Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Lords of the Snack

Dear Mom,

I hadn’t written a letter to you yet because I knew that when I did it would have to be about food. Over the course of my twenty-seven years, you have generously nourished and soothed me with enormous quantities of food (anyone who has encountered a pan of your brownies knows what I mean), and it seemed only appropriate that a letter to you somehow connect to that theme. But the Cambodian food scene left me uninspired. It’s not that Khmer food isn’t good, but it is somewhat repetitive, particularly for vegetarians. I will soon be a connoisseur of any conceivable combination of vegetables and rice noodles. Anything that does not involve meat, I’ve been told, is not considered a real meal. But then along came a holiday that impressed upon me how grievously I had overlooked a crucial culinary category.

The Water Festival, or Bonn Kam Tdeu, takes place when the rainy season ends and the water in the river reverses. The holiday turns the banks of the Siem Reap into a massive carnival for three days (complete with a rickety and startlingly rapid Ferris wheel). There are two notable features to the Water Festival. One is the boat racing. Teams of about twenty-five people in coordinated t-shirts climb into traditional Cambodian boats and paddle down the river in an endless series of head-to-head matches. They look like crew races but with a more flamboyant rowing style. The other essential component of the festival is the vast array of snack food. You literally cannot take two steps without bumping into a snack vendor. Hundreds of Khmer people (sellers and eaters of snacks alike) pour into the town from the countryside provinces to watch the races and, apparently, work on raising their cholesterol levels. I am no stranger to snacks, certainly, but the Water Festival proves that the Cambodian people are light years ahead of me—veritable Snackmasters.

Here is a just a small sampling of what’s on display, some of which I’ve tried and others which I have actively avoided:

-moon-shaped pastries, crimped on the edges and filled with caramelized onions

-chilled pieces of sugarcane, nubby little cylinders that are strangely tasteless until you bite down hard, at which point they give up a gush of sweet juice, leaving only a woody pulp that you spit out

-tiny prawns, flattened (shells and all) and deep-fried into a shrimp pancake, their beady black eyes gazing up through the batter

-plastic bags filled with mysterious Technicolor fluids

-freshly made crepes drizzled with Best Cow sweetened condensed milk

-popcorn cemented into enormous balls with sugar syrup

-sliced green mango, served with little individual packets of a spicy, salty dipping mixture

-pure white dumplings stuffed with pork, their little puckered tops hidden beneath the domed metal lids of steam trays

-lotus pods, which look like bright green shower heads and can be broken open to get to the raw edible seeds

-many variations of sweet fried dough, which Jason has grouped into the Trans Saturated Snack category. My favorite are the wee doughnuts, deep-fried to a satisfying crunch, and topped with something that tastes like a sesame version of peanut brittle.

-carts full of color-coded kebabs, piled up neatly and waiting to be fried and put on a bed of cucumber and basil

-great mounded trays of boiled peanuts

-“bamboo rice,” or hollow sections of bamboo filled with coconut milk, beans and rice and then grilled until you can strip away the bamboo like a banana peel and eat the sticky finger food inside

-perfectly spherical bits of bright red meat that, when skewered and grilled, resemble a kindergartner’s drawing of a caterpillar

-short, fat ears of roasted corn

-“barbequed eggs,” stuffed full of spices and cooked in their shells on hot coals

-bags full of kreuk moh, a sort of Khmer sundae, in which geometrically shaped bits of custard are drenched in sweetened condensed milk and topped with shaved ice

This is only a partial list, and I feel confident saying that there are still more that I have not yet discovered. An afternoon of tasting has left me sluggish and craving something green, so I will end this letter and make myself a salad. But rest easy knowing that two days of the festival remain and that my snack needs are being more than adequately fulfilled. And also know that I still desperately miss your brownies.

Love always,


Andrew and Emily said...

What, no sugar-coated tarantulas?

walrusattack said...

"Here is a just a small sampling of what’s on display, some of which I’ve tried and others which I have actively avoided:

-moon-shaped pastries, crimped on the edges and filled with carmelized onions"


I think you misspelled caramelized. Also, the parallelism is a little funky in "some of which I've tried and others which I've..." ... But it's probably okay--I understand what you're trying to say, and the correct way would sound funny.