Category Archives: cambodia

veg food update: battambang, cambodia ii

How about a food status update? Longtime browers of this series of web-pages will surely recall my praising of Battambang, Cambodia’s riverside cafe “Mey Mey One of a Kind Shop” in last year’s Battambang roundup. Said shop was singled out for praise due to its friendly proprieters, generous portions, decent taste, and, well… total lack of competition.

Cambodia is a place where food is generally subpar rice and a charred, gristly piece of meat, usually some smaller animal. All of the food seems to be inferior, from the mealy, puny, misshapen fruit for sale at highly-inflated prices in the produce market, to the already-melted ice cream bars and nonexistant dairy foods. There are two possible reasons I can discern:
1. Cambodia’s agricultural land is naturally cursed and produces nothing but withered and unpalatable crops, which are in turn sold for high costs due to the inherent paucity of said foodstuffs.
2. Like the India of yesteryear, good things are grown, but only for export.
In any case, Cambodian food sucks.

So, I was glad to see that Mey-Mey’s is still going strong. I was again served a large helping of spaghetti-esque noodles in a peppery sauce; the price actually went down from 6,000r ($1.50) last time to 5,000r ($1.25), though last time I was given two dipping sauces. The teenage girl who works there told me “Big plate! Old customer,” though I seemed to have the same-sized portions as everyone else. It was still quite decent (excellent by Cambodian standards) and “Creamy Coconut Shake (special to Battambang)” still excellent. I’ve tried the noodle dishes elsewhere in town and find them to be nothing more than edible, and the coconut shake a bit heavy on the crushed ice, but Mey Mey does it right.

Mey-Mey by Night

When last dining at Mey Mey’s, I took the set-up to be a mother-daughter operation. On this visit, further family members were visible, including an animated and highly flamboyant father figure who called out to prospective diners, and a surly son who stirred the wok with a deep-seated rage.

On arrival, I was the only diner. Eventually some French, who appeared doubtful about life in general, consented to eating there after coming back four times and re-examining the laminated menu. There also appeared a number of toothless, beer-bellied locals who zoomed up on motorcycles and engaged in good-natured banter. One of the locals had a black cowboy hat on, and another wore a French football jersey. Finally, a bald and lanky tourist took a seat, stipulating that he only wanted “BEER”, proclaiming thusly with perhaps more force than needed.

WHAT HAS CHANGED: Prices went down, whole family cooking now, no street-beggars, fewer mosquito bites.
BONUS: There are about a half-dozen stray cats of all different colors and markings (including black and calico) that scurry around the area.

I’m happy to report that the real vegetarian restaurant in Battambang, VEGGIE HOUSE (formerly BATTAMBANG VEGETARIAN HOUSE) is still going and better than ever– what’s more, they’re now open for lunch and dinner and serving excellent (if not hearty) food. The prices have gone up slightly on some items, and the shop has moved one door down (though I wouldn’t have known it if they hadn’t told me), but the big news is they are now open for lunch and dinner: previously, they closed at 11am and often ran out of food before that time. The breakfast menu has a few new types of soup (3,500r-4000r, i.e., $1, including “Long Life Noodle”– not sure what that is), and the lunch/dinner menu (11am to 7pm) includes banh mi-type sandwiches and some rice dishes. Dumplings (1,000r each: 25 cents), which on my last visit were lacklustre, I now found to be excellent, especially the ‘shalty’ ones, which are filled with TVP-like morsels. The dumplings are popular and they run out fast, but if you warn ’em in advance, they’ll make extra for you. The dumplings are also quite convenient for bus trips, as the bus stations are right across the street.

Veggie House for life

Thank goodness for the ethnic Chinese in SE Asia! (They also watch Chinese television in “Veggie House”; CCTV plays while you eat.) Enjoy the free tea, free water, kind and gentle service, and great prices while you can. Iced milk coffee (50 cents) too!

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Alliances Françaises in the world, pt. 4: Pnomh Penh, Cambodia

(See here for AF background).

The AF in Pnomh Penh is a pretty large structure that covers two sides of the street. One side is full of classrooms and large banners advertising DELFs and such; the other side houses a movie theatre, a library, a café, a bookshop, and a few other things. The library is on a few different levels and within was full of Cambodians studying French. I wept tears of joy to see people studying French.

I really didn’t see anything too special at this AF that was worth recounting. Evron, a dude who I was walking around with at the time, had never been to such a place before and was so excited by the comic section that he briefly considered learning French.

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lotus embryo tea

I am not too big a fan of herbal tea, or of any tea for that matter, unless it is full of sugar and/or milk (this is where the Turks, Indians, et al really provide enlightenment to the world). I drink my fair share of tea, but I just find it lacking in some way. When I find half-decent tea, then, that can be drunk straight, without sugar and so on, ye shall hear of it.

I bought some herbal tea at Lucky Supermarket in Phnomh Penh recently, the branch on Sihanouk. Lucky Supermarket is the only ‘Western-style’ supermarket in Cambodia- there is another place called something like ‘Phnomh Penh Market’ that is like 7-11, but I’ve never seen anyone go in or out of them. In any case, Lucky, being the only Western supermarket, attracts a crowd of affluent foreigners, overpaid NGO workers, wealthy diplomats, local servants buying things for their masters, Mormon missionaries from America, scraggly French welfare-fed hippies, various pensioned European retirees, Japanese and Korean embassy staff, Australian gap-yearers, and so on. They come to bask in the air-conditioned glory and admire the wide aisles and array of products, which range from 25-cent Thai ramen to $9 boxes of Froot Loops. The French especially, being a people who adapt poorly to foreign cuisine, are often found stocking up on shockingly expensive imported French goods; the British are also often spotted paying outrageous rates for cheese, an imported luxury item throughout southeast Asia. Upon my arrival in Cambodia, I asked one of my hosts, the inimitable Tilly-T, what the attraction was at ‘Lucky’, and he replied “hassle-free shopping”, by which he meant that prices were marked on the items and the cashiers were not short of change. I eventually came to frequent Lucky often enough, mostly because they sell vegetarian ramen and their pineapple is superior to that sold by the roving fruit-sellers.

However, you do have to be prepared to deal with a most tiresome cohort while shopping there, and many of Lucky’s practices are a bit strange: they hire bored, zoned-out girls to stand next to the alcohol displays, perhaps believing it encourages sales. They have a frozen section, but the freezer’s lowest setting hovers at room temperature, meaning they have row after row of imported Malaysian melted ice cream and popsicles. Finally, their pricing structure is bizarre (see this blog, complaining when two smalls are cheaper than one large– this is fairly common throughout Cambodia– i.e., it’s cheaper to buy four half-liter bottles of water than it is to buy one 1.5-liter bottle! The reasoning behind this I’ve not yet discovered).

In any case, one day I was in the mood for tea, and I discovered a type of tea on the shelves in Lucky that I have taken quite a liking to. I bought it for two reasons- one being that it didn’t have caffeine, being herbal tea and me being alarmingly sensitive to caffeine- and secondly, it was the cheapest tea there. On arriving home, I took a closer look at it and discovered it was from Vietnam, at which my host, an ardent Cambodian nationalist and protectionist, grew red and angry.

I was also pleased to discover it was from Da Lat, one of the nicest cities in Vietnam, and I brewed up a steamy, fragrant cup forthwith.

The tea in question is ‘trà tim sen’ in Vietnamese. I don’t really know any Vietnamese, but these all appear to be loan words or cognates: trà is cognate with tea, Tee, thé, شاي, çay, चाय, etc. ‘Tim sen’ appears to be (in my opinion) the vietnamization of the French tisane, or herbal tea. This particular tea is called ‘lotus embryo’- I’m not sure if that’s a real word or some sort of mistranslation, but in any case, it’s some part of a lotus seed (60%), ‘passifloracae’ (32%), and an unidentified ‘sweet herb’ at 8%. It does indeed have rather a sweet taste, or slightly sweet, and a sort of bitter taste at the same time. Overall, it’s quite nice.

The manufacturer is known variously as ‘Công Ty’, ‘Quang Thai’, and ‘Thai Bao’ (all are written on the box) and according to both the box and their website, said tea is “[u]sed as a daily beverage for metal tranquility, blood pressure balance. Good for insomniacs, hypertensive, palpitation persons”. I believe they must mean mental rather than ‘metal tranquility’, and I’m not entirely sure what’s meant by ‘palpitation persons’, but I surely fit into the insomniac category. The box recommends “2-3 bags/day”, though I rarely have more than one.

You can see the company’s website here, showing the tea in question and some other varieties I’d like to try, but be warned that a lot of the website is inexistent or filled with Latin placeholder text.

I might mention also that apparently the company has put up money for a large public flower garden near their production facility in Da Lat, and it appears to be quite pleasant (Vietnamese Wikipedia has a brief write-up on it) and I will have to make a stop to see it next time I am in Da Lat, me being a bit of a flower fan. Enjoy your tea and enjoy the flowers.

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veg reviews: phnom penh, cambodia.

Let us take a moment to praise the ethnic Chinese! Throughout SE Asia, they are the purveyors of true veg delights. For whatever reason, the ethnic Chinese in the U.S. and elsewhere waste our time with bizarre meat concoctions that are unknown to Asia (chop suey, General Tso’s Chicken, lardy fortune cookies, etc.), but the ethnic Chinese of Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, Cambodia, Singapore, Laos, etc., provide us with vegetarian food which is both tasty and doesn’t pay tribute via chicken to any warlike leaders. So let’s review a nice ethnic Chinese place in Cambodia’s sleepy capital, Phnom Penh.

VEGETARIAN PLACE (699A Monivong Blvd, Pnomh Penh).  This place might have a name, but if so, it’s only in Cambodian- no, I take that back– there’s a name on the menu, but I don’t recall it; some people refer to it as “Miao Xiang Xi”, but I don’t think it says that on the menu and I don’t know the proper tones for that, etc. As far as I know, it’s the only veg restaurant in Pnomh Penh that’s not  near Riverside or in the middle of nowhere. In any case, staying with the Original Ryan B on street 330 put us a short walk from this place, so I had occasion to eat five meals there. Ryan ate two with me there before he decided he was being seen too often there. I don’t have those hang-ups and eat multiple times a day there.

Dinnermate Ryan B examines the menu

A view of the menu

The menu is a full color affair, with photos of each meal placed in a binder, and English, Cambodian, and Chinese captions. (Some photos also have a time stamp on them, often showing 2:39am or some such early morning hour). There are about fifty dishes- twenty types of noodle soup, momos, various fried vegetables, a few rice dishes, and so on. I tried four of the noodle soups and all were good. The momos (boiled or fried) are excellent. The Original Ryan B took an interest in “fried fungus”, and said it was excellent.

Ryan-B-approved fungus

You can also get a hot-pot here, and many locals seemed to be doing just that, so me and the Original Ryan B did so as well. It turned out to be poor value, as you get about two noodles, a lot of worthless leaves, and overall less food than you’d get if you ordered two soups separately for cheaper! I also spilled boiling water on myself.

Every dish is about 4,000r ($1); the hotpot is $2.50 and feeds one, though local families of six fed on it with no problem. But I want noodles, not scalding broth for dinner!

They also have a funny fruit drink here called “noni drink”, and we drank it a few times. Pretty good, but mostly ice (1500r = 40 cents). Good place, indifferent people. Next door there is another Chinese place with fish swimming around that you get to point to and eat. Ryan B thought it might be more to his style, but noted the prices at my place were “proper”.

TASTE BUDZ: A TASTE OF KERALA (St. 280). I shouldn’t single out the ethnic Chinese. The Indians also settle widely and often bring veg food with them. So, what have the Keralans got in store for us? Everyone talked up the dosas here. I am not a huge dosa fan, but I ordered a plain dosa ($1)- came with sambar and coconut chutney if I recall. It also took at least a half-hour to arrive, possibly more. There did appear to be some south Indians hanging out within; the servers are all locals, however. I believe they may also serve mutton. Overall, nothing to get excited about. Their hours are also erratic and they are closed whenever you might be hungry.

DOSA CORNER (round the corner from Taste Budz). I assume this is the rival South Indian restaurant. They also serve a lot of mutton so I assume it is a Muslim restaurant. I ordered an onion utthapam ($1.50)- it came with more chutneys than at the rival place. My companion Ryan B ordered a dosa with spinach I believe, and tore into it (see photo). They also had idlys and such things. You are served water in Kingfisher glasses and there are some framed religious posters with SW Indian writing on it (I can’t tell you what language, but a Dravidian language that’s not Tamil). Overall, decent.

Lunchmate Ryan B with a distinctly American take on dosa-eating

My onion utthappam meal

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veg food update: battambang, northwest cambodia.

Readers, I’m most sorry for the break in veg-restaurant-related postings; I’ve been in India for the past month and had little to no internet for most of that time. The good side is that now I have a bit of a backlog to entertain You the Reader with; the downside is it’s not Happening-As-You-Read-It Cutting-Edge-News-Flash type of material. I may have eaten the meal described WEEKS before you read about it! Who cares!
I don’t know what you’d be doing exactly in Battambang, but it is the second largest city in Cambodia (not saying all that much). It has nothing to see per se except for some colonial French architecture; that said, there are plenty of tourists. The locals are very nice here, in any case, and I’m told there are tourist attractions in the hills around town; I won’t talk about that, however, but about the edibles.
MERCY HOUSE VEGETARIAN FOOD (Corner of Street 3, NW of produce market). No sign is visible with the name, but on some tinted glass doors you can see ‘Welcome’ and some Cambodian and Chinese I assume says the same. Within they will give a menu with breakfast foods, rice dishes, noodle dishes, Western dishes, and three pages of various bubble teas, fruit shakes, and desserts. You are meant to write your order on a slip of paper on which is written: “Please write your order here. And hand it to us. We are happy to serve. Tks.”

I had “Fried noodle with curry”, which was 4,000 bhat ($1). It was like ramen on a plate- exactly like ramen on a plate- in a watery sauce and some fake meat and green fried vegetables. Took about five bites to finish it. Served with slippery rounded metal chopsticks. On the wall are fanciful Photoshopped posters of the various dessert items served, with captions in English, Chinese, and Cambodian. You also get a free pot of tea and a tiny glass to sip it from. Nice people, but the food was only decent.

BATTAMBANG VEGETARIAN RESTAURANT (across the street from Mercy House). I went here first but the woman there said “Close” and told me to come back in the morning- they are only open until 11am! Great food and they would win the best food in Battambang award except for those crazy hours. The menu has a few noodle soups, steamed buns, and coffee. Well, I had a noodle soup, a steamed bun, and coffee. The noodle soup was fantastic. The bun was essentially just filler, with paper stuck to the bottom of it, but I dipped it in some hot sauce and it was good. The coffee was excellent. I don’t recall the prices, but I would guess soup was 4,000r, dumpling was 1,000r, and coffee 2,000r = $1.75 total. This is a family-run place, so there were also a few little kids running around blowing bubbles while I ate. Nice people, and a great place if you are hungry for noodles between 6:30am-11:30am and happen to be a vegetarian in north Battambang.

Cooking noodles at B'bang Veg Restaurant

Kids blowing bubbles and such

the menu

the sign

BREAKFAST! Noodles, dumpling, coffee...

MEY MEY SHOP: ONE OF A KIND (Neak Baan Tenk night market, West Bank riverside). I don’t normally review non-veg places because they are profiting by killing animals, but in Cambodia you have to take what you can get, and pure veg places are few-to-none. This place is a stall where a woman shouts out “Hello” to any non-Cambodian she sees; while normally I’d not dine at such a place, the fact that the woman had an English-speaking daughter to whom I could make my veg requests clear was what led me to eat there. They have a laminated menu showing locals carousing at the stall, and a few tourists enjoying meals. I ordered “Fried Yellow Noodle” ($1.50), and told them I was going to take a photo of the sunset and come back to eat. When I came back, the daughter said “I think you no come back!” but I got my meal. I also got a coconut shake, which, according to the menu, is “Special to Battambang” ($1). The shake was excellent- very, very good. The noodles were like spaghetti noodles in a sauce with a lot of black pepper and a scrambled egg and some green fibrous vegetables. Sounds nasty, but it was pretty good- easily the best non-soup food I’ve ever had in Cambodia (not saying much). You also get free ice-cold water and the portions are giant, easily the largest I’ve ever seen in Cambodia (not saying much). The downside is the location: a lot of mosquitos and mother-and-baby beggars going table to table.

Coconut shake; women cooking my dinner in the background

dinner!

Near the end of my meal, I heard some vaguely rockabilly music coming from the other side of the river and decided to check it out. In neighboring Thailand, country music is HOT, and I’ve had the misfortune of seeing some of the live country acts, such as the Khorat Cowboys. So, I thought maybe Thailand’s gone country and Cambodia’s gone rockabilly and boogie-woogie rhythm & blues. Well, it turned out to be a bunch of middle-aged people doing aerobics under cover of darkness in the park, a popular pastime in Cambodia; the young instructor’s taste apparently ran to high-octane female-fronted Cambodian pseudo-rockabilly for one song- after that it went back to straight Cambodian dance pop. Ah well! For 500 riel, or 13 cents, you can join in the aerobics, but it started raining and I went home.

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the 6am super bowl and the ground-hammock.

The Ground Hammock (angle one)

Next door to us in lovely Street 282 of Pnomh Penh, Cambodia, is a large and airy sports bar called, of course, ‘SCORE!’. The interior has brick walls with the words ‘TOXIC CHEMICAL WASTE’ stencilled on them. They serve a “Score Burger”, Angkor Draft, Chicken Burger, “Lassie” (!!), “Fish Burger (for Vegetarians)”, and some other nonsense. They also have waitresses who appear to be dressed up like referees. They draw a crowd of drunk tourists and diplomats (judging by the UN and NGO vehicles parked out front) and given that they have no front wall, a large amount of rowdy music pulses forth from within at any given hour. But let us not be too negative, for it is their wireless signal I’m writing this on.

The Ground Hammock (slight return)

It so happens that two nights ago, tiring of sticking to the vinyl couch in the living room, I moved up to the roof and rigged up a hammock- however, when I lay in it, I found myself “curled up like a fish”, in the words of my host, the Original Ryan B. He protested that he had no more time to help me knot things (he being a former Boy Scout and knowing how to tie a number of obscure knots, often with foreign-sounding names) and he left me fish-curled. I steamed and snorted and gnashed my teeth, but eventually hit upon a grand solution: I lay the hammock on the ground, put some cushions within, and held the mosquito-net from a clothesline. It was a top idea and I slept in grand fashion– until 6 in the morning, when the lamebrains at SPORT! decided to hold a “Live Super Bowl Party”. The bar filled with up to sixty drunken Americans at 6am, and they filled the cool morning air with cheers, howls, belches, and other such flatulence. I was startled from my ground-hammock by the obscene ruckus and never fell back to sleep.

A curse on the Super Bowl, as usual!

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punching & kicking.

Cambodian TV building- nice bathrooms

Although I took a few lessons in the ancient art of Judo-Kan when I was younger, I really don’t know all that much about all this punching and kicking and such that we call ‘fighting’, or, indeed, the ‘martial arts’. Nevertheless, when the original Ryan B suggested we take a trip to the northern end of Phnom Penh, to the Mekong-side television studios of Cambodian TV to see a kickboxing match, I nodded my assent and embarked on a series of calisthenics heavy in bobbing, weaving, and jabbing, so that I might be able to get up into the ring and fight those gaily-betrunked tough guys (should the need arise).

According to Original Ryan B, my gracious host and guide to the myriad complexities of daily Cambodian life, these fighters “eat low-fat diets and engage in cardiovascular activity.” He handed me a heavily worn blue pamphlet entitled “POWER FOODS: Peak Nutrition FOR MEN”, by “the editors of Men’sHealth (sic) Books”.

Punching, and some kicking

“In fact,” he continued, legs crossed in a Dijon-mustard-colored chair while flipping idly through the pages of the Cambodia Daily, “in the old days, such fighters were soldiers and that’s how they defended themselves against untoward aggressors!”

The Main Event

So after much ado about nothing in the little matter of finding a rickshaw driver, we found an affable fellow who agreed to drive the four of us up there and wait around for the return; the fellow, Pain (“but he pronounces it like ‘Pin’ or something,” according to Ryan B) by name, quoted us $12 and we were off.

A short while later, after passing a brewery, a soft drink manufacturing concern, an area of welders and car repair shops, a few shanty-houses, and some ripe scents drifting up from the Mekong, we arrived at the television studio. Outside of it, two sets of bleachers had been erected in a sort of barn-like structure;

post-bout champ

a ring stood in the middle, and behind it a stage on which musicians banged on drums and blew reedy instruments. There were also two or three white people with water bottles who apparently thought they were VIPs. (They may have been French, as after the event, we noticed a French family pile in a scooter with a sidecar, both clearly marked ‘Corps diplomatique’; they gave a symbolic thumb-nosing at those of us in tuks-tuks and such.)

We ended up watching about a dozen matches (“six or seven” according to Ryan B), but from where we were sitting, we couldn’t see very well. Some more white people showed up and went and sat on stage in the VIP area. Ryan expressed an interest in demanding that one of these VIPs fetch him a Fanta, but the idea quickly fizzled into soda bubbles and he went and got a bottle of Coke himself. I had a Hay-Song soy drink and we watched children collect bottles and roll around in the dirt. They periodically became overexcited by the match going on the background and fought each other to our amusement.

The Original Ryan B, a fatherly figure to the end, gathered some of these dirty-faced youth into

fiesty kids

his fold and enchanted them with a series of magic tricks involving 100-riel notes and wry comments in the local tongue. The children crawled into Ryan B’s lap and provoked some jollity among the spectators. For my own part, I went to get closer to the ring, saw a boxer get punched in the face and leave the ring with his nose bleeding, and generally enjoyed the goings-on.

Round about 4:30 in the afternoon, the event came to an end; we piled out to wait for our tuk-tuk driver, and found ourselves followed by one particularly eager young chap who demanded we teach him more magic tricks, these of the finger-waggling and ‘got-your-nose’ variety. We went home and stopped along the way so our companion Tilly-T could buy some popcorn from a lady on the side of the road.

kid still trying to do the disappearing finger trick

And that was my day of Cambodian kick-boxing. I didn’t have to fight anyone, thankfully, because these gentlemen were tough, sweaty, sinewy, and just plain had some fight in them. When I got home, I rigged up a sort of hammock-like device, the details of which I’ll present shortly.

COMING NEXT TIME: The Hammock-Like Device and 6am Super Bowl Monday

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