Home made char siu chez maman. Oh yes.

In Asia it is everywhere: red and charred, hanging from hooks by the roadside. Marinated in lemongrass, chopped up bones and all and deep fried to a crisp. Simmered gently in caramel sauce.

Pork.

In Singapore, my friends’ eyes always lit up when we ordered it. The three layered pork was especially popular: meat, fat and rind, a perfect trio of melting porky goodness. It always reminds me of the most heartbreaking passage in François Bizot’s Le Portail (The Gate in English), a must read for anyone interested in Cambodia. The author finds himself a prisoner in a Khmer Rouge camp, kept away from his Cambodian assistants. They are reunited briefly before he is forced to leave them to their fate, and they share one last meal together. It’s roast pork his assistants dream of; they describe the sweet smokey flesh, the crispy skin, the dripping fat.

Eech, that’s all rather bleak, sorry. My point is: roast pork would definitely be my last meal, and I miss the convenience of finding it at every street corner in South East Asia.

Thankfully my local supermarket stocks pre-scored pork belly, which roasted over water gives tender flesh and the crispiest crackling, perfect for adding to a fresh pomelo salad or a noodle soup. Or just stuffing down your gob straight from the chopping board while it’s still hot enough to burn your fingers.

Chinese roast pork, from a Rick Stein recipe

1 pork belly

1 tablespoon sichuan peppercorns

1 teaspoon black peppercorns (ideally from kampot)

2 tablespoons maldon sea salt flakes

2 teaspoons five spice powder

2 teaspoons sugar

Roast the peppercorns in a pan until they are fragrant and grind them. Or just use normal pepper, it will still be delicious.Mix with the sea salt, five spice powder and sugar.

Pour a kettle of hot water over the skin and let it drain, then dry thoroughly. Rub the meat side of the pork belly with the spice mixture. Leave it in the fridge 8 hours or overnight.

Preheat the oven to 200C. Put the pork skin side up on a roasting rack, on top of a tin full of water. Roast it for 15 minutes, then lower the temperature to 180C and cook for another 2 hours, topping up with water as needed.

Increase the temperature once more to 230C and roast for a final 15 minutes. Rest the meat a little before cutting it, if you can bear the wait.

 

I knew I had a better story for the World Nomads travel writing competition.

Last year I went to Koh Rong island. Ageing Korean buses through the Cambodian countryside. Sugar palm trees and paddy fields, thin cows and sleeping dogs on the road. Karaoke blasting over the air conditioning. Shared pineapple from a plastic bag. A moto ride winding through Sihanoukville hills. 3 hours on a rusty ferry. Tree houses swaying gently in the wind, sand like icing sugar. The great mass of a buffalo swimming towards me, in the encroaching dusk, the bulge of its eye as it strains against the rope, how quietly it moves through the warm, clear waters.

I’ll write it another day. But in the meantime I’ve made a little video – all filmed on 35mm on my Lomo Kino. Hope you like it.

Back in 2009, which seems like an eternity and three lifetimes ago, my imaginary friend Emma and I decided to have a go at selling rude teatime treats at Craftacular. We sold out and yet didn’t make a penny, thanks to our complete lack of economic sense.

However! Cruel Tea is now back, this time thanks to the busy knitting bees at Cambodia Knits, a fantastic social enterprise working with marginalized communities near Phnom Penh. They provide paid training in knitting skills and believe that employment is an empowering way out of poverty, especially when that employment is fairly paid and works within the constraints communities face.

I’ve been working with them over the past few months to produce some new cosies, which you can now buy at the Cruel Tea Etsy shop. I hope it’s a success – I’d love to continue supporting Cambodia Knits with more orders.

Also check out Cambodia Knits’ own range of hand knitted monsters and animals.

Or Tina’s Tamarind jam, if only this stupid font would let me display special characters.

Tina is my friend.

It’s hard to understand the excellence of Tina unless you’ve actually met Tina. She is tiny. She cracks spines – expertly – for a living. She likes Taco Bell sauce. She’s studying Singlish as a foreign language. She’s allegedly a strong swimmer, but I have yet to see her dip a toe in the water. She says “yummy” a lot. She is made, I think, of puppies and rainbows and unicorns, covered in a thin layer of taco bell sauce, encased in a hard shell of Strong Independent Woman. No one, but no one, makes me giggle and snort like a lunatic like she does.

At Chinese New Year Tina, along with a group of our friends from Singapore, joined me for a long week end in Kep. You know, Kep, that idyllic quiet little coastal town in Cambodia that was just this week featured in the NY Times.

We did as one does in Kep: we ate our combined body weight in fresh crab straight from the ocean, purchased durian the size of a toddler, and squabbled over who would get the last of the tamarind jam for breakfast.

This stuff was amazing. Tart and sweet, with a hint of cinnamon, delicious on bread and butter. Tina interrogated the staff at Le Flamboyant, where we were staying, and found out that they made it fresh from the fruit of the tall beautiful tamarind tree in the resort’s garden.

“This jam is yummy”, she said.

MAKE ME TAMARIND JAM.

I agreed, because although Tina is tiny she is also a little scary; I wasn’t sure whether she would let me back into Singapore without paying a heavy tamarind jam tribute to the Ministry of Manpower first. My first attempt was a disaster. After hours of straining tamarind pulp through a broken sieve and scalding myself on the hot bastarding tamarind liquid, I produced a wonderful, thick looking, rich dark brown batch of tamarind jam… that tasted of grit and battery acid. It went straight in the bin.

Then Barbara, the lovely manager from Le Flamboyant, sent me their recipe. “This is the recipe for tamarind jam”, she wrote, “but I did not get any specific measurements because they do it by feeling so to say”.

3 kg of tamarind, put water and salt in a bowl, add the tamarind, keep them in the water for 24hours. Throw the water away, add new water and let sit for another 24 hours. Then the tamarind is soft so all the grains can be taken out. The remaining paste is being boiled in a pot, add sugar and cinammon, stir – for another 4 hours.

52 hours for a pot of jam? No wonder they only gave us a spoonful. “Oh, this jam? Have as much as you want, I’ll just run over to the salt mines and kick orphans and three legged puppies into whipping up another batch for you.” And there we were, scoffing it down like greedy First World pigs.

I followed the process loosely, this time with much better results.

TINA’S TAMARIND JAM
500g of sour tamarind.
300g white sugar
100g palm sugar
1 teaspoon of cinnamon
1 generous pinch of salt

Put the tamarind and salt in a large tupperware container, then add enough water to cover the pulp generously. Keep in the fridge for 24 hours. The next day, the pulp will have softened and rendered some of its acidity into the water. Get rid of most of the liquid, cover again with fresh water and return it to the fridge for another 24 hours.

If your tamarind still had seeds in it, remove them. Gently simmer the tamarind and water mixture until the pulp is very soft.

Before the liquid starts to reduce, strain the pulp through a sieve to remove the remaining fibres and seeds you may have missed. This is more difficult than it sounds. You may curse and swear at the person who made you make tamarind jam. It’s a good time to start boiling your clean jars and lids, possibly while muttering dark threats under your breath. After about 10 minutes, you can transfer the jars to an oven at 110 degrees Celsius until you’re ready to use them.

Return the remaining tamarind pulp to the heat, and add the sugar and cinnamon. Bring to a roiling boil, and let it reduce until the mixture is dark brown. Test a dollop of it on a cold plate: the jam shouldn’t be runny, and the surface should wrinkle slightly when pushed with a finger. Jar the jam while it’s still hot, then turn the jars upside down to create a vacuum and leave to cool down.

And the verdict?
Tina said it was yummy.

In Edinburgh daylight is slow to come. I stumble around my flat, my body avoiding door frames and shelves, my fingers instinctively finding light switches in the dark. I can hear mice scurrying behind the skirting boards, in those still, wakeful hours stolen by jetlag. It’s almost comforting.

I have been back from Asia for three days. On Wednesday I crashed, literally, at a dreary airport hotel in Heathrow, wrecked with fatigue, exasperation at having missed my connecting flight, the sorrow of goodbyes. A mirror image of my trip out a year and a half ago. It is like being made to spin on yourself for several hours, then being shoved forward and asked to run in a straight line. The world, this new world of cold and grey, of strange acrid and smoky smells, is this my world? Everything is surprising and slightly off. I open the tap and ice cold water flows out. I cast around for somewhere to hide my food, then remember there are no ants to eat it. My skin is dry and stinging. There are no bottles of distilled water in the room, because tap water is good enough to drink. In the morning I wander to the nearest cash point, the cold biting at my skin through the inadequate layers of clothing. I marvel at the thick fog, because I had completely forgotten that fog existed.

For a few days now I have been reeling from the shock of this transplantation. I’ve caught myself longing for the days of slow travel, wishing I’d had weeks to acclimatise myself to the thought of going home, to soothe my mind and body with the slow progress of clouds on endless waves. Everything here is similar and yet changed, familiar but foreign, same same but different. The city, my beloved, sparkly, blustering Edinburgh, is greyer and dirtier than I remember. Dark corners and old men smell of urine and despair. The high street seems broken by the endless, aborted tramworks and the spectre of the recession. Everyone looks so pale, so sickly, bundled up as they are in shapeless, colourless coats and grim expressions. After a year and a half my feet trace the map of the city centre on their own; old routines and habits resurface slowly.

I miss the Siem Reap of ten days ago, the sweet salty taste of caramel cashew nut ice cream, the semi-darkness of the airport during the afternoon’s blackouts, the quiet, the warmth. I miss, viscerally, the Singapore I couldn’t stand to live in, the ridiculous glowy glowering mass of the Merlion over the bay, fatty porky lechon on the Esplanade, cold fresh coconut juice, falling asleep in the flickering lights by the pool as the city whispers and thrums around me.

I am, clearly, a miserable moaning git. I whine, relentlessly, about my trunk full of diamond shoes. I have the freedom and means to live and work in at least 28 countries, a passport filled with memories and possibilities, friends and family who envelop me in their warmth and shelter.  In a few days I start a writing course at Curtis Brown, and the thought fills me with pride and lightness and joy. There is no time for sadness, or regret, no room for self indulgence. At night, in the dark, I let the fatigue sink into my limbs, weighing me deep into the blankets, anchoring me from what is pulling at me this way and that, here and there.

It is official. I am old and arthritic. Possibly also hunchbacked. Today I woke up stiff, achey, and perplexed. Had I run a marathon? Been in a boxing match? No, I’d done a little bit of housework. This, apparently, is enough to send my muscles into spasms.

Thankfully I live in a city where every other building seems to be a spa. I wandered a while downtown before settling on Luck Nuvo, a newly opened and bizarrely named spa on Street 06. I was a little bit surprised at first because it’s very obviously aimed at Japanese tourists, and I hadn’t come across a Japanese spa in Siem Reap before. The brochure is full of charming engrish:

 “This traditional Swedish style massage will lubricate the skin with the special massage oil that warm up and work the muscle tissue.”

I chose the Japanese Hogushi massage, designed to “ease away the days’s stresses and strains”, with a slightly cynical snigger. I love massages, but I’m the sort of restless idiot who starts thinking about spreadsheets, to-do lists and other irritations the minute my head hits that massage table.

The prologue was pleasant enough: a choice of herbal teas, a cold compress, a very thorough foot wash, and then I was asked to change into some very soft cotton garments. This is when the magic started. I have no idea what the massage therapist did, but within minutes I could feel the tension leaving my body and brain. This was unlike any massage I’ve ever had. There was no kneading or long strokes, but a lot of precise pressure, expertly applied, that released warmth along my limbs. There was a lot of stretching too, of the legs, back and arms, using her knees and arms as counterbalance to my movements. Unlike many local massage ladies, she was very attentive, paying close attention to my reactions, adjusting her technique as we went along, expressing concern at my relieved sighing. About half way through I was so comfortable and relaxed I started hoping she would just wrap me up in a goose down duvet and leave me to nap for an hour or so. She could have slipped an apple in my mouth, roast hog style, I didn’t care.

You must excuse the slightly crappy images, because I was too busy feeling like a giant marshmallow, all soft and light, to take decent snaps:

The charming receptionist told me they only opened a month ago, but that their therapists had previously been working in a hotel. It’s a bit dear (by local standards) at $35 for 60 minutes, but they’re currently offering a $10 discount, as well as a 10% voucher off Senteurs d’Angkor and a Blue Pumpkin ice cream voucher. FREE ICE CREAM. AFTER THE MASSAGE OF DREAMS. I die.

This may all sound a little bit hyperbolical, but I want others – YOU – to partake in this heavenly experience. When I left the spa, I headed for lunch at a Mexican restaurant. Within minutes I felt my eyes closing, and then I was fighting the urge to fall asleep face down in my chimichanga. In your face, overactive brain.

Where: Number 693/695, Street 06, Siem Reap (round the corner from Canadia Bank)

Website: There’s a Japanese website of sorts, or try their facebook page

Opening hours: 10 am to 11 pm

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There’s an ongoing joke in this household that no visit to Siem Reap is complete without a visit to Psar Krom. World renowned temples? Been there, done that. Floating villages? The Tonlé Sap is just a glorified pond. Happy Ranching, quad biking, microlighting? Pshhh. Adventure is for losers. Psar Krom is where it’s at.

Of course, you’re unlikely to ever see a tourist near Psar Krom, because Psar Krom looks like this:

It’s a dusty, scrappy, thronging labyrinth of a market. In my opinion it’s the best place in town to see the fantastic produce Cambodia has to offer, and to experience food shopping the way locals do. Much more airy than Psar Chas or Psar Leu, Psar Krom has whole sections in the semi-open. Admittedly, my standards are lax to say the least, but it’s also relatively clean, and if you go early enough you may not even notice the smell of the lively fish section: baskets of fresh fish, most still wriggling and alive, deftly dispatched and cleaned by the vendors before they can make a jump for it.

It’s also an excellent place to observe the very best of Cambodian pyjama fashion:

Although you should be prepared to be pushed and shoved around by the crowd, it’s a pretty friendly market, with no hard sell. Look out for fresh spice mixes for soups and curries, chunks of orange pumpkin, sticky doughnuts coated in caramel, large vats of fresh palm sugar, and delicious smoked sausages hanging from the rafters. There’s a dried fish vendor for all your breakfast needs. The waffle stand, if it’s open, is particularly worth the detour, because there is nothing more satisfying than a Cambodian waffle straight from the wood-fired iron. To find it, just follow the delicious smell.

Before you go, take a minute to look up a the old metal structure, with holes like stars shining through the cobwebs. It’s really quite beautiful. In your face, Ta Prohm.

Where: Psar Krom Road, Siem Reap.

Tip: Go early, most of the action will be done by 11 am.

This is breakfast.

I don’t want to hear your cries of disgust or see your little noses wrinkle up disapprovingly. This is not just breakfast, but the breakfast of champions: chunks of dried fish fried with garlic and caramelised until crispy and golden, wonderfully sweet and intensely savoury, perfect with a side dish of rice porridge.

You’ll find the dried fish at most Cambodian markets. The fish is marinated in a flavoured brine before being left to dry out in the sun. Choose a stall where the owner takes care to bat the flies away; if you travel overland between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, you’ll find particularly tasty specimens at Kompong Thom market. The smaller variety is made from wild fish and more delicious than its fatter farmed cousin.

To prepare it, wash it thoroughly and chop into thumb sized pieces. Fry the fish in about one centimetre of oil until both sides are crispy and golden brown. Remove the excess oil, then add a lot of chopped garlic – about 6 or 8 cloves for a whole fish.

When the garlic starts to change colour, sprinkle a tablespoon of sugar and a tiny bit of water over the fish. Stir well until everything has caramelised around the fish chunks, then serve with some steaming hot borbor (rice porridge) and beet pickles.

When I first moved to Siem Reap I fully intended to make good use of my newly found free time. I had big plans to do some screenprinting; I’d just finished a course in Singapore and was looking foreword to experimenting with the technique.

But circumstances have dictated otherwise. There have been guests, tenants and now construction work; I’ve been scared to mark my mother’s pristine wooden floors; I’ve struggled to find the few missing supplies I needed to get going. Where do you get strong UV lights, table glue or screen hinges in Cambodia?

So many excuses. Last week a friend brought me a lino cutting tool from Singapore, so I got a few erasers and cut up a few stamps. It’s good to remember sometimes simple is best.

Warning: may contain spiders the size of your face

My main problem with Cambodia is not the lack of infrastructure, the rampant corruption, or the dire hygiene practices. Oh no. It is the abundance of spiders. They are, to put it crudely, motherfucking everywhere.

It’s not the skinny spindly legged ones that bother me so much. They seem to be mostly content to hang out in the eaves, waiting quietly for a bug to stumble drunkenly into them. These are laid back, socially well adjusted spiders, and I see no reason to bother them. I don’t even mind the fat little bastards who hang out around the pool, and, as it turns out, the bathroom of the little house I’m currently using as an office. They have an idiotic expression and seem to be constantly startled by the water. Hey, spider, you moron. You live by the pool. It’s gonna get wet. Get over it. If it weren’t for the fact they can jump distances a hundred times their body lengths, I’d ignore them entirely.

I have, however, developed a healthy fear of the genus “giant fuck off spider” regularly found in Cambodian homes. You know what I’m talking about – the sort of hairy legged arsehole who sneaks up on you to feast on your spinal fluid or waits until you’re asleep to lay their eggs inside your nasal cavity.

I encountered my first one in 2004. I’d been teaching animation at an orphanage, which I think should qualify me for at least a spider-free existence, if not a medal. One evening we were invited to one of the teacher’s house for dinner. It was a memorable night. We sat on the floor, preparing morning glory and watching karaoke, sharing stories and jokes about our last few days of work. Then I went to use the bathroom, and BAM, there he was, by the side of the water tub, a monstrous horror the width of Senegal. Way to ruin the evening, dickhead.

A few weeks ago I crossed path with another one in a guesthouse in Sihanoukville. This one was a bit smaller, the size of a baby’s hand, maybe. A fat baby. He was high up on the ceiling and had a nefarious look to him. This was mostly due to the fact he only had seven legs. Really? Seven legs, spider? You think you can intimidate me with that bullshit? Apparently so, as I spent the next sleepless hours cowering beneath the mosquito net, regularly checking that he hadn’t moved.

And then there was the one in my bedroom. This guy was the biggest douchebag of them all. He was hovering, in the dark, right beside the light switch. His wing span was a good 15 centimetres, the size of a baby seagull or the average adult’s head. This was the sort of spider you would more likely find fried and sprinkled with MSG at a dodgy Cambodian market, so large and juicy was he.

Because I am a wuss, I had to call in a steel-balled adult to deal with the menace. But I thought it might be handy to put together a simple guide to dealing with giant fuck off Cambodian spiders, for you fellow spider loathers who are still finding it hard to adjust.

So here it is, my Guide to dealing with Cambodian spiders:

1. Clean, clean, clean

Are your shelves laden with knick knacks and clutter? Does dirty laundry pile up in a corner of the room? Do you never dust the dark alcoves? Then you only have yourself to blame. Sweep regularly and conscientiously, and don’t leave anything for the freaks to hide behind.

2. Keep watch

Spiders have many eyes, and so should you. Once you spot one, do NOT, under any circumstances, look away or leave the premises. If you do, the spider will unfailingly go into hiding, and that will leave you with the constant worry of it lunging for your jugular when you least expect it. Do you want to live the rest of your life in fear? No, didn’t think so. BE VIGILANT.

3. Arm yourself

You peace loving hippie vegetarians can put that glass and piece of cardboard down. There is no glass on earth large enough to contain one of these horrors. Apart from perhaps one of those Oktoberfest tumblers, but those are unwieldy and you are more likely to lose a limb in the process. You will have to put aside your animal loving proclivities and get in touch with your killer instinct. The best weapon is a Cambodian broom. Advantages: ergonomically light, adequate handle distance between hand and spider, excellent bristle span for maximum spider killing potential, also suitable for sweeping corpse out the window. Disadvantages: Possibly too soft. May require multiple blows.

4. Get a pet

The occasional gecko dropping is a small price to pay for this level of maximum security protection:

Ignore my advice at your own risk. And don’t come crying to me when one of your eyeball hatches spider babies.

Do you have any other tips for dealing with this seven eight legged menace?

It has just occurred to me, sitting here in the sweltering sweaty heat, that I am homesick. It’s not that I miss the neverending rain and dark, ominous skies, nor the steady stream of dreadful recession news and depressing statistics on unemployment. But after a year and a half of gallivanting around South East Asia, I sometimes yearn for a few moments of peace and normality.

I would like to blot out the calls of “Lady! Lady!” as I’m walking down the street, to enjoy some guilt-free shopping without wondering whether I’m supporting the right social enterprise, and a bite to eat that is not themed, “traditional”, or mock authentic.

I want, in short, to indulge in a bit of familiarity, and this is exactly what I found at Upstairs Café.

Recently opened on Wat Bo Road by a French lady, the café is a welcoming and breezy space. It’s wonderfully quiet up there, the perfect place to enjoy a coffee and the piles of Elle Deco magazines.

It’s a real shame the lunch menu was limited to only a couple of options, because my creamy carrot soup and slice of lemon cake were delicious. This is just the sort of food my Mamie would have made, if my Mamie hadn’t been a chain smoking grump holed up in the dark depths of the Ardèche.

So hey! Lady! Lady! If you’re reading this, can we have some more please?

Where: Upstairs Café, above Madame Beergarden, Wat Bo Road, Siem Reap

Website: try the Café’s Facebook page

Opening times:

Tuesday – Friday 9am-6pm

Saturday – Sunday 8am – 6pm

Closed on Monday

Tip: If the friendly waitresses tell you there’s an Apple Farm Cake in the oven, wait. It looked delicious.


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Those who know me know the fraught relationship I have with my hair. It is thick, curly, unruly, and regularly threatens to throttle me in sleep. It has been particularly badly behaved since I moved to South East Asia, developing a surly, frizzy personality and the appearance of an angry nest of spiders. In the past year I’ve approached hair salons with a  mixture of healthy fear and rampant optimism, with varying results.

In Siem Reap the choices are varied. Fancy getting your bicycle serviced or shirt tailored while you’re getting a trim? Head for the little streets behind L’Hôtel de la Paix. Don’t mind the smell of raw meat, or catfish making a desperate flop for their lives at your feet? At Psar Chas you’ll find tiny salons in the market’s dark alleys, inches away from the fresh  produce and fly ridden butcher stalls. Or if you’re feeling flush, you could try Soul Hair Design, the Western owned hair salon above the Wild Poppy Boutique.

My recommendation? The (ahem) originally named Angkor Salon & Spa, a cheap and sanitary alternative to the above. It sits on the little no name street by the side of the Angkor Trade Centre, near Psar Chas, in a little shophouse that’s just been renovated.

The genius of Angkor Salon & Spa is in the washing of the hair. It’s a prolonged, relaxing affair that takes place in the back of the salon, at washing stations that are like little beds. The hair gets washed twice, thoroughly, and they give you a very pleasant head, ear, and neck massage too. Is there anything more relaxing than thick soapy foam on the back of your  neck when you’ve been battling the sweat and red dust of the roads?

I like the retro charm of this place. There’s a lot of plastic and leatherette but the girls are handy with a blowdrier. It feels like a neighbourhood salon, the sort of place where women go to pamper themselves and gossip while getting their hair done. They also offer spa services – there’s a mysterious large jacuzzi in the back – as well as manicures, pedicures, and something called “spa hair”, which seems a bit dear at $15.

The hairdressers don’t speak any English, so make sure you bring a picture of exactly what you want, or a Khmer speaking friend. During my last visit a miscommunication resulted in the boss lady attacking my bangs with thinning shears, so beware. But for $5 a haircut, who can complain?

Where: Opposite Angkor Trade Centre

Opening times: 7.30 am to 9.30 pm

Do you know any good hairdressers in Siem Reap?


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