Monday, October 20, 2008

The Loneliest Martini in Cambodia

Dear Llalan,

Thanks once again for your efforts to shower me with your superior knowledge of beer the last time we saw each other in Boston. Your lesson has been on my mind more than once in Cambodia since bars are many and varied here and not an uncommon destination for an expat writer prone to periodic attacks of displacement anxiety. I will freely admit that I was a terrible student—terms like lager, ale, stout, porter, and pilsner have become impossibly muddled in my mind. And though I may have pretended that I understood the difference between hoppiness and yeastiness that night in Cambridge, I will take this opportunity to admit that I still have no idea what you were talking about. But while I am certainly not the best judge of beer quality, I thought that as one of your oldest friends I owed you a considered and well-researched survey of the region’s brews.

Beer is very cheap here. Seventy-five-cent happy hour specials are easy to find, and if you go into any bar at any hour and are still sober five dollars later, something has gone horribly awry. In most cases you get what you pay for. That is, cheap Asian beer tastes much like cheap American beer—not very good. Jason has flashbacks of the beer truck at the St. Mary’s Social Union Annual Picnic whenever he tastes Anchor; I am curiously transported to sweaty frat parties of my past whenever I make the poor decision to drink Chang. I have already heard expat urban legends about formaldehyde lurking in the kegs of Angkor beer. Worst of all is Bayon, which advertises itself as “The Beer of Cambodia,” but which has an oddly chemical odor and a dishwater aftertaste. But even a beer novice like myself can tell that when it comes to the pours of Southeast Asia, there is a clear standout. During your time in Thailand, did you have the pleasure of drinking Beerlao? I say with confidence that it is the most perfect $1 beer you will ever find. One sip would convince you. Complex and layered, yet still refreshing in the heat, it is a giant among its puny peers. Even in one’s darker, more brooding moments, the golden sheen of an ice-cold Beerlao can has the power to calm and cheer.

And yet, I am no beer connoisseur and find myself turning to other potables as the need arises. But what to choose? Ordering wine is never a good idea. Even the nicer restaurants have offerings that would make any oenophile blanche with fear. I bought a bottle of palm wine at the grocery store thinking it would be the Cambodian version of table wine, but found that it was instead a kind of syrupy liqueur which smelled a little like paint thinner. Down the street from our house is a shack with a large sign that says “Dara Local Wine,” but I think it specializes in the rice-based moonshine that I have not yet had the courage to try.

Cambodians do, however, seem to be fond of their mixed drinks, producing endless lists of strange concoctions. At one dark restaurant at the edge of Phnom Penh, I unexpectedly found the Bee’s Knees, that old flapper favorite that I thought everyone had abandoned except for me. While I have to question some of the combinations (the Picador, made by mixing only tequila and Kahlua, seemed particularly ill-advised), I do appreciate the potential for creative names—the Blue Dragon, the Amnesia, the Journalist, the Japanese Slipper, the Gin and Sin (which I like mostly because it implies that gin is the virtuous component of the drink).

Jason is fond of Cambodia’s zealous mixology because it frequently involves the fresh fruit juices that he so adores. But this often means that a waiter will bring over a tremendously effeminate pink or peach or creamy yellow number with umbrellas and cherries and curly straws, set it down in front of me, and giggle helplessly while Jason tries to slide it over to his side of the table with his masculinity intact.

As for me, I am not a fruity drink kind of girl, preferring my booze to taste like booze. This philosophy fits poorly within a society that prefers all of its beverages tooth-achingly sweet. Order an iced coffee with milk and forget to say the word “fresh” and you’re likely to end up with half a can of sweetened condensed milk in the bottom of your glass. My desire for a non-sweet cocktail inspired a safari for what seems to be the most elusive quarry in all of Cambodia—the perfect gin martini. Mind you, the words “dry martini” appear on almost all drink menus, but what you get if you order it varies widely. The one thing that all versions have in common is that they do not resemble martinis. One consisted almost entirely of sweet vermouth. Another involved pineapple juice. The most peculiar incident was when I was brought a shot of brandy. Say the word “dirty” and you will ignite a storm of confusion and apologies amongst the bewildered bar staff.

And then, just as I was beginning to think that it didn’t exist, my hunt ended on a quiet rooftop bar in Siem Reap. A cool and delicate glass already beading with perspiration, the sharp, clean scent of juniper wafting toward me, the single green olive bobbing in time with the rustling banana trees below. It may have been the only one of its kind in this lonely country, and I like to think that we soothed each other in equal measure.

Oh, Big Lla, I do miss you. What good is a frosty glass without a friend beside you? Please know that I think of you often and also know that, while I am loath to ruin any potential Christmas surprises, the Beerlao logo does look particularly fetching when emblazoned on a t-shirt.

Bottoms up,


Andrew and Emily said...

You must try Mekong whiskey! Jason will understand the necessity of this. I hear it tastes like stale fire.

Llalan said...

I have no advice to give, Shannon: you have learned well. BeerLao is the best, though I only was able to get it in Laos. And sorry to ruin you X-mas-ing plans, but I did purchase an obnoxious red BeerLao t-shirt somewhere in the middle of that weird Arc du Triumph de Poured Concrete in the middle of Veintien.

In Thailand, Chang was Bud and I don't drink Bud. Singha was significantly better--but don't try it when you get back and expect it to be actually good. I gotta say though, walking around the streets with an open container--legally--is an amazing feeling.

I'm glad you came around to the gin. My usual drink of choice at the expat bars where "Hotel California" was played between every third song, was a gin and tonic. Never failed. Well, except the next morning. I quickly discovered that if one did not down two gallons of water for each drink they imbibed, a hangover was certain. That's what you get for living in a state of perpetual dehydration, I suppose.

But thank you for the note, Shannon. Just remember: malt = sweeter; hops = well, hoppier--bitey-er.