Friday, March 18, 2011

Culinary (and other) Adventures in South-East Asia - Part 4 - Cambodia

Cambodia is a land the has been through so much turmoil over the last 50 years, between the departure of the French Colonial Power, the devastation of the Vietnam Conflict and, most importantly to the fabric of the Cambodian or Khmer people, the Khmer Rouge. Perhaps nothing with the exception of the Armenian Genocide or the Holocaust reached the level of the genocide wrought by the Khmer Rouge, in whose rein of terror millions were killed and anyone seen as intellectual was slaughtered.  For these reasons, the resiliency and kind nature of the people is even more impressive to behold.  In this country people are truly kind and generous.  Even with the extreme poverty present throughout the country, people smile, wave and greet you with a warmth that is sorely lacking in Western Society.  There is no falseness to it, it seems to come from a deep well of real emotion.

But tourism is certainly rearing it's ugly head in Cambodia as well due to the popularity of the Angkor Wat Temple Complex near Siem Reap in Central Cambodia, which as of 2010 is reported to have had more than 3 million tourists pass through its gates.  The only area which gave the feeling of being around people that only wanted your money was in Siem Reap and around the temples of Angkor.  However, Once you left these areas, the true nature of Cambodia revealed itself.

I flew into Phnom Penh, a small airport on the outskirts of the capital and took a taxi to the center. I had a few preconceived notions about this town from stories I had heard, as well as books I had read.  As usual, things experienced for yourself can outstrip all advice.  I liked this town.  It was large, chaotic and rather polluted.  However, it was also full of temples, markets, monks and monuments.  It was also very clean and organized.  I had some great rice dishes and soups as well as a very sweet and rather green tasting fresh cane juice drink (filled with local ice that made me a bit nervous to drink, but I never got sick on my entire trip, despite eating and drinking everything I could find).

In Phnom Penh I visited the enormous Central Market for a great lunch of some kind of fried rice and pickled vegetables.  There was very little English spoken there, which as someone allergic to fish made me a bit nervous.  However, it tasted great and was about 40 cents.  Really amazing how much food you can get for so little money.  It was also strange to find that the American Dollar was the preferred currency in all of Cambodia.  In fact, often change would be in a mix of American change and Cambodian Reals.

The Central Market was certainly chaotic, and I did not see any other tourists, but it was amazing.  One of my favorite things to do when in a new country is to find the local market and browse through, eating what I can, and asking questions to anyone that will listen.  I certainly got some surprised stares when I was walking through, but that is the amazing part of traveling. People always want to offer samples and talk to you, no matter if they speak the same language or not.  I would cetrainly recommend a stop at this market if ever you are in Phnom Penh.

I took the bus from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap with a friend that I had met in Singapore and met back up with in Cambodia.  The bus ride, while hot, dusty and uncomfortable, was a great was to see the deeply agrarian society that is a majority of Cambodia.  Most farming seemed to be subsistence in nature, and people were everywhere in the fields and in ponds, streams and any available body of water fishing for the days meal.  When we stopped at one of the bus stops, to my mild shock, the only protein source offered was fried spiders, crickets and beetles.  I have had crickets and beetles before, but I felt that this particular bus stop might not be the best place to try these offerings.  However, seeing the box of live spiders next to it made the decision slightly easier.

As we began to drive through Siem Reap, the tourist nature of the town was revealed in the large and expensive looking resorts that started popping up on the outskirts, making the contrast with the bus ride even more stark.  The one thing that let you know you were still in a developing country was the amazing amount of pollution and fine dust that covered everything and made it genuinely difficult to breathe.  Siem Reap had the feeling of a city surviving solely off of tourism, with all of the prostitution, poverty, beggars, starving children and scam artists that you might expect.  The prices were 4-5 times more than anywhere else in Cambodia and the streets were full of drunk or well on their way there white tourists, as well as Asian tourists in large tour groups.

The next morning, leaving at 430 AM to get to Angkor Wat we arrived to find thousands of people already walking into the complex trying to get the iconic shot of the sunrise.  In fact, there were so many people that we decided to take the picture once they had cleaned out, and it actually made for a better picture.  Angkor was at times beautiful, immense, overwhelming and repetitive.  The main temples were overrun by tourists, but you could still find moments of solitude and temples without any
people around at all, especially if you went far outside of the main complex area.  In fact, there are hundreds of temples in the general area, some are as impressive or more so than the main Angkor Complex.

An interesting religious aspect to these temples is that most of the images of the Buddha were swathed in saffron fabric like a monk.. It created an interesting flash of color in an otherwise grey atmosphere.

After spending a few days at Angkor, we took an amazing boat ride to Battambang , Cambodia's second largest city, where the atmosphere was decidedly less touristy.  The boat ride over exposed me to some of the worst poverty I have ever seen.  It was comparable to the poorest areas of Bolivia where I visited in 2005, yet, as was the case in most of Cambodia, people waved and smiled as we went by.  In fact, it seemed like every child along the river was wearing their arm out trying to wave at as many people as possible.

This city was more of what I expected of Cambodia.  It was quite poor, yet felt like a real city that functioned for the people that lived there.  The food was great, with carts frying all kinds of food and people walking around with platters of food on their heads.  The plate of food was purchased from a market and was some type of fresh shrimp dumplings with chives and some BBQ chicken.  Yum.

Overall, I felt like I just barely scratched the surface of Cambodia.  It is, admittedly a very flawed and poor country.  It was also however real.  The people were amazing and I saw the hope that they had for their future.  I would certainly like to go back and see more of this amazing place.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Culinary (and other) Adventures in South-East Asia - Part 3 - Malaysia

Malaysia was a study in opposites that I am not sure that I appreciated as much as I should have.  I visited two vastly different areas of the country during my stay there and had some of the strangest experiences of my entire trip while traveling through this country.  This posting is long, a bit light on photos, and a bit heavy on my strong dissatisfaction with this portion of my journey, but hey, I am just trying to be honest.

I first flew to the island of Langkawi in order to get to Koh Lipe.  My Air Asia flight was delayed by a mechanical breakdown of the plane, which for someone  like myself that doesn't particularly like flying is hardly something that breeds confidence in an airline.  So, I ended up arriving in Langkawi about 6 and one half hours later than my scheduled landing.  Since Air Asia is a "budget airline" they also do not offer any food during short flights (this flight was only about 75 minutes).  Bottom line, I was starving when I arrived to the island.

When I arrived at my hostel I was mildly shocked to find that it was really a number of shacks somewhat near a beach and I was the only person staying there.  In addition it proclaimed itself to be a "Hotel and Dialysis Retreat" which is not my idea of a good time as bi-weekly blood cleanings for people with kidney failure and the word "resort" are not often found in the same sentence.

I then went searching for any open restaurant, street food stand or really anything that resembled food.  Unfortunately, by this time literally all of the restaurants were closed.  In fact, the island seemed to be populated by a few types of people: young Muslim women wearing veils and riding motorcycles in large groups, sunburned drunk German Tourists and Malaysian Rastas.  Mull those images over in your mind and you may be able to understand the utter bizarre feeling I got from this island.

I found one bar open that was, of all things, a Bolton Wanderers themed bar (a smaller soccer team that plays in the English Premier League) with two people located inside: a tattooed slightly crazy Canadian traveler and a local Langkawi woman.  As I had nothing better to do that evening I decided to accompany them to what she described as a "totally local experience".  We arrived shortly thereafter at a beach bar full of dread-locked Malaysian Rastafarians swaying back and forth to reggae music around campfires burning on the beach.  Of course, scattered throughout these Rastas were some rather obvious Ladyboys (local term for transgender men).  Everyone seemed to be having a great time and made a sharp contrast to the Fundamentalist Muslim culture that this area of Malaysia is also home to.

From there, we went to another bar that was full of locals dancing to of all things, a Malaysian Cover Band singing pitch-perfect renditions of American Top 40 Hits.  Quite honestly, they sang them better than some of the original artists.  However, one does not usually go to a relatively obscure Malaysian Island and expect to hear Cover Bands who most likely don't speak much English singing "Airplanes" and rapping with such flow that any real rapper would have felt a bit threatened.  What a strange night that will not be soon forgotten.  I left for Thailand the next morning.

The second time I visited Malaysia was by bus from Satun, Thailand to Kuala Lumpur, a long and tedious trip made much less of both by good company provided by some Swedish and Australian travelers.  Best meal eaten on this bus trip was provided by an extremely shady bus stop Indian Stand selling Roti Canai and small amounts of spicy vegetarian lentil dishes for 30 cents American.

Let me say that again.  A delicious meal for 30 CENTS.  I must admit I was slightly concerned that this 30 cents might turn into a horrible, bathroom-less,  LONG bus ride and a possible need for the Cipro Antibiotics kindly provided by my healthcare practitioner.  It turned out just fine however, and I admit I regretted not eating something more while I was there.

When we finely arrived in Kuala Lumpur, my trip and feelings for Malaysia and specifically KL went south. The bus pulled into the center of town at about 430 AM and I took a taxi thinking my hostel would be a little more distant from the bus stop.  He charged me 3 dollars and took me exactly 4 blocks.  So much for Malaysian niceties.

Once I was in the Hostel, the first thing the man at the front desk told me was "you can not sleep on the couch".  So I was forced to find a book and prop myself up, pretending to be reading while catching up on my lack of rest.

I finally got up and took advantage of their free instant coffee (oh how nice of them) and made my way out into the city.  If there exists in Asia a LESS pedestrian friendly city, I challenge people to tell me.  I got lost more times than I though was possible.

My impression of KL was that it was trying to be like Singapore but had neither the resources, the planning ability or the real desire to make it shiny and new.  Basically it seemed piecemealed together and artificial while keeping the horrific tropical humidity and building decay intact.  A vast majority of the older parts of the city had been demolished, and it seemed to have been left that way, disturbing what was most likely an interesting and beautiful Colonial city in the misguided desire to be the next new thing. 

As in all of the other cities I had been in, there was a large area filled with street stalls, food courts and restaurants, many with the local specialties that I was saving for later in the day.  As I was staying in Chinatown and I was in Asia, I had breakfast in the Asian way with a noodle soup dish that I asked specifically if it did not have fish, when I received the negative response I asked for a dish of the beef noodle soup.  When it came out with grey balls floating in it, I again asked if if had fish, and the owner no said "yes, fish balls".  As I am allergic to fish, I asked if they could remove the balls, and they made me another soup.  I then sat down to eat, took one sip and realized that the BROTH was also Fish broth.  I left the soup on the table and walked away with swelling lips and a strong dislike welling in my chest for this city.  I grabbed some bread in an attempt to fill my stomach with something that was guaranteed not to have fish and give me more of a reaction and continued to explore.

After much wandering, I found the large central Mosque and sat listening to the Muezzin call for one of the five daily prayers, something that if you have not heard a live version of in a Muslim City is really a beautiful and haunting experience that makes you want to sit and listen to the prayer.

My wandering found in the best kept colonial area of the city, about 5 more minutes by foot from the Mosque and pretty much the only area of the city that seemed to be well preserved and beautified.  KL would be a much more interesting city had more buildings been preserved like these.

I went to the iconic Petronus Towers, which while beautiful seemed really out of place, dropped in in an attempt to showcase the economic power of Malaysia.  To me they seemed beautiful and alien, not at all part of the surrounding environment, which was surrounded by a man-made lake and more modern buildings that could have been anywhere in the world. The stores inside were the same as found in any mall in the United States.  Again, disappointment.

I must say, I was looking forwards to leaving this city.  My next stop was Phnom Phen, Cambodia.  A place I enjoyed much more.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Culinary (and other) Adventures in South East Asia - Part 2 - Koh Lipe, Thailand

Ah Thailand.  Why oh why did I wait thirty years to visit you? Your beaches, your ocean, your jungles and yes, your amazing food.  Perhaps a better question would be to ask, why the heck does the Thai food in Thailand taste so completely different than the Thai food in the United States?  

Everything there is just so cheap, so fresh and has such a clean flavor that I would imagine that living in the Mecca of local, fresh produce that we could at least make an attempt to replicate it.  But no, all too often we are stuck with 10 dollar bland curries that come from a jar.  But I digress.

Thailand is certainly a land of great dichotomies.  From the extreme poverty that I witnessed on the Island that I stayed on for a number of days to the extreme wealth on display in Bangkok's streets full of brand new Porches and Mercedes.
What held all of these seemingly disparate parts of this incredibly diverse country was the love and  seemingly constant search for food, drink, sweets and more.  Especially in Bangkok, I have never been in a place that was more covered with small stands, restaurants, hawkers, wagons, trailers, smokers, pretty much in every size, shape, color and type of food they sold.

The first place I visited was Koh Lipe, a small island more off the coast of Malaysia than Thailand proper.  With the dramatic expansion of tourism, no island as beautiful as this could go untouched.  However, as it was not a particularly easy island to get to and no resorts to speak of, most of the people came for two reasons: laying undisturbed on beaches that were as isolated as you desired or diving.  I was there for the diving.

I felt fortunate enough to have gotten a recommendation from friends that had stayed on this island just a few months before with a diving company called Forra. Every so often when you travel, you find yourself in place that makes you feel like you are home.  Forra had that feeling.  Everyone that was staying there, all of the staff, all of the divers were so friendly, so welcoming it made me not want to leave this idylic diving commune.  I highly recommend that if you go to this island, to stay with Forra.  But, and that is a BIG but, I had a sinking suspicion as I was staying on Koh Lipe that it was on the cusp of completely blowing up as a tourist destination.  In fact, they were building no less than 2 large hotel/resorts that would be done in less than 1 year.  I am not sure I would go back to Koh Lipe, afraid of the changes occurring, but Forra might just make it worthwhile.

Also, as in most beautiful destinations that bring in tourists, there seemed to be a growing rift between the local Chao Ley natives (known also as Sea Gypsies) and the Thai and Foriegn owners of the businesses.  According to people that have been coming to Koh Lipe for years, the Chao Ley are becoming more westernized, yet more distant and no integrating well into the new economy. They do, however, have the monopoly on the main method of transportation within the chains of islands in the South Andaman Sea - the longtail boat.  Many of them are painted with beautiful colors and designs such as this wrecked ship.

In addition, as you walked into the interior of the island, the lack of a good waste disposal system and any type of water treatment or water supply system made itself painfully obvious.  The farther you walked away from the beautiful beaches, the more obvious the facade became, decreasingly able to cover the poverty lying just beneath.
While not being memorable in flavor, the beer of choice in these surroundings was Chang.  Now, I prefer Singha to Chang, but as anything cold and thirst quenching in these environs will hit the spot, I drank it with gusto.  

In addition, I discovered just what people mean when they say Thai food is spicy.  Being that I am allergic to fish, a horrible thing to be when on an island by the way, I was restricted to meat and vegetable products.  I decided on one pleasant evening to try the Chicken Larb.  Unknown to me, this is quite possibly one of the spiciest dishes that one can order in Thailand.  In addition, I ordered in with the true "Thai" level of spiciness, as I consider myself quite capable of handling spicy foods.  Well, 3 Changs, a large bowl of rice and an unknown number of napkins as sweat mops later, I was finally able to finish a dinner serving of Larb.  This dish consists of minced meat, lime juice nad other seasonings and chiles....Lots and lots of chilies, dried chiles, ground chiles, fresh chiles you name a kind of chili found in Thailand, and I am sure it ends up in Larb.  After staggering back to my bamboo house with a numb mouth and a spinning head from the Changs (6.4% alcohol will do that to you), I finally stopped sweating enough to sleep.

Next up - Part 3 - Cambodia

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Culinary (and other) Adventures in South East Asia - Part 1 - Singapore

After another world spanning adventure I am back to tell you a truth that I would not have believed before I went there: South East Asia eats better than we do here in the "First World", not only better but so cheaply that I was embarrassed paying the 50 Cents for my amazing meals.

The first stop on my voyage was the tiny City/State of Singapore.  Now Singapore has a reputation, rightly earned, for being a rule-bound and extraordinarily expensive city.  Totally true statement.  They didn't like my passport photo, and so kept me at immigration for more than 1 hour at 130 AM while checking with the US government and their supervisors.  Well, that is why it is so safe there apparently.

More painful for a drinker such as myself, the average price for a single beer in a bottle was about 10 US dollars.  Prohibitively expensive for a night out on the town.  In fact, if you were going out on the town, the places you were going were most likely charging $15 dollars or more per beer.  Don't even ask about Wine or Spirits.  I ordered a Manhattan at a popular nighttime destination area called Clarke Quay and not only was it $22 dollars, it was the size of a shot glass.  Of course, this area also looked like you had been transported to Las Vegas, so maybe they just incorporated the price of a plane ticket to make you feel like you had left Singapore.

However, I was fortunate enough to discover the National Sport of Singapore: Eating.  No joke.  At all times of the night and day, there were people eating everywhere.  Eating at restaurants seemed to be an after thought.  No, in Singapore, people eat at Hawker Stands.  Hawker Stands are what remained after the Government, in an apparent attempt to limit food-borne illness, created permanent Hawker Markets all over they city, where these food carts become food stalls.  What a great idea.  That way you can literally try 50 different dishes and only have to walk about 50 feet to get all of them.

If you go there, it is best to take at least one other person and have them stake out a table, as at prime eating times, the likelihood that you will be able to score a seat at a table is highly unlikely. There are also markets in which the table numbers enable you to tell the hawkers where you are sitting, and they will bring you your food restaurant style.

Since Singapore is such a multicultural city, the types of food that can be found literally spans all of Asia.  The dominant ethnic groups are the Malay, the Chinese, and the Indians, mostly from the Tamal ethnic minority.  This creates an amazing mixture of cultural and food tradition that is unique to Singapore.  Talking to residents that grew up in the city, this tradition is rapidly changing to become more "Pan-Asian" but for the moment, the traditions are still holding.

I visited the area of Singapore called Little India to the main Hawker Market to try what are among the most famous of Singaporean Dishes, the Roti Canai or Roti Paratha. 

The Roti is a ghee drenched bread that is folded in a really amazing way by people that have obviously been doing this for  most of they lives.  Basically, you need to take a small ball of dough, pound it into a small round shape and then flip it over and over, slowly stretching it out by rapidly flipping it onto a greased surface.  This makes for a really thin dough that is then folded on itself with, yes, more ghee, and then fried in Ghee on a very hot grill until it is lightly browned and blistered. 

This dish can be eaten at all times of the day, but is usually served with either sugar or with some type of curry.  I had it also with eggs and cheese as a sort of breakfast sandwich.  Basically, any way you can have this dish, it is amazing.  Greasy and bad for you?  Yes.  Delicious?  Absolutely.

The Chinese tradition is also very strong in Singapore, mostly found in the various versions of Chicken Rice, Long Coffee, Rice Porridge and the tea drinks that are ubiquitous in the city.  The Hainanese people from the smallest province in China were a majority of the original population of Singapore, and so brought their traditions and foods as a result.  In fact, according to the food people I spoke to in Singapore, Hainanese Chicken Rice is not only the Singaporean National Dish, but is more popular in Singapore than in Hainan.  This dish consists of a long boiled chicken, served cold and rice cooked in the stock, with a chili ginger or green onion-garlic-ginger dipping sauce and often with a hot cup of chicken broth on the side.  This dish is simple, but really satisfying.  The rice has an amazing amount of flavor.  The Tiger beer is also really nice with this dish, but like almost all SE Asian beer (with the major exception of Kingdom Beer in Cambodia) it is a light lager that is really more about thirst quenching cold than flavor.

I also had some amazing Chicken/Century Egg Rice Porridge that required standing in line for almost 45 minutes to get.  It was quite good, but I am not sure that I would stand in line for that long again! Rice porridge is an acquired taste for sure, but not as acquired as century egg.  The jelly texture would turn off many Americans not used to the Asian desire for conflicting textures.

I also found many fresh food markets through out the city that mostly focused on one type of cuisine.  I ventured into a large seafood market in Central Singapore that did not smell.  For someone that is allergic to fish such as myself, that is really saying something.  I am really sensitive to the smell of um...ripe I was pleasantly surprised at the freshness that was obvious there.

Over all, I really enjoyed Singapore for the food and mixture of cultures.  However, the expense and a distinct sense that the leaders of the city wished to wipe out their own traditions made Singapore feel fake in many ways.  I hope that they will be able to find a happy balance.

In upcoming posts, I will continue to tell about my trip, but I will also attempt to recreate the foods that I was able to experience there, starting in the same order in which I visited the countries.

Next up in Part 2 - Thailand

Friday, December 3, 2010

Filming "The Winemakers" in France - Part 2

Yes, of course those are olives rather than the grapes that you might think would be the focus of these posts, but unfortunately, by the time that we arrived in France, the harvest had already occurred.

To continue the story of the filming, we continued to be put to the test daily with challenges both mental and physical. 

We arrived at the Cave de Vignerons Rasteau for a blind tasting and blending challenge, a large cooperative winery (a winery that pools the vineyards and resources of a designated group of growers) located in Rasteau.  Rasteau Rouge is a new AOC or Appelation d'origine Contrôlée, meaning a delimited geographic location, in the Cotes du Rhone.  It received this elevation in status in 2010.  The other wines made in Rasteau, such as the Vin Doux Naturel or fortifed sweet wine has been an AOC since 1944.

The Cave de Rasteau was one HUGE winery.  They had more tanks and bigger tanks than all but the biggest wineries that I have visited in the past.  I believe that the head winemakers stated that they make about 800,000 bottles of wine per year.

The different type of tanks in the winery were resin lined concrete  and enormous stainless steel fermentation and aging vessels.  We never saw any barrels, but as the winery was very large and consisted of many buildings that we did not enter, I imagine that they also had a large barrel  room.

As they were setting up for the blind tasting challenge, I got to roam a bit.  The stainless tanks were so large that there was a 40 ft high walkway above the tanks, and I was able to snap a quick photo of some of my castmates.

The blind tasting challenge consisted five flights of wine.  Within these flight, we tried to find grape varieties, vintages, flaws and finally to use barrel samples of wine to recreate a finished wine.  All of this was done in a rather hurried manner, as the time crunch we were in made for some interesting choices!

Once this challenge was done, we retired, extremely fatigued back to our lodging.

The next day we were lucky enough to travel to Clos de Trias in the provençal town of Le Barroux.  An incredibly beautiful location, this winery is run by an American winemaker named Even Bakke married to a French lady with roots deep into the French Wine world (she is the daughter of Bruno Paillard of Champagne fame). 

Even (here seen in the blue vest) made wine for years in California and is making excellent wine mostly from Grenache.  His winery was a study in simplicity, in the French way, that is not often duplicated outside of the old world.

This castle is across from his wine making facility and his vineyards.  Really hard to capture in a photograph!

After taking in the amazing views we worked hard in the winery, doing typical tasks such as pumpovers, pressing, moving grapes and wines and generally making a mess that Even apparently was up until 3 AM fixing.  Sorry!

The final challenge was to create a wine business pan, label and sales plan and present it to the judging panel.  Difficult for me to say the least, as business is hardly my strong point.

As I cannot say how I or my castmates did on the show, I just want to urge everyone to watch the show, which should be on your local PBS station in beautiful HD sometime around April of 2011.

Doing this show was such a great experience.  I have such a strong connection to this area of France, and seeing it for maybe the 8th time just reinforces my love both of France and of the Rhone in general.  I highly recommend to try some wines from this region and if you can, go visit it.  It is truly one of the most beautiful areas in the world.