Monday, February 6, 2012

Pic of the week - Cambodian U-Haul

I have realized that after over six months in Cambodia, the amount of pictures I have taken is just dismally low.

Sometimes I think that not even pictures could capture the feelings in some of the more interesting moments here, and to an extent, I think thats true.  But I need to make more of an effort to visually capture the good and bad, the funny and the sad and the daily and the extraordinary.  If nothing else, I will want photographic evidence when I am explaining my PC stories to friends and family back home.

Therefore, I am going to try my damnedest to be consistent in taking and posting a new "special picture" every week.  I try to include pictures in my normal blog posts when I can, but I am hoping that this weekly segment will encourage me to keep my camera at the ready so I can capture all those things I have been meaning to or wish that I had the chance to but my camera was out of reach.

Over the weekend, Kate and I visited our training village.  It had been over two months since we last saw our training host grandma and she was so happy to see us.  We bumped into a few other friends we had made in the town as well.  It felt good to know those relationships didn't just disintegrate after we left.

Anyhow, on the 12k trip there, I came across this beauty.  Not uncommon here, but still so amazing.  I stopped my bike to snap a few shots.

The driver slowed down to say hi to me as he saw I was taking his picture, and the two guys riding on top were all to happy to smile and wave.

I have always hated moving day, but I guess I was just doing it wrong.

Despite the incredibly dangerous traffic hazard this could be, it shows a lot about Cambodian resourcefulness, their attitudes and lack of understanding about traffic safety and strong desire to get the job done in as few moves as possible.

Why take two cars when we can fit nine people in a Toyota Camery?  Not a riddle and not a joke.  I've been there...

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Spaghetti Dinner (Part 3)

Essentially, they loved it.  

By they of course, I mean my family, and by it of course, I mean the delicious spaghetti I made for them.  

While our host nephew decided against trying the food (he is really picky/spoiled), both the girls ate the pasta sans sauce (at least they tried it).  

Opting for rice over the (obviously) more delicious spaghetti
and homemade pasta sauce.  He did, however, guzzle
down several glasses of Coke that we had brought. 
Host nephew getting his come-uppins for being such a (cute) little snot. 

Our host mother, sister, brother and Khmer tutor ate numerous bowls of pasta and sauce - whether or not they were truly enjoying it or just being polite is something I will never know.  

However, the dinner was full of laughs, talking about how much we were thankful for each other and of course, how delicious the food was.  

Our host mom and host sister chowing down on some spaghetti. 

A family dinner, in every sense of the term. 

Kate and our Khmer tutor, Thany.  She is pretty freakin' awesome. 

An impromptu English study session during dinner.  The highlight of our host
niece's reading is when she recites the alphabet, "A - apple, B - bird, C - cat..."

My host brother had a wedding to attend while we ate, but he ended up making it home to try a bit of pasta and "ankoi lang" or literally translated, "sit-play." 

                     Host sister and host brother, husband and wife.  
I don't typically imbibe alcohol around the family - I don't want to give off a negative image that sometimes accompanies alcohol consumption in this country.  But in this case, it was a celebratory event, my tutor and host mom were also kicking a few back, so I felt that it was appropro to have a cold brew with them. 
Host niece and I goofin' around.  I promise, she was not drinking beer.  I was...
One more...

Happily, the evening was everything I had hoped for.  While I have always felt very close to this family, showing them how much they meant to Kate and I seemed only natural and well-recieved.  At one point during the dinner Kate and I needed to run out to grab a medical package that PC had sent Kate in a spur-of-the-moment decision.  Kate was going to go and get it herself until our mom shooed me away with a gesture that said, "go with her, you are her husband and you need to make sure she is safe!"  The feeling of love mixed with obligation and guilt that this gesture produced in me, solidified how she has become such an important figure in our lives.  

At one point during the meal, Kate and I were joking around with each other in Khmer.  Nothing out of the usual...but our family remarked how much they enjoy us being able to "loosen up" around them and be ourselves.  They also can clearly see that, while we try to be respectful of their cultural norms, the love we have for each other is very evident.  

As a quick aside, this contradicts much of what we were taught during training, that often, its much better to toe the line of propriety and act in accordance with K'mai standards.  In fact, many times, our family likes to see how we act "normally."  This is not a comment about the shortcomings of PC training, only to note that in reality, our cultures often do not differ by all that much. 

The night came to a great end as Kate and I insisted on doing all the dishes and giving the family a true night off.  Again, the gesture was taken well and it was hard to peel ourselves away from the family and go back to our own house. 

All this to say that we have a fantastic host family in Cambodia, and the Spaghetti dinner was a huge success.  

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Spaghetti Dinner (Part 2)

Whenever I cooked at home (Maryland), forgetting something from my recipe at the store was simply and easily rectified by jumping back in the car and making the five minute (roundtrip) journey back to and home from the store again.  Nonetheless, I am pretty sure I complained when this happened.

In Cambodia, it usually takes several trips to the market for me to gather the ingredients I need for more-complex-than-usual-dishes, mostly because they don't have enough of what I need or they don't have it at all.  In this case, 4.5 kilograms of ripe tomatoes, a half kilogram of pork, a half kilogram of green pepper, two onions, two carrots, garlic, and fresh parsley.  The tomatoes alone gave me cause to make two separate visits to two different markets.  Even getting this far gives me cause to be proud.

Ready to cook!
I had no intent of ever making this blog a "cooking blog," mostly because I could never do it as good as most of the ones I have seen out there already.  Also, I tend to "cook from the hip" and often don't ever work with recipes.  If I do, its usually something I have modified.  However, cooking spaghetti in Cambodia feels different than it would in America, so I have tried to capture the process here.

Skinning the tomatoes is the first step.  Its pretty simple, the tomatoes go into boiling water for about 30-40 seconds, and then immediately into cold water.  You don't want the tomatoes to cook, only to blanch the skins and then they will slide off.  Cook the tomatoes a few at a time so you can easily remove them form the water after 30-40 seconds.

An added bonus for boiling fruits and veggies in Cambodia is that
it kills any bacteria that may be on the outside of the produce. 
The skins should pop off real easily, then you are left with naked-looking tomatoes.  Don't throw out the tomato skins yet.

Disrobed, slippery tomatoes...
Now for the most tedious step. You need to remove any part of the tomato that won't cook down into a liquid-y sauce as well as most (not all, that is impossible) of the seeds.  So...cut the top part of the tomato off (the part where the stem meets the flesh) and squeeze the pulp into a sieve or strainer that will gather the seeds.  Allow the juice to run from the seeds through the strainer into a bowl underneath.  The rest of the tomato parts, is what the sauce will mainly consist of.  Use your hands, a blender or whatever to mash up the flesh the best you can and put it all in a big saucepan. Go ahead and turn the heat to low while you are doing the next few steps, the longer the tomatoes cook the better the sauce will be.
I don't have a lot of cooking supplies, so I sterilized a slatted bowl
for fruit and used it to catch the seeds and tough pulp. 
Save the juice, its really helpful later and usually contains lots of sugars from the tomatoes which helps to make a tastier sauce.  While the strainer is still over the bowl, squeeze the skins from earlier to ensure they the juice they hold makes it into your bowl.

I like to proceed by doing the following: take about eight or nine cloves of fresh garlic and half of an onion, chop them up fine and then put into a smaller saucepan with a few glugs of olive oil.  Brown, but don't burn, the onions and garlic.

Also give the tomatoes in your main pot a quick stir, don't let them burn on the bottom.  They should be simmering lightly.

Once the garlic and onions have been browned (and smell delicious) add about 2/3 of the tomato juice to the smaller saucepan and begin to season.

***NOTE: If your sauce ever gets to be too thick, that is when you add the rest of the tomato juice.  If you don't need it, fine, make yourself a tasty Bloody deserve it.

You need to season this.  The tricky part is how your sauce is seasoned because this is largely dependent on the quantity of sauce you are making, personal preference, etc.  Start with a few tablespoons of salt, the same of oregano and basil (or an all-purpose italian seasoning), a few generous pinches of sugar, pepper, a little bit of chopped parsley and you are golden (I also like about half a tablespoon of cayenne pepper or hot sauce for a bit of kick).  Don't add too much, you can taste the sauce along the way and add more if needed, but if its too salty/peppery, you are kinda screwed.

Let that simmer, but keep an eye on it, don't let it burn.

At this point, your big saucepan of tomatoes should start looking like this:

You want this to continue simmering for a LONG time...for the amount of tomatoes I am using, (roughly 9lbs), it will go for about 2.5 hours.  You want the water to boil off from the tomatoes, the sauce to thicken, the tomatoes to breakdown and the juices from the tomatoes to caramelize (it will get darker).  I like to add a few pinches of salt to it right now, it seems to help coax the juice from the pulp of the tomatoes.

In the smaller saucepan, keep it simmering.  I like boiling the juice down to a paste-like consistency and since you seasoned this heavily, all the seasons and flavors will intermingle and concentrate.  It will take a good long while for the juice to turn into paste.  Keep it simmering, keep stirring and keep it from burning.

As both pots continue to simmer, and you continue to stir periodically, chop up the veggies and meat you want to add to the sauce.  Again, based on preference, for a smoother sauce, chop them up finer, for a chunkier sauce you'll want to chop them more coarsely.  I like a chunkier sauce so I usually cut up my carrots, onions and peppers fairly coarsely.

Ok, so your juice should be right about at the paste stage now.  Add it to the large saucepan with the majority of your tomatoes. This should all still be simmering now but with the paste now in, it should also be a bit thicker and darker.

Continue the simmering and the stirring and the thickening.  Take a small handful of the chopped green peppers and add it to your sauce now, this will help with the flavor of the sauce.  

Take the rest of the vegetables and put them in a skillet with a little oregano, a pinch of salt and pepper, some olive oil, and sauté until slightly browned.

Then, add the veggies to the sauce.

After this all you need to do is keep it simmering until you like the consistency.  You will also need to give it a few taste tests to fine tune the seasoning to your tastes.

In the end, it looks something like this:

Notice the darker color?  That is because the sugars from the tomatoes have caramelized.  Your sauce is now delicious.

One final step, if you want your sauce to have meat in it.  I chose to add some thinly sliced pork.  This is mostly because not having a dish with meat in it is a sign of frugality or poorness in Cambodia, I wanted my family to know that we cooked them a "good" meal that contained meat.

To keep it tender, I added the pork in the last couple minutes of simmering and let it continue to cook while the sauce cooled.  This way the pork stayed tender but still cooked through.

Now, after only like three or four hours in the kitchen and untold treks to countless markets (if you are making this sauce in Cambodia).

I never intended this to be such a cliff-hanging-three-part-post, but tomorrow I will post how the actual dinner went with the family (I promise!).

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Spaghetti Dinner (Part 1)

If I have not already said this, let me make it clear: Kate and I have an amazing Cambodian family that we live next to.  They are as generous and kind as they are respectful of our privacy as a married couple living in a foreign country.

We live in a pretty awesome home here in Cambodia that, by comparison to most homes in this country, is more than satisfactory.  Our family has also gone to great efforts to ensure that we have all the things we need to more than get by: furniture, appliances...even cushions to sit on (a BIG luxury in Cambodia)!

Our K'mai family consists of six members: a mom, her daughter and her husband, and their three children (including a set of twins).

With the twins and their grandma, who we call "Mai," Khmer for Mom.   Also, my
host nephew is making a really satanic/hilarious face here
One of many nights when the twins crashed our house because they were bored.  
Apparently I missed the memo on the funny face picture.  

Single PCVs typically live with host families in a more complete way - they eat most meals with them, usually live in a room in their house and while they tend to become much closer with their families then a married PCV couple may, they also tend to have more issues with privacy, food and the daily grind.  

Kate and I live in a detached home on our host family's property, only a few meters away from their own home.  We can lock our doors and maintain our privacy if we want to.  

We choose to try to integrate into our family, in some way, on a daily basis.  I think you could say that we are like adopted members of the family most days.  Our "mom" calls us her children, the kids call us Aunt and Uncle and we interact with them as such pretty regularly.  

The kids run out to us when we get home from teaching and either ask us to play to help us put our bikes away.  We help them study English and they come into our house from time to time to see what we are watching on our computer (if I want them to leave I just say I am watching a movie about ghosts...perhaps immoral, but it works really well).  

Even though its not in the official agreement our family made with PC, they invite us over for lunch or dinner once a week or so and bring us fresh fruit several times a week.  We really appreciate their generosity, but even more, the balance they have struck giving us our privacy and inviting us into their family.  

After eating with them this past week, Kate and I decided to turn the tables and make them dinner instead.  

I have made homemade spaghetti sauce here several times already and thought that was the safest choice to give them a taste of foreign cuisine.  Several other PCVs have already attempted dinners similar to this with mixed results.  Sometimes the families really dig it, sometimes they put the sauce over rice because the noodles must just be too weird and other times I have heard of families eating only small amounts to say that they had tried it.  

I don't expect a home run, but I do hope that our family understands the gesture and tries the food.  

After another quick trip to the market tomorrow and a few hours in the kitchen, we will be serving dinner for the family.  Pictures and results to follow this weekend. 

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Impressive, sir!

One of the constants of Peace Corps service is talking about the things you miss: food, places, weather, freedoms...

Sometimes it is almost taken for granted that the thing PCVs tend to miss the most are our family and friends that have been physically absent from our lives for an extended period of time.  The activities that I did at home, the things I ate and places I visited, don't mean as much without being in the context of the people I did them with.  

So when I talk about missing something like eating a Chipotle burrito, watching a hockey game or going for a run at home - its not only the action I truly miss, but doing the action with someone I love and miss.  

The other day I needed a laugh.  It was just one of those days where things didn't go right, the heat got to me and the lessons I taught at school flopped.  In Cambodia as in America, people can have bad days.  

So I tried to think of a time where I laughed until my sides hurt.  A Cheetos commercial immediately popped into mind: 

You may not think this commercial funny.  Hell, you may find it downright ridiculous and a complete waste of your time watching it now.  But when it first aired on TV I happened to watch it with my younger brother, Scott.  For some reason it really tickled us.  

Sometimes you are just in the right mood at the right time for something to come along and really make you laugh and enjoy something, even if you can't put your finger on what it is.  I am pretty sure Scott and I laughed at this for well over half an hour and then YouTubed it again after we stopped laughing, only to restart our snickering.  

During the bad day I had recently, I laughed mildly when I YouTubed this, somewhat disappointedly as I thought that it would bring me out of my funk.  

But when I wrote the dialogue from the commercial into a text and sent it to Scott, I couldn't control my laughter.  I think it was because I knew that he would read it, laugh and it would again connect us in the same ridiculous way it did some months ago.  

It worked anyhow.  And, not that it takes 9,000 miles and six months of absence to learn this, but a big thing the Peace Corps has helped me to understand is the power of companionship and how much more enjoyable the events of our life can be when we share them with people we love.  

Thursday, January 26, 2012

What the hell is that smell?

I find myself asking myself this, rhetorically or aloud to my wife, on a regular basis in Cambodia.

Before coming to Cambodia I have been relatively well-traveled, including a semester abroad in Beijing.  So I assumed that I knew what I was in for with regard to the onslaught to my olfactory system.  I may have underestimated Cambodia's might in this department.

A few examples...

The markets are probably the first stop for anyone coming to Cambodia and wanting an authentic experience buying groceries, haggling on the price of a shirt or see how life here continually carries on in the smaller towns and villages.

In most markets, there are certain sections for certain kinds of sellers to sell their wares - clothes, electronics, fruits, vegetables, home goods, etc.  Be warned, the "fish" and "meat" sections of the market can be one of the more jolting places you will find on this Earth.  In them I have seen children freely peeing near uncovered piles of pork and beef, a pig being slaughtered and bleed while customers haggle over the price of the blood and have been nearly smacked in the face by various raw pieces of meat as enthusiastic sellers show me or package up their goods.

The smell is, as my father would have delicately put it, "enough to knock a buzzard off a shit wagon." Cambodians don't have access to refrigeration and moreover, don't fully understand the benefits of keeping cooked and uncooked food cold to prevent the formation of bacteria.  On the plus side, Cambodia consumes a great deal of fresh meat, fruits and vegetables daily.  The downside is the smell of meat in a very hot and humid climate several hours after the animal has been butchered.

My house, and I'm sure, many others in this country have their own set of unique and ponderous smells.  About a week ago Kate and I were having one of our bi-weekly language tutoring lessons when I stood straight up and started evacuating Kate and my teacher from the house because I thought we had a gas leak.  False host sister was preparing "prahok" a beloved dish in Cambodia made from dried and fermented fish paste.  This batch did not turn out as well as one might have hoped (though its hard to tell by smell alone when prahok is "edible"), and smelled rank of methane.

In the same week, we had an alarming evening as two cats made their way into our roof and began fighting.  Three holes in our roof later, our family had chased away the cats (the entire time we were consoling our host nephew that no, they were no ghosts in our house).  Apparently, the cats must have chased something else up their and made the kill, because today and for the past three days, a horrific rotting smell is emanating from our wall and ceiling.  I am sure it will go away soon though...

The people in Cambodia confuse me sometimes.  Occasionally I will be walking behind a group of men or women and be overpowered by their ability to wear extreme amounts of cologne or perfume without passing out from their own fumes.  Other days, I seems as though they are entirely unaware of the existence of BO in the world.  Either way, I find that I usually have a 100% chance of "over-smelling" K'mai people, but only a 50-50% chance of that smell being a positive one.

I don't want to be biased in this post, so let me leave you with some smells in Cambodia that I really do love.

Cooking garlic - riding my bike home in the evenings, usually I pass several houses and restaurants frying up something good with massive amounts of garlic.  No smell makes me hungrier...

Fruit stalls - especially at night, the dozen or so different kinds of fruit they sell on any given day just makes this perfect cacophony of scent by night.

Rain - you know that smell right at the beginning of a big rain storm?  Somehow the heat and humidity here make that smell all the more welcome during the rainy season.  I know I complain about the weather in Cambodia, but the big rains are something I will never get tired of.

Do you have a favorite smell, or better yet, a least favorite smell?  One of the things I miss most here is the smell of honeysuckle in the summer, nothing better than that smell when you are driving at night.


Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Risks of service

I tend to give my wife a hard time about most things, its just one of the big ways I show affection (that kind of sounds awful when I read it back to myself).  Kate's hypochondria tends to a be one of the major targets for my playful teasing - I just find it adorable when she suspects that her leg bruise will turn into a blood clot or that her headache is most certainly an embolism in process.

Let this blog post serve as an apology to her for all the teasing and maybe even a realization that for now, it might be better to play things safe.

During our 27 months of service, our physical health will be tested with foreign bacteria (such as giardia), viruses (such as dengue), fevers, poor nutrition, heat rashes, sunburns, frequent smoke inhalation (y'know, from burning trash) bouts of horrendous diarrhea as well as the countless unknown ailments.  This is not to even begin to think about the potentiality for more serious or life-threatening issues like bike/car accidents, bug or snake bites, etc.

I have the utmost faith in our Medical Officer (she is amazing, kudos to her if she ever reads this) to keep Kate and I healthy and safe in emergency situations and in our day-to-day health.  However, some of the effects of living here may be of concern for our long-term health.

This started becoming a more serious thought for me a few days ago when I was teaching.  A teacher noticed that the trash barrel was full, and because there is no trash pick up or landfills, lit the trash on fire to burn it.  This is totally common and needs to happen regularly to keep up with accumulating trash.  Unfortunately, the wind was not in my favor this day, and the thick acrid smoke blew into my classroom.  This was not the first time, nor will it be the last.  After dismissing class early so that my students and I could get some fresh air, I started to think...

The majority of trash burned in Cambodia is plastic, which typically produces a noxious, toxic and sometimes carcinogenic smoke.  Long-term effects of breathing in this delightful concoction, I'm sure, are not good.

That same week, I was with a fellow PCV contemplating whether or not our Cambodian diets were healthy or not.  Admittedly, we eat less fatty foods, less meat and probably end up eating more fresh vegetables on a daily basis.  However, a huge portion of our diet is white rice - essentially just empty carbohydrates.  Our major source or protein?  Duck eggs.  Did you know duck eggs can have up to four times as much cholesterol as the average chicken egg?  On an average day here, I probably eat AT LEAST one duck egg, but more like two.  After reading the article on the cholesterol levels of duck eggs, I thought I could feel my arteries start to harden.

When we return home, the Peace Corps will give us a year of covered health care in case health issues crop up due to our 27 months of service.  Initially, I found this incredibly generous.  I am beginning to wonder if it is enough...