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Monday, November 21, 2011

Cambodia's surprising cuisine: Spiders, anyone?

Visitors brave enough to try the spiders, locusts, crickets, snake salad and termite-egg soup might be pleased.

As the sun set over Angkor Wat, the temple built for King Suryavarman II in the 12th century, I nosed my Vespa out into the line of three-wheeled tuktuks, bikes and cars. In my pink crash helmet and Gucci bike goggles, I felt as frivolous as an extra in the '60s movie "Quadrophenia," but my mission was a serious one: I was planning to travel the nearly 200 miles from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh in three days, stopping on the way to sample some of the weirdest and most wonderful foods Cambodia has to offer.

Before leaving Siem Reap, however, I headed for Le Tigre de Papier cooking school to get a handle on Khmer cuisine. I put my foot in my mouth — before even taking a first bite — when I mentioned the influence of Thai food on Cambodia's culinary offerings. Heng, who runs the cooking course, scowled. "Let's get one thing straight: We influenced their food from 9th to 13th century when Thailand was under our rule. Khmer food came first, and the Thais copied from us."

Despite Heng's understandable chauvinism, the influence of other cultures on Khmer cuisine can't be ignored. Cambodian food has distinctive flavors — including the use of preserved lemons in dishes such as the chicken soup ngam nguv — but it was Chinese traders who introduced noodles; the Indian influence is shown in the coconut milk and turmeric used in curries and desserts; and the French presence is clearly seen in that Khmer breakfast, a baguette smothered with liver pâté.

PHOTOS: Cambodia's unique cuisine

That evening Heng took me to the food stands surrounding Siem Reap's night market. The aroma of spicy barbecued meats swirled around us as we made our way through the vast souk and bagged two of the few empty seats next to a long line of food carts. "When you first come to Cambodia, people tell you never to eat street food, but if you want to eat the best of Khmer cuisine you should never eat anywhere else," Heng said.

We sat at rickety plastic tables and ate cháo lòng, a flavorful rice broth dotted with cubes of congealed blood and served with tubular chunks of tripe.

Emboldened by my first encounter with Khmer offal, I ordered plea sach ko — a version of laab made with beef tripe, toasted rice and cilantro — the next morning for breakfast. Sweet and salty with a hint of spice, it looked hideous but tasted delicious and gave me the courage to head out on my cream-colored Vespa in a convoy of tuktuks, honking trucks and mopeds leaving Siem Reap.

It was June, the wet season, so I wasn't surprised when rain started lashing down. I was taken aback, however, when the road fizzled out and became nothing but a muddy potholed track. By the time I reached Chong Khneas, a floating village on Tonle Sap lake about nine miles south of Siem Reap, my scooter was chocolate brown, and I looked as if I had indulged in a leisurely mud bath.

Luckily the rain stopped and I stripped to a T-shirt as steam rose from southeast Asia's largest freshwater lake. Hopping on a boat, I took the two-hour trip to Kompong Phluk, the lake's largest settlement, where I visited a prahok shed to see the hanging fish whose odoriferous fermented juices and flesh are used to make Cambodia's ubiquitous fish paste.

Next I headed for a bamboo food hut on stilts and ordered frog amok. A variation on Cambodia's signature dish fish amok, the entire frog (not just its legs) was steamed in a banana-leaf basket along with prahok, turmeric and coconut milk. Served with a zingy green papaya salad, the chopped frog was tender and tasted like creamy chicken.

That evening I was caught in the rain and stranded in the little town of Damdek. I managed to locate a homestay, where I slept under the eaves — with the family snoring on a mattress next to me and pigs snorting in their pen below.

A couple of hours' drive from Damdek, the tiny town of Skun is home to Cambodia's largest concentration of tarantulas.

I visited the fascinating breeding project and the edible insect exhibition at the Skun Spider Sanctuary, where I learned that arachnids are a gastronomic delicacy in Cambodia. "Along with lizards, scorpions and rats, they were introduced onto the menu during the famine under the Khmer Rouge regime, but now they have become so popular that there are fears they could be hunted to extinction," sanctuary employee Sopheap told me.

In Skun, the market stands were piled high with fried crickets, grilled locusts and braised a-pings, as the beleaguered arachnids are known locally. All around me school kids and old women were buying the spiders. They are black, hairy, as big as a hand and, at 50 cents each, didn't come cheap. "We fry them to destroy the poison, then dip them in garlic and salt," a vendor said.

Steeling myself for the big one, I browsed the stands, sampling crickets (bland and crunchy) and locusts (meaty and the legs stick between the teeth) before buying a bag of tarantulas. Shutting my eyes, I dipped my hand in the bag, pulled off a leg and nibbled. Surprisingly, once the initial revulsion wore off, the taste was not so bad. The texture of the a-ping was rough and crispy like a pork crackling, but inside it was tender and fatty and tasted a bit like cod.

"The head is the best bit," said an old woman, with half a spider in her hand, half in her mouth. I decided to take her word for it and offered her the rest of my bag. She accepted gratefully and made short shrift of the three arachnids inside.

A lazy putter along the N7 brought me to Kampong Cham, a bustling town along the Mekong River where I spent the night in a rundown guesthouse and ate termite-egg soup, popping each tiny egg between my teeth to enjoy the salty, slightly sour taste.

From Kampong Cham it was a three-hour trip on the N6 to the traffic-clogged Japanese Friendship Bridge — built in 1993 to replace the original bridge that was blown up in 1973 by the Khmer Rouge — and into Phnom Penh.

Parking my steaming Vespa outside Romdeng, I took my seat at this restaurant set in a charming colonial house. Run by former street children, Romdeng is renowned for its local cuisine.

After an entree of fried spider served with a spicy lime dipping sauce, I tucked into the green mango and wild snake salad. Pungent and chewy, the dried snake, complemented by the silky sweet mango, was superb, and I congratulated myself on finding the ideal place to finish my scooter trip.
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Cambodia’s UN-backed tribunal begins trial of Khmer Rouge leaders for ‘killing fields’ regime

By Associated Press, Updated: Monday, November 21, 6:26 AM

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — Cambodians were bluntly reminded of their tragic history Monday as the trial began of three top Khmer Rouge leaders accused of orchestrating the “killing fields” in the late 1970s.

After Judge Nil Nonn declared the trial open, the prosecution started summarizing its case at the U.N.-backed tribunal — more than three decades after the Southeast Asian country witnessed some of the 20th century’s worst atrocities.

An estimated 1.7 million people died of execution, starvation, exhaustion or lack of medical care as a result of the Khmer Rouge’s radical policies, which essentially turned all of Cambodia into a forced labor camp as the movement attempted to create a pure agrarian socialist society.

The defendants are old and infirm, and there are fears they won’t live long enough for justice to be done.

On Monday, they sat side by side with their lawyers in the courtroom especially built for the tribunal, as the prosecutors began describing the scope of their alleged crimes.

Present were 85-year-old Nuon Chea, the Khmer Rouge’s chief ideologist and No. 2 leader; 80-year-old Khieu Samphan, an ex-head of state; and 86-year-old Ieng Sary, the former foreign minister.

All three steadfastly maintain they are innocent. They showed little reaction as a litany of charges was read out against them.

A fourth defendant, 79-year-old Ieng Thirith, was ruled unfit to stand trial last week because she has Alzheimer’s disease. Ieng Sary’s wife was the regime’s minister for social affairs. She remains detained pending a court decision on prosecutors’ appeal against her unconditional release.

The charges against the surviving inner circle of the communist movement include crimes against humanity, genocide, religious persecution, homicide and torture. Their leader, Pol Pot, died in 1998 in the jungle while a prisoner of his own comrades.

“This is the first (trial) of the Khmer Rouge leadership responsible for enacting a series of policies that led to the deaths of nearly 2 million people,” said Anne Heindel, legal adviser to the independent Documentation Center of Cambodia, which collects evidence of Khmer Rouge atrocities.

“There is hope that it will help Cambodians understand why it happened, why Khmer killed Khmer, and will teach the younger generation to ensure it will never happen again,” she said. Two-thirds of Cambodians today were not yet born when the communist group’s reign of terror ended in 1979.

Prosecution statements continue Tuesday, to be followed by two days of response by the defense. Actual testimony is scheduled to begin on Dec. 5.

Meas Sery, 51, said he came to Monday’s hearing from his home in Prey Veng province to see for himself the faces of the defendants. He said he lost four siblings under the Khmer Rouge regime.

“Even though there is no verdict be announced yet, I am happy to see these three leaders brought to the court. I believe that justice will come and I will receive it soon,” Meas Srey said.

The trial’s impact should go beyond Cambodia, said Clair Duffy of the Open Society Justice Initiative, which has been monitoring the tribunal’s work.

Because it not only subjects the former leaders to the scrutiny of the law but also gives victims a forum to tell their stories, it has “a huge potential not only to contribute to justice in Cambodia, but also to contribute dialogue to ongoing efforts to bring perpetrators of these kinds of atrocities to justice around the world.”

Chea Leang, Cambodian co-prosecutor, recalled for the court the brutalities of Khmer Rouge rule, beginning on April 17, 1975, when they captured Phnom Penh to end a bitter five-year civil war, and immediately began the forced evacuation to the countryside of the estimated 1 million people who had sheltered in the capital.

She recounted the new social order established by the group: an all-enveloping system of forced labor, with personal property banned, religion, press and all personal freedoms abolished. It was rule by terror.

Before the court adjourned for the day, Chea Leang insisted the evidence would show that the regime the defendants led “was one of the most brutal and horrific in modern history.”

Some of those attending the trial provided their own vignettes of the terror.

Chim Phorn, 72, was chief of a commune under the Khmer Rouge regime in Banteay Meanchey province in the northwest. He said that in 1977, he killed a young couple who were in a romantic relationship without being married, a breach of rules. He said he beat the couple to death with an axe handle.

“I was ordered to kill the young couple because they fell in love without being married,” Chhim Phorn said. “If I did not kill them, my supervisor would have killed me, so to save my life, I had no choice but to kill them.”

Now, he said, he feel remorse and hates the Khmer Rouge leaders for what they made him do.

The tribunal has split the indictments according to charge into separate trials to speed the proceedings. The current trial is considering charges involving the forced movement of people and crimes against humanity.

Even streamlined, the proceedings are likely to cover an enormous amount of ground, and there is no estimate of how long they will take.

The tribunal, which was established in 2006, has tried just one case, convicting prison chief Kaing Guek Eav for war crimes, crimes against humanity and other offenses. His sentence was reduced to a 19-year term due to time served and other technicalities.
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