Have you ever visited somewhere and it stayed with you for a time after you left? Not in a nostalgic way, but in a way that lingers, like it has reached in and altered you slightly. That's how visiting Cambodia was for me.
It's impossible to be here and not have your whole experience framed by its blood soaked history. I found myself constantly replacing simple daily events- having a coffee in a Siem Reap café, wandering through its fantastic markets - with wondering what had happened at this very spot just thirty years earlier, when the Khmer Rouge quite literally culled an entire generation of Cambodians. Mind boggling to ponder the cruelty, the logic, the absence of conscience, maybe especially incomprehensible for me, being from somewhere as benign and possibly naive as New Zealand.
But it did happen, and everything that exists here today is a response to those events. A generation left without parents and then without grandparents, with little remaining social structure, an entire culture having to reinvent itself.
Khmer cuisine, like its people, has shown remarkable resilience in the face of adversity and challenges. It must be reminded that during the horrors of the Khmer Rouge regime of the 1970s, Cambodian cuisine was almost wiped out and forgotten, and it's only been quite recently that Khmer cuisine has made something of a revival.
What happens when a cuisine fails? In the four brief days that I was here, I met three inspirational men who reminded me how profoundly significant food and cuisine are as an agent of culture, its capacity to rebuild and to bring people together. Food culture as is separate from food supply, which is still a real issue here.
I stayed at the fabulous Hotel de La Paix in downtown Siem Reap in an outrageous act of luxury. Prices are low in Cambodia and I could never have afforded a hotel like this almost anywhere else. Beautifully thought out and bedecked with the smiling warmth of their staff, this trip for me was meant to be a personal treat. I had written to them ahead of time with an incoming chef alert, so met Chef Theam Piseth soon after arriving. I had no clue on Cambodian food, and in this man I found not only the perfect guide to Khmer cuisine, but also an advocate for the dishes and recipes that reach back past the time that everyone is trying to forget.
Piseth is about the most animated chef I have ever met. He speaks quickly and passionately, and I had one of my best " chef nights" ever with him as he fed me a Khmer Tasting menu at the Meric restaurant in the Hotel De La Paix. Street food in Cambodia, as in most of Asia, is incredible, but Piseth's rendition of the simple dishes from his past, and those that abound right outside on the streets and alleys of Siem Reap, is pure five star. Piseth Theam cooks Haute Khmer.
We had stir-fried sweet corn with minced pork served in a spoon alongside a shot of chilled khmer rice wine mixed with coconut water, and a grilled prawn and eggplant salad.
Both dishes I had eaten as street food, here taken up many notches in finesse. Next was grilled beef with prahok sauce. Prahok is probably the signature ingredient in Khmer cooking: a fermented fish paste, quite strong, not unlike the fish pastes of Thailand and Vietnam. It's served in almost every dish in some form- don't be out off: you warm up to it quickly. The beef was also served with an indigenous organic white and brown rice .The area is dominated by Tonle Sap, a huge lake fed by the Mekong River that flows in two directions, depending on the time of year. Varietals of "floating" rice have been developed and the one that Chef Piseth served me was warm and nutty, almost like basmati melded with walnuts. Also on the menu were prawns with the zingy local green peppercorns that I had seen in the market that day. I loved the tangy brightness of a pork rib sour soup, described as "jungle style": "This is style of this soup of the people who stay in forest: they use usually wild animals, but I use pork rib here" A spectacular meal finished with beautiful sweet potato, tapioca and banana based Khmer petit fours
Chef Piseth shared a lot with me over a dinner. "Through these old dishes we remember who we are. We have spent so much of our lives trying to forget what happened here, but with food we look back and remember the best of Khmer culture" He sees his role as a chef as vital to preserving and cherishing Khmer culture. " Even with all that we have been through as a people, we all love our food. It brings us together" Mission or no mission, his food is outrageously delicious, enhanced by the knowledge that each dish is an education in Khmer culture, and by the passion of this young man who is cooking purposefully and proudly in Siem Reap.
Piseth also runs the kitchen at AHA restaurant in downtown Siem Reap, serving a kind of light fusion of Khmer dishes in tapas style portions. " I wanted to create a format that was approachable to our visitors, but also to show that Khmer cuisine has no boundaries and can be as diverse as the food of our great neighbour, Thailand" I loved these dishes too- less educative, more casual, sitting right next to Siem Reap's fabulous food market where Chef Piseth shops everyday.
The Hotel De La Paix sponsors a sewing machine school that upskills young women from nearby villages to break the poverty cycle that a society can get stuck in when all comes apart. Actually I heard this a lot when I was here: local entrepreneurs actively engaged in their own community projects to strengthen Cambodia. The sewing machine school is just one of the programs of "The Life and Hope Association". Run by the Buddhist monks of Wat (temple) Damnak and headed by the charismatic and Venerable Hoeurn Somnieng, they are also developing a "School of Organic Agriculture" to support their orphanage "We believe that in order to grow to our highest potential, we need " healthy food, healthy environment and friendly education". At the orphanage, at our junior high school, and at our sewing school, we provide for them every day, therefore, we must care for their living. The idea is that, from what they eat to where they live and how they get education, these are very important cycles in our children's lives. That is why Food, Environment and Education must work together to create a better future"
"Organics" in this context is quite different from its association in the West as a response to the madness of mega-industrial food systems- and cute thoughts of alternative arugula. Here organics serve as a mechanism that not only provides the Association's children with good clean food and serves to rebuild and strengthen their farmlands, it also teaches them about nutrition and environment: that good environment makes good food and healthy people. Organics here is creating a foundation of purity for these children on which to build their lives.
Next stop was the Green Star Restaurant that I had been told about by friends in Fiji. I met with Australian Doug South who, with his Cambodian partner Avee, owns and runs the Green Star. Located away from the tourist area, Green Star has great food at great prices. Rustic Cambodian food is what Green Star does best: I loved the giant nutty pan-fried corn kernels and the roasted, smokey eggplant with local prawns.
Not heavily seasoned like Thai food, the ingredients speak for themselves. But what I loved even more was chatting to Doug. Facing retirement and also a bit unfulfilled by his typical corporate Aussie guy life, Doug had an "aha" moment when he picked up an Australian newspaper and read about The Green Gecko Project, an orphanage that rehouses and supports some of the many child beggars in Siem Reap. "I literally felt like I was being struck by lightening. I wasn't sure how I could help, but I knew I could. I contacted the orphanage, packed up my life and came over here." Doug saw that the orphanage needed ongoing financial support and so he created the restaurant to form a trickle of steady cash supplied by its profits. "You know, the restaurant is just one part of it for me. You get hooked into the kids themselves, their successes. And I feel like I have a purposed life. I have seen Green Gecko change the poverty cycle for many families here. I love that what I do contributes to this. I have given up almost everything I had in my Australian life, but you know what: I'm happy, I feel like I'm doing exactly the right thing"
Doug calls "Green Star" a "not-for-profit" restaurant, but of course there is beautiful profit, that of a child being educated, fed, given real hope. So for the very reasonable price of a plate of terrific food at Doug and Avee's Green Star Restaurant, you are nourished, and in turn nourish others. Through their personal and delicious efforts, Doug and Avee have replaced a cycle of poverty with a cycle of nourishment.
On my last day I visited Angkor Wat. You'd have to be heartless not to be overwhelmed by this place. Considered to be one of the most sacred places on the planet, for two hundred years, Angkor was the world's largest city - as many as a million inhabitants in the 12th century- and it represents the glorious apex of Khmer culture and civilization. People fleeing the Khmer Rouge gathered here, only to be slaughtered amongst the artistry and reverence. It is like a metaphor for all of Cambodia, it's history of magnificence and atrocity.
I very quietly headed back to the hotel and flicked on the TV, my silence smashed by the braying of a nameless celebrity chef show. Now I do appreciate that television chefs have done great work: they have many people cooking again. But in four short days, and only a few blocks away from each other, I had met 3 men in food who made celebrity chef culture seem quite small. A passionate young chef who is doing his part to raise the cuisine of his beloved homeland, a Buddhist monk who is leading efforts to teach orphaned children about nutrition and environment, how to eat and live well, and an ordinary Aussie guy who had the madness and courage to do what he simply knew was right. For me, these three reach past celebrity and into inspirational.
Travel Tips: The Hotel de La Paix is currently being renovated and rebranded as a Park Hyatt. Rest assured- they are continuing their sponsorship of the sewing machine school and Meric Restaurant and Chef Piseth will still be there.
A visit to Angkor Wat is greatly enhanced by the know how of a great guide- mine was, his name is Pilu and he runs Affinity Angkor
Follow Robert Oliver on Twitter: www.twitter.com/guava13