Saturday, November 16, 2013

A Khmeritous time

I'm due for a much needed break..which transpires into a Near Eastern sojourn. So here I am, half way across the word, wandering the fabled temples of Angkor Wat. I am overwhelmed and astounded by a plethora of Indian myths encapsulated in stone, stoical survivors  through the vagaries of nature and war. And I am completely enamored by the wonderful people of Siem Reap. They are polite, friendly, courteous, eager to please and sooo slim!!! It must be the food cause I haven't had that overstuffed feeling after any meal!! Menus are encyclopedic. Some traditional and others give me slightly modern twist on Cambodian cuisine. Every meal has been memorable. And so this time I savor, I nibble and just lose myself in the Siem Reap kitchen.

After an exhausting morning walk around temples, we stop at a wayside nondescript restaurant. We choose the sanctity of the air conditioned inner room versus a crowded patio. The outside heat and humidity throws us for an uncomfortable loop. I start with a frothy, almost milky watermelon juice.....refreshing. Minuscule bowls of lightly fried peanuts, tempered with dried lemongrass, chilies, kaffir lime leaves and galangal are perfect nibbling foods. A plate of green mango and carrot strings, mounded on a plate, topped with a blizzard of roasted peanuts, chilies, basil, fried smoked fish and tossed in tart lime dressing makes a pretty picture and packs a spicy punch!

We share and slurp to our hearts content. The city sits on the edge on an immense lake, Tonle Sap, so there is an abundance of fish everywhere. We have flash-fried fish, doused in tamarind sauce. A bowl of rice completes the meal. Quite delicious. We leave feeling sated, not stuffed. Just as well .... We have miles to walk before we sleep!

Dinner finds us traversing the most rutted dirt road in the country. Thoroughly alarmed and concerned about the tuk-tuk's suspension, we ride in apprehension for the restaurant to appear or the tuk-tuk to break down!!!! A tense five minutes later we see lanterns in a quaint house. At Touich the traditional warm Cambodian welcome namaste waits for us and we are treated to delightful meal. Rice paper rolls filled with tamarind glazed beef, shrimp and crisp lettuce makes for a crunchy start. Amok, the staple fish and kale coconut curry is served in an beautiful ethnic earthenware bowl.


Beef filet coated with tamarind sauce is a perfect foil for the curry.  Once again the flavors amaze and entice us. 

Breakfasting at the Siddharta rooftop, cool morning breezes glide through the terrace. We eat exquisitely cut papaya, Asian pear, pineapple and the most delicious tiny finger bananas. Perfectly flaky croissants are lathered with watermelon jam! A first for me for sure! Tiny pots of yogurt and strong coffee are enough till the next pit stop. 

It's is a 360 degree view of green tops from the rooftop....a bubble top view of the greenery rampant in the city. None of the tourist gimmickry nearby. The hotel is away from the hubbub of Pub Street and I am VERY grateful for the quiet. 

Once again we climb aboard our trusty tuk-tuk and embark on another day of temple viewing. One temple is out in the countryside. Rice paddies, houses on stilts, small villages and the friendliest children wave to us everywhere. I pass women making palm sugar by the roadside. I see carts of spiced river clams sold like peanuts. Sliced mango and papaya vendors line the countryside roads. Cool breezes wash over us as the city falls away to a far less complicated way of life. I sip on fresh coconut juice, letting the enchanting Cambodian countryside whiz by. The charm of seeing the countryside without a tangible barrier between the eye and the land is a wholesome feeling. I am grateful of the open ride versus sitting cloistered in a bus or car.

A simple but tasty lunch of stir fried beef with fried basil and cucumber, keeps us going till dinner. 

We enter a old wooden house at the back of a driveway on a crowded street. As we ascend the staircase street noises segue to the clink of glass. Sugar Palm doesn't fail to please. A plate of shrimp and pork tempura fried spring rolls comes with a spicy peanut sauce. An unusual fried noodle salad comes next. It is a mass of soft fried noodles, bean sprouts and a spicy pork sauce on the side. It is a matter of mixing the three and then having a flavor explosion in your mouth. It's like nothing I have eaten before and yet it is familiar. We demolish the large plate. A Cambodian variation of a spicy beef noodle salad makes the tongue tingle with chile flavors. Sorry, no pictures as we are famished and fall on our food!!!

I cannot describe desserts as they seem virtually nonexistent on menus. And that to me is the secret to their slimness!!!

My mouth and mind are filled with flavors of mango and chile, tamarind and meat, coconut and kale. I see a humble people welcoming you with a smile on their face and little in their pockets. I leave you with no written recipe but a menu of options..... Go see Angkor Wat. Stay at small boutique hotels to experience true Cambodian hospitality. Go eat off the beaten path and there are many. Go feel the warmth and reap the rewards!!!!