Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Food Glorious Food!

 This is a post I started last year, but didn't complete.  Although some of the pictures are from last year, the content is still relevant, so I've decided to update what I'd written, and add a little bit more 'flavour' to the pot.  Hope you enjoy this journey into the culinary delights of Cambodia.
Sign above a restaurant In Pub Street area
A couple of years back, when I anncounced we were headed to Cambodia to volunteer for tthe winter, I received an email from a friend saying "I hope you like rice".  I still chuckle about it, because he was so right.  In this part of the world, rice is served with just about everything, and I never dreamed I'd consume so much of it!! 

Rice is a staple in Cambodia.  Most people eat rice three meals a day (if they're lucky to get three meals), usually mixed with a little bit of meat and vegetables.  At Honour Village, a 50 Kg (110 lb) sack of rice lasts less than 2 days - (46 kids and about 12 adults, three meals a day). 

 I used to wonder how Cambodians manage to stay so thin when they eat so much rice, but living here for a while has given me a whole  different perspective.  Cambodians work very hard, mostly manual labour.  Many walk or cycle wherever they go.  Many don't get 3 meals a day, and snacking is rare.  Many suffer from chronic intestinal maladies.  I suppose under the same  circumstances, we'd probably be thin too.

Whenever I go to a different part of the world, I like to eat the local food, and that goes especially for Cambodia.  I figure I can get Western food at home anytime, anywhere, but I can only get authentic Khmer food here.  It's delicious, and although we make concerted efforts to duplicate them at home, we still haven't quite mastered the recipes.

The first year we were in Cambodia, our guesthouse didn't provide breakfast, so we almost always went out early in the morning for noodle soup.  The guesthouse we now stay at provides free breakfast buffet, which has a variety of tradional western breakfast food - juice, coffee, tea, toast, cereal, eggs, fruit - and some less usual choices - fried rice, fried noodles with vegetables, congee (rice porridge), and chicken 'sausages' (actually mini hotdog wieners).  They alternate between French toast or delicious banana pancakes, both hard to resist when drizzled with 'honey' (thick syrup made from sugar palm - yummmm).  Fruit choices are usually sliced dragon fruit, watermelon or fresh pineapple, and pint-sized bananas that you pull right off a giant stalk.  I still prefer noodle soup over western breakfast, but  I also prefer 'free' over 'paying', so we mostly eat breakfast at our guesthouse.

Noodle soup with pork balls and 'fry bread'
(tastes like a yeast doughnut without the honey glaze)
The reddish piece  in the bowl is either a big hunk of liver or clotted blood....
One of the few things I haven't managed to get past my lips yet.  I give that part to Gordon. 
Buffet breakfast at MotherHome Guesthouse

On days when we work at Honour Village (5 to 6 days a week), we eat the same lunch as the kids do. The cooks prepares a huge pot of rice, and a huge pot of soup, consisting of vegetables, some meat or fish, and a variety of wonderful herbs and spices.  Dessert, if they're lucky, is almost always a banana.  (Bananas here are typically smaller than the bananas we get at home - the same thickness, but about half the length).

At  the outset, food at Honour Village was prepared outside under a canopy, cooked over a wood fire.  In the past year, they've progressed to cooking over a wood fire indoors, and most recently upgraded to cooking with gas, a luxury provided by a generous donor. 

Wonderful blend of herbs & spices for the soup

Each child gets a bowl of rice with one bowl of soup  shared between two.
Refills keep coming as long as they keep eating.

The adults eat at a separate table.
Usually there are about 10-12 staff & 6-8 volunteers.
On this particular day, we had a lot of visitors as well.
These two little girls put away four large bowls of rice and soup each. 
Neither one of them weighs more than 35 lbs (16 kilos) soaking wet. 
Where do they put it all?

On days we're not working at the orphanage, we go out for lunch, and we usually go somewhere different for dinner every night.  We love Khmer food, but we occasionally opt for Thai, Indian, Mexican or Burmese.  No matter what ethnic food you crave, it's available in Siem Reap.  If you watch for special deals, like $1.00 tapas, and stick to smaller establishments slightly off the beaten path, you'll end up getting a fabulous meal for two persons (including 2 glasses of wine) for under $10.  The food is so tasty and so inexpensive, it's easy to understand why I went back home last year 10 lbs heavier than when  I'd arrived!

Half the fun of going to Little India
is seeing a Cambodian waitress wearing a sari

The food here was fantastic and really inexpensive. 
We especially loved the Eggplant Stew and the Tea Leaf Salad.
How sad to discover the restaurant was gone this year!
This plate of fried spring rolls looks like something straight out of a gourmet magazine.
In fact, we get this at a tiny restaurant around the corner from our guesthouse.
Helen Cafe - Price: under $2.00

I love food, and I'm not too afraid to wander into new areas of eating, but I have to admit, Cambodia has foods that I can't swallow won't try, not just yet anyway.  There's a whole variety to choose from - snakes, spiders, crickets, grubs, duck egg fetuses, cow uterus, red ant sauce (tried that).  I'm sure they're fine, and people tell me they're tasty, but I can't seem to get them past my lips when the brain screams "No!"

Clockwise starting from top left:
BBQ Beetles, BBQ Crickets (grasshoppers?), BBQ snake, Deep-fried battered little birds..
The locals love them!

As in a lot of under-developed countries, there are a few food rules we  have to abide by here.  Sanitation is just not the same as it is at home, so we have to be careful where and what we eat.  We know that and we just accept it.  We avoid buying food from street vendors, except for BBQ bananas or sticky rice, which we know are safe. 

A typical roadside 'restaurant' that serves up quick orders of rice or noodle dishes.
We avoid them even though the food is really inexpensive.

Doesn't look too appetizing does it? 
A burnt cabbage roll maybe?

Nope.  It's a package of 'banana sticky rice'. 
A small banana encased in sweet coconut-flavoured rice,
wrapped up in a banana leaf, and roasted over charcoal.
Absolutely scrumptious!

I have a confession to make.  Lately I've been getting a little cocky about eating raw vegetables, and having ice in my drinks, and drinking filtered water rather than bottled water, and now I'm paying for it.  In the past few days, I've had to make sure I'm within sprinting distance of a bathroom, and I've been breaking out the boxes of bismuth tablets.  One thing is certain, if this keeps up, there's a good chance I won't gain any weight while I'm here this year!

On the other hand.....
'Balck Sesame-Ginger'  ice cream from the Blue Pumpkin
may just end up being my downfall.........

Monday, December 26, 2011

Christmas in Cambodia

This is our third time volunteering in Cambodia, but the first time we've spent Christmas here.  Late in September, we lucked into a really good deal on flights for December 6th, and grabbed at the chance to save big without giving much thought to the fall-out. 

Leaving so early meant we had three weeks less to close up the house, make all our arrangements, and get all our Christmas gifts wrapped and delivered.  We had our 'family Christmas' in mid-November, with turkey and prezzies, and I kept telling myself it was OK....that Christmas is all about the feeling, not necessarily about the day.   So when we arrived here in Cambodia, I was OK with being in a tropical climate with palm trees, in a Buddhist country where Christmas is not celebrated, because I told myself I'd already had my Christmas.  Yet from the day we arrived, everywhere we looked there were vestiges of Christmas - blinking Christmas lights and tacky tinsel trees and Christmas carols in the lobby -.  And still I was OK with that..... I really was..... until the day before Christmas, when my daughter emailed me a couple of pictures.... of her at age 4, surrounded by presents....

.... and one of her spending this Christmas with her aunt and her 104-year-old Grandpa....

After seeing those pics, and reading all the comments from my friends about how they were spending their Christmas with family and having turkey dinners and loads of presents, I admit it.... I was filled with pangs of longing for the good old days.... and a tear or two came to my eyes. 

But that was Christmas morning.... Little did I know what lay in store for me that afternoon....

As soon as we arrived in Cambodia, we'd been enlisted by the Honour Village crew to help out at their annual Christmas party.  Staff and volunteers alike were focused on the afternoon of December 25th, when more than 200 children would arrive from the village and descend on the premises for an afternoon of fun and games, food and prizes.  From the outset, a lot of organization went into it, and it was obvious that this would be quite an event, but until I experienced it, I had no idea how big it really would be.  We invited some of our friends to come out and help, and even a few tourists arrived to pitch in.  We needed all hands on deck, and everyone was kept busy for the entire afternoon.

The main building was festooned with decorations

The kitchen staff prepared busily for the feast

Gordon had blown up hundreds of balloons,
and filled several hundred more with water...

The big sound system arrived

Children sang songs while they waited for the crowds to arrive

Throngs of village children arrived - probably 200 or more

Squeals of delight playing musical chairs

The battle for the last chair when the music stopped

Limbo competition

'Sleeping Lions' game.  You move, you're OUT!

Sack races, three legged races, all sorts of field games....

Burst the balloon tied to your opponent's leg. 
Last one left with a balloon tied to their leg wins!

Faces powdered with flour!

Apsara dance demonstration

Honour Village kids performing traditional Cambodian dance

Taking a bow

Chhunly was such an enthuisiastic announcer!

Passing out water balloons while Chhunly directs the crowd

Long line-ups for food

A big baguette with yummy minced pork filling

This little guy collected up everyone's crusts....
Yummm...the best part !! 

Lining up for prizes after dinner
We left when the sun was low in the sky.....
exhausted from a day filled with fun and joy.....
.....a day when we'd given it our all...... 
....and I was sincerely happy.....
 I believe everyone present experienced the true meaning of Christmas that day....
“For it is in giving that we receive.” ~ St. Francis of Assisi

Fourteen Reasons to Smile

OK, I realize I haven't been posting as regularly as last year.  I've been crazy busy and almost every moment this past week has been taken up with activity. Today (Boxing Day) we are taking it easy, since Gordon seems to have picked up some sort of flu bug and is sleeping it off.  I haven't been stricken as badly, so it's a good day to catch up on things....especially my blog.  

The market in Battambang has the biggest selection of fabric I've ever seen in one place, and the prices are so low it would make you cry.  I wish I had a huge suitcase to bring it all back!  On the last day of our mini-vacation there, Susan mentioned she'd love to buy some fabric for 'play-skirts' for the girls at Honour Village.  I said I'd go with her to help select several yards, since (in one of my insane moments) I'd offered to sew them - all fourteen of them!  Somehow our wires got crossed, and before I'd had a chance to meet up with her, she showed up at the hotel carrying a huge bundle - 10 meters of stretch knit fabric.  I have to admit, the colours were lovely and bright....definitely what little girls would be delighted to have....but if you sew at all, you'll quickly understand that these lovely fabrics staring back at me represented nothing short of a seamstress's nightmare.

Stretch knits just don't sew up the same as woven fabrics.  Rather than piercing the layers, the sewing machine needle seems to bounce off the stretchy fabric, resulting in skipped stitches....basically a messy job.  The only way I know to get around that is to use special needles - 'ballpoint' or 'stretch' needles - manufactured specifically for this purpose.  BUT, in Cambodia, these are unheard of....definitely not an option.  An even bigger challenge was going to be using the treadle sewing machine - one that I was totally unfamiliar with.  No luxury of electricity here.  I cut my teeth on a treadle machine, so that wasn't the problem, but each machine has a slightly different bobbin system, so it was going to be 'learn-as-you-go'.  After several trips to the market, stretch fabric in hand, I managed to communicate (mostly by gesticulating) with a few ladies working at sewing machines.  They were able to give me a few ideas and suggestions on how to proceed.  After all, if this fabric is sold here, they're obviously sewing with it. 

To make life easy (and because I had no pattern) I decided on a simple style - a long-ish skirt, gathered with elastic at the waist.  (Short skirts are considered immodest here).  Each girl got to pick her favourite fabric, starting with the oldest girl. 

Back at Honour Village, a few experiments finally produced some nice seams.  Now the biggest challenge was trying to stitch fabric, surrounded by 20 to 30 little 'helpers' who wanted to pin and unpin fabric and 'help' me feed the fabric through the machine.  They were curious and anxious to imitate, and I needed eyes at the back of my head to make sure no fingers got caught in the mechanisms, or worse yet, in the serger located next to the treadle machine, which was a huge temptation for them... yikes!   

Four days later (and many hours hunched over the machine), fourteen pretty little skirts were ready....  Just in time for Christmas Day.  Fourteen happy little girls.  Fourteen reasons to smile.

Fourteen new skirts

A curtsy

A little bit of glitter in this one

Just for me!

One of the older girls on the balcony in her new skirt.  Isn't she lovely!

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Hats Off To The Mayor

Just a day or two before we were ready to leave our home in Bayfield, Bill Dowson, Mayor for the Municapality of Bluewater, generously donated a big bag filled with baseball caps for us to bring to the children of Honour Village.  Our suitcases were already jam-packed and nearly at the full weight allowance, but this four-pound package was precious cargo -  Forty new hats to protect the kids from the hot Cambodian sun. 

Yesterday we distributed the booty, and here is the happy result!  Don't you wish kids in North America could be so delighted with such a small gift? 

Thank you Mayor Dowson, you made a lot of kids smile today!