Part 1: The Food
Many of us volunteers had been warned by The Bible (Lonely Planet Guide) that Cambodian food was nothing to write home about. WELL JUST LOOK AT ME WRITING HOME ABOUT IT, LONELY PLANET! Supposedly Cambodian food is not as exciting or distinct as its Thai and Vietnamese next-door neighbours, but I am rejecting that notion. As a well brought up McEvoy Gal, I am experiencing this new and exciting country with not only open eyes and an open mind, but also a very open mouth. At the apartments, we are lucky enough to have some beautiful ladies who cook our lunches and dinners each day. As with a lot of Asian countries, rice is on the menu for most meals. It is accompanied by things such as stir fried vegetables and sliced meats, fish stews and curries. It is milder in flavour than other Asian cuisines, flavoured with lots of onion, lime, garlic and some chilli.
Street vendors pop up around every 7 metres, on average. The little push along carts have little glass compartments housing noodles, veggies, (occasionally dubious looking) meats, and a noodle soup or fried something-or-other can be thrown together for you in a flash. There are often tables and chairs set up on street corners to allow complete the outdoor-dining experience. Other carts sell the sugar cane drink that the locals sip from little plastic bags, which is made by churning the sticks of wooden-looking cane through a little mill until a lemonade-looking drink is squirted out for the thirsty punters.
Most volunteers come back home for lunch each day, but I stay at work. This has been a highlight of each day for me. The cook packs me a little polystyrene container each day, and I pop the surprise package in my bag. At lunch, all the lights in the physio gym get turned off, the little white coats that everyone wears are removed to allow the sweat on them to dry, and all the physios gather around one of the desks and bring out their home-packed goodies. Sharing is a big part of the Cambodian culture, so everyone's fare is placed in the middle ready to be scooped, slurped and picked at (Claire goes "Yes! These are my type of people!"). I've been keeping up pretty well with the delightful head physio Sarun, who everyone teases about being the one who finishes off all the leftovers at lunch! Sometimes the cooks at home prepare Western food as well, and I was pretty popular at work the other day when my container revealed fried bits of steak and chips with tomato sauce!
The break is an hour and a half for the Physio and P&O (Prosthetics and Orthotics) staff at VI, and after eating, the general thing is the guys sit around and watch the epic, long-running Khmer-dubbed Korean soapy set quite a few centuries ago concerning royals and soldiers (but not too different from Home and Away, basically), and the girls go into the blissfully air-conditioned meeting room, and put mats on the table (yep, not something you'd see back home too much in the boardrooms!) or floor and have a bit of a kip (or just a gossip). I have wholeheartedly embraced this Cambodian form of siesta, and feel much better for it in the afternoons at work!
Some of the new and exciting things to fill my tummy include:
- Bitter gourd- some form of zucchini, stuffed with minced meat, in a liquid
- Khmer "cheese"- actually no dairy, it's just that it stinks; it's made from dried fish mixed with... other... stuff...? and is a brown pastey substance- very strong, very salty, but I liked it!
- Preserved eggs: boil your water with stacks of salt, let it cool, chuck your eggs in and let 'em sit for the desired number of weeks. Cambodians are good at not letting surplus food go to waste, so eggs and fish are often preserved like this. Good for the girl with low blood pressure to up the old salt content!
- The most amazing array of fresh fruits! The bananas are lady-finger sized but delicious; ruby-red rambutans; lychees (think I could live on these); perfect mango, pineapple and watermelon. The fruit is so fresh and flavoursome, bursts from tiny market stalls in big bunches and is cheap as, bro.
- Little snail things that come from the river bed- they're tiny, you pull them out of the shells and it looks more like you've just picked your nose, you dip them in chilli sauce. One was fine, but one was enough for now.
- The delicious iced coffee they do here (Ma, it'd meet your Farmer's Union standards, I reckon)- condensed milk, a whole lot of ice, coffee poured over the top: de-bloomin-licious. I went down to one of the vendors out the front of VI yesterday with Kim and Sinoun, gorgeous P&O's, and Kim ordered it for me, so I'll have to make sure I get the right name for it to grab another sometimes; it set me back about 30 cents.
We've been out for dinner a couple of times, too, there are lots of places down along riverside that offer a mix of Khmer and Western cuisines, and it was kind of exciting to get a burger with my beer the other night! You can get a good quality meal and a drink for around $3-4. The beer that's widely-drunk here is Angkor, but there is a wide selection available, and they're a pretty good deal at around $1-a-pop on average. Lats night we had went to The Casino and felt pretty extravagant in the ritzy bar, paying $4 for a beer. A couple of the Irish lads here tried some home-made rice wine, thrust upon them by their tuk-tuk driver the other day. They likened it to nail-polish remover, and I think I might be OK not giving it a go.
In short: Claire McEvoy- loving life, loving the grub, loving the ales, loving the fun times that come from a shared meal!