opportunity to listen to a couple albums or get through a good chunk of the book you are reading.  Kampot to PP is a harrowing five hour trek on a 100cc motorbike filled with constant assaults from sun, dust, potholes, and homicidal drivers in cars, vans, busses, and trucks.  In my four years at Ohio University, I never once came even close to having one death defying experience that rivaled about five or six that I had on the road to PP.

That covers the dust and sun...

The following is a list of the real traffic laws in Cambodia:

Rule #1:  The bigger vehicle has the right of way.  This right is declared by honking your horn.  If you are riding a moto and you hear a horn honking behind you, get out of the way.  If a truck is coming at you honking its horn, get out of the way.  If you are on a moto and you approach an intersection (there are no stop signs) honk your horn and fly through.  (I don't follow this subrule.  I stop and look both ways.)

A bus runs me off the road

Rule # 2:  Don't stop.  Ever.  It is far preferable for Cambodians to swerve.  Often times when I get cut off by Cambodian drivers, I slam on the brakes and shoot them a dirty look.  They just smile at me in amusement like I'm the idiot.  This rule is even more important in the cities than it is on the highways, and is especially important at major intersections.

More explicit (but equally righteous) language

Rule # 3:  Your life is in your hands.  It is up to you to not be killed on the road in Cambodia.  If you in fact do not wish to die, stay focused, be aware of what is coming at you from all 360 degrees, and for the love of god, get out of the way.  Keep in mind that flying off the road is preferable to driving face first into the grill of an oncoming truck.

Rule #4: Cows have the right of way.  You can honk at them, but they will ignore you.

Moooooove.  Get it?

So, keeping these rules in mind, I managed to get us to Phnom Penh alive.  After being run off the road by a few murderous truckers, my nerves were understandably frazzled.  We had forgotten to take into account that the traffic would be worse because of the Khmer New Year.

Compared to the highway, Phnom Penh was kind of easy.  The secret is to get in the middle of a pack of motos and do what they do.  Oh, and also, avoid left turns.  Just make a bunch of rights and u-turns until you get to where you need to be.

I'm finally getting it

To our confusingly disappointed surprise, my rash actually seemed to be getting better.  The anti-fungal cream was finally working.  How's that for timing.  So we spent the night in a guest house and the next day found a pharmacist who recommended a cheap, English speaking dermatologist at the national hospital.  We rode out to the hospital only to find that the dermatology wing was closed for the Khmer New Year.  If I had had tuberculosis, they could have done something for me, but sometimes things just don't work out that well.

There was nothing left we could do in Phnom Penh, so we got on the bike and rode back to Kampot.  At least this time I was prepared for what was ahead of me.

Yeah?  Well that badass just donated half of his paycheck to orphans.  Orphans with diseases.

Is That Safe?

Cambodian Highways: Just be glad it's paved

While Kyle had his hands full avoiding our death by moto wreck (see How to Not Die on a Cambodian Highway), I did more than just hang on for dear life. I passed the time taking in shadowy mountains bordered by vast expanses of rice fields which were punctuated only by spiky palm trees and the occasional home on stilts. Cambodia is a beautiful country, as wild and open as the American plains of past centuries.

Scenic Cambodia

It's also populated by boisterous and strong spirited people, almost all of whom pass at least part of their day on a motorbike. So while riding, I collected for your enjoyment the following assortment of typical SE Asian motorbike insanity. Ogling at what is very commonplace here is encouraged.

By law, helmets are only required for drivers and must be worn if you are to avoid bribes. No one else wears them though, least of all children.

Another common sight: an entire family on one motorbike. They are expensive after all.

Another family, preparing to carry cargo

Most women passengers ride side saddle even when they're not wearing sarongs

Safety concerns aside, most SE Asian motorbike humor comes from what the passengers are carrying, and how.

Many people carry stuff in some sort of saddlebag-basket affixed with a wooden cross plank

Another common method is to strap the cargo to the back somehow. This man has palm sugar in paint buckets, and in an unusual move, it's covered.

Another third method is build a wooden fortress surrounding the motorbike

This guy's my favorite

A van full of passengers and their cargo speed off into the countryside for the Khmer New Year

This time the passengers are the extra cargo.

Yup, this truck almost ran us off the road too. :)

I didn't take this one, but I did see it.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Habitat for Humanity - Jimmy Carter + Wavy Hand Dancing - Embarrassment + Rice Sack Racing - Medals = Good Fun!!!

Well, we haven't had the chance to do a lot of teaching at Chumkriel (the school we're volunteering at) yet, but we have had the chance to do some cool stuff anyway.

We showed up ready to teach on our first day, only to find out that there was no class. We were going to build a house instead. It seems that the students had heard about an elderly homeless woman who was sleeping at the market, found someone to donate a plot of land, and got some villagers together to build her a home.

A modest but comfortable home

It took two days and 200 dollars to construct the simple, one-room, elevated bungalow in the middle of a rice paddy. Our role was actually minimal, we mostly provided an extra hand when it was needed, but we did learn how to tie bamboo reeds together to make a floor. It will definitely come in handy if any of our Lost fantasies come true.

Our handy work with Christin's foot to prove it

After our job at the construction site was finished, we were invited to a party at the home of one of the Khmer teachers. It was quite an experience. First, we sat at a big, round table with all the other teachers. It was quickly filled with food and beer and the feast commenced. Each person got their own little bowl for rice, but the plates of meat and seafood were communal. Woe to the person who can't use chopsticks. They would go hungry at this party. The food went fast, but it was always promptly replenished.

As for the beer: the custom is to always pour beer for others, and if someone pours beer for you, it is impolite not to drink it, and whenever your glass is empty someone will fill it (to be polite). You can see where this is going. Everyone is very polite, so everyone gets very drunk very fast, which means its time to dance.

Khmer dancing is all about wavy hands. They move their hands the way we move our hips. It is actually a very liberating way for an American man to dance. Whenever I am dancing, I never know what to do with my hands. At this party I just moved my hands in whichever weird way I felt like. It's pretty effeminate by our standards, but nobody here knows that so it's all good fun.

We danced around a table in never-ending circles

As usual, we were the main attraction at the party. Everyone wanted to dance with us and pour us drinks. They definitely got a big kick out of my dancing. At one point our drunken host, Mr. Rico, came over to me and said, "Show us how they dance in Europe." To which I replied, "I've never been to Europe. I'm American." He persisted and I tried to explain again that I was not from Europe, but he wasn't having it. So I started to dance the Jig and soon I was joined on the dance floor by a whole group of Jigging Khmers.

The next day we showed up at Chumkriel and they were having a field day in celebration of the upcoming Khmer New Year. When we arrived, they were doing the Khmer version of Pinata, which is the same as the Mexican one except they use some kind of easily smashable pot instead of a paper mache llama.

Su Pon (who is kind of our like boss, I guess) was very excited for us to participate. He wanted me to take a swing at the pinata, but there were dozens of kids waiting, so I decided to let them have a turn. Next, however, was the slow bike race. The object of this race is to cross the finish line last, but if you touch the ground you are disqualified.

After watching a few races, I figured out my strategy: I would cross the finish line first and let everyone else fall off their bikes. It's how my Dad taught me to play ping-pong: let the other guy make the mistake. I ended up racing the other teachers and winning my heat. Afterward, they gave me a Khmer name, Krama Groham, which means red scarf.

The post-race press conference

The last game was the rice sack race, which is exactly like a potato sack race but with a rice sack instead of a potato sack. Work with what you got; that's Cambodia's unofficial motto. Anyway, when the teacher race came around, both Christin and I got in on the action. Even though she tried to cheat, I still won the race, which made me a perfect two for two on the day. No medals, but I feel redeemed from the mediocrity of my elementary school athletic career.

I cross the finish line with style

At the end of the day they did something truly foreign to us. Mr. Rico lined up all kids at the learning center and had them face forward. Then he would pick them at random, and they would come up in front of all the other kids and sing a song to them. And they didn't seem embarrassed; they were actually excited to do it. Even the ones who couldn't sing. In typical Khmer fashion, they were laughed at. But the laughter is never malicious and the laughee laughs along with the laughers. They just don't take themselves as seriously. It's all good fun.

I know he looks intimidating, but Mr. Rico is actually only 5 feet tall

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

A Day at the Market

Ahh... a day at the market. For those of us used to the farmer's markets back home, the thought of the day at the market conjures up pleasant images like sunshine, fresh air, and amiable farmer types. Not here. Here, it's a busy, bustling, dirty, loud, and eye-opening experience.

Seems normal enough

First of all, basic sanitation is not even an afterthought. It's dirty. Really dirty. The floors are wet, disgusting, and filled with trash of all kinds. The meat is hanging in the open air. Refrigerators do not exist here. Since no good khmer cooks without pra hok, a fermented fish paste, it smells terrible. There are live chickens and ducks with tied feet laying next to big bukets of water where at least 3 teenage girls are busy at work killing, defeathering, and butchering them. No soap. Happy to be vegetarians.

Fruit in the stands, trash on the ground

Meat for sale

There are some good things about the market, though. Everything is super cheap. Enough vegetables and fruit to cook with for a day's worth of food cost under $.50. You're supposed to bargain the price down, but who's going to quibble over 3 cents? Not me. Also, you can find anything there is to find here. Ready-made khmer style dressing? Check. More fruits than I could identify? Check. Bulk tabacoo? Check. Thousands of fabrics and an army of ladies with sewing machines? Check. Kitchen utensils and plates? Check. Strange handmade cigars? Check. Gem cutters? Check. Live fish? Check. Fake money to burn in offering to your ancestors? Check. Huge blocks of ice for the cooler? Check.

Now you see a pig...

Now you see dinner

Anything you can't (and many things you can) find at the market, you can buy out of a basket on the back of someone's bicycle early in the morning. Fresh bread? Ding ding, the bread bicycle is here. Ding ding, homemade coconut hooch. Ding ding, blocks of ice. Ding Ding, bubble tea. And every evening, there's an ice cream man. But in the SE Asian style: no truck, just a big cooler strapped to the back of a motorbike.

Anything and everything on a motorbike