Sunday, 4 March 2007

Sok So Bei Fish Amok

Well, that's it. My six weeks in Cambodia are already over... Six weeks of inspiring encounters and over ninety interviews. Six weeks of haggling with motodup and tuktuk drivers. Six weeks of Doxycycline. Six weeks of WIFI hotspot hunting and struggling with the local 011 mobile network. Six weeks of dirt, dust and discoveries. Six weeks of rice, fish, coconuts and Angkor Beer. Six weeks of smiles and beautiful people. Six weeks of crazy driving and many adventures.

Six weeks of road testing Fish Amok... Of course the search for the best Fish Amok continues. For now though, I'd have to say FRIZZ on Sisowath Quai, Phnom Penh's Riverfront makes the best Fish Amork in town. It's creamy, just-right-spicy and melts in your mouth. Frits, a Dutch former journalist, opened this tiny Khmer restaurant on the riverfront three years ago - so, there's a life after journalism! Today he's also offering Phnom Penh's only Khmer cooking classes. Unfortunately I didn't have the time to join one of his daily classes. But next time. Definitely.

And thank YOU for accompanying me on my Cambodian adventure. The weeks ahead will see me producing a long article for the Heinz-Kühn Foundation about tourism and poverty reduction - and a series of radio feature reports. I'll post the links to all of this material in the near future. For now Okun tscheran sam rap pram muy atit do-lor tschong kroy!!!

Update 03/2008: My report "Tourismus: Fluch oder Segen für Kambodscha" was published in the yearbook 2006-2007 of the Heinz-Kühn Foundation.

Saturday, 3 March 2007

The Secret of Fish Amok

Amok is a Cambodian curry which is steamed instead of boiled and is solid, but moist. There are traditionally two types of amok, one cooked with fish and streamed in banana leaf cups, simply known as amok, while the other, made from snails steamed in their shells, is known as amok chouk.

400 g meaty fish
2/4 cup coconut cream
2 cups coconut milk
1 egg, beaten
2 dried red chilies, soaked, drained and chopped into a paste
3 cloves garlic
2 tbsp galangal, cut small
1 tbsp lemon grass stalk zest of ¼ kaffir lime
1 tsp salt
1 tbsp kapi (a shrimp paste)
300 g young nhor leaves (substitute: collard greens and super finely chopped lemon grass)
1 tbsp fish sauce
3 tbsp kaffir lime leaves, sliced thinly
3 cayenne peppers
Banana leaves to make cups

First make the kroeung, then slice the catfish thinly and set aside. Remove nhor from stem; slice the kaffir lime leaves and cayenne peppers thinly. Stir the kroeung into 1 cup of coconut milk, and when it has dissolved, add the egg, fish sauce and sliced fish. Then add the remaining coconut milk and mix well. Make the banana leave cups, then put the nhor in first, and top with the fish mixture. Steam for about 20 minutes or until the coconut milk is solid, but still moist. Before serving top each cup with coconut cream and garnish with kaffir leaf and cayenne peppers. Serve with steamed rice.

Making banana leave cups:
First clean the leaves with a wet cloth, then dip them into boiling water so they are soft and do not crack when being shaped. Cut cicles 25-cm in diameter and place two together. This is important as one leaf is not strong enough to hold the mixture. Mark a square in the middle of the circle, this will be the bottom of the cup. Then, put a thumb on one right angle of the square and pull up 2 sides, tucking the fold, and pinning together with a tiny bamboo stick. Then move the next right and repeat. Continue until all 4 sides of the cup are held together.

Mekong Express Onboard Entertainment

Difficult to say what grabs your attention most... the Karaoke-Melodramatic-Love-Songs by up and coming Cambodian Popstars on TV, the onboard guide telling us in his sing song voice about the production of palm beer that get's you drunk after only one glass (but he assures us the driver hasn't had any... haha... drunk driving is a huge problem in Cambodia... and we've passed two deadly road accidents on that trip alone) or the honking drivers constantly overtaking as trucks, cars, motos and cows are coming towards you. Sitting in the second row I just can't watch the traffic. I'll be glad when I am safely onboard my plane tomorrow. I've heard too many traffic accidents horror stories in the past six weeks.

Five Star Tourism @ the Sweetheart Islands

Now, it's not all dirty and charmless. If you have a bit more time and don't mind a three hour rocky and deafening trip on a dodgy wooden fisher boat without life jackets and any sort of comfort, there are beautiful deserted beaches off Cambodia's coast. Miraculously Ko Rong, the largest island, is still largely untouched. On the Western side seven kilometers of white sand beach and cristal clear blue water lined with coconut palm trees provide the ultimate Robinson Crusoe feeling. There's not a soul in sight...

Gosh, I was dying to jump into the Turkoise water, but with two fishermen and my macho guide on board I would have had to jump in my clothes (like all Cambodian women do) - and I had nothing to change... bummer!

Unfortunately here too it's just a question of time when development will strike. The whole island is said to have been bought by a thirty-something Cambodian tycoon. Only a few foreign investors managed to snap up part of the cake. These two little islands were bought by Australians who are planning a five star resort here. The plans by star architect Bill Bensley are already drawn. Now they are only waiting for the last inhabitants to leave the island. Four out of ten families have been promised work in the new resort. The other families have two months to clear out, dismantle their wooden houses and rebuild them on the main island Ko Rong just accross the Sweetheart Islands. Each family received $50 to move. The two owners of the island received $30,000 to sell their land and the state gained an unspecified significantly larger amount of money to sign off the lease for the next 70 years. If you have enough cash, anything goes in Cambodia. Not many people would tell me that on the record, but literally everyone would off the record... I've heard that time and time again throughout my trip - and it's the same story all over the country.

Today, it's still difficult to imagine a five star resort with 30 or so bungalows on the water, a spa, a swimming pool, two restaurants on these two dry little islands. But if development doesn't spoil the view across to Ko Rong and local fishermen and their families don't burn and chop down the entire forest, the Sweetheart Islands could well become a little Cambodian gem in the Gulf of Thailand.

The Corridor Policy

Siem Reap -- Phnom Penh -- Sihanoukville that's the "tourism corridor" that Cambodia's government wants to develop. The aim is simple: keeping the tourists longer than the average 3.2 days in the country and luring them away from the temples with promises of sea, sun and fun. But will tourists stay longer? Will they head en masse to the coast? And how attractive are the beaches of Sihanoukville?

I must admit that I wouldn't fly half around the world to spend a week at one of Sihanoukville's beaches - not even the private Sokha Beach that belongs to the Sokimex empire (owned by Cambodia's Vice Prime Minister). Sokimex also runs the ticketing for Angkor Wat - and also runs many other prime tourist infrastructures throughout Cambodia (see Bokor Palace post). Many ordinary Cambodians and tourism operators I spoke with questioned the operating practises of Sokimex.

Sihanouville itself has the charm of a Soviet built truck, a faint communist era beach resort feel and delapidating gambling infrastrucutre. No glitz, no glam, no charm - not much at all actually... the beaches are rather dirty. I was told that's only because of the recent Chinese new year, when half of the country converged to the beaches to welcone the year of the pig. Well... pigs, what can I say, it is dirty! The shacks bordering the beach are not particularly inviting, the tourists (many older Westerners in search of sex tourism) are rather off-putting as are the one legged or one armed beggers (as sad as it may be) constantly by your side.

Now, I am really being negative here. Sure I am spoiled, once you've been been to Australia or Brazil it's difficult to compare, but I guess I just don't quite understand why anyone would join the current investment craze taking place here. Cambodia will really have to work very hard to turn this Costa del Cambodia with its booming sex tourism into an attractive and sustainable sea side resort where tourists want to unwind after a few dusty days at the temples.

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