Ratspotting

Originally sent: 12 May 2005.

About this series.

I spotted my first rat on the way to work this morning which was the size of a small pony. It was headed in the direction of my house. Things bode ill.

I’ve just finished my first few weeks of work and it has been incredibly hard and exhausting. I’m the only native English speaker and despite the excellent language skills of my compatriots, I’m still not sure if people understand me or are just agreeing with me to save face. In the process, I swear that my ability to speak Khmer and English is rapidly declining. My position description is ill-defined and so I’ve spent most of the time meeting with people in the vain hope that they can tell me what I was hired for.

I seem to have been hired in lieu of getting cash from AusAid to pay for the projects that I should be working on (marketing income generating activities and the organisation generally). So at this stage I’ve got no funding to immediately implement anything at all. I’ve still got to meet with the chief accountant to see what I can squeeze out of the existing budget until the next round of funding in July. On the up side, everybody seems overwhelmingly pleased to have a Westerner to display at meetings and I do get the standard Cambodian two hour lunch break.

SCC, the organisation that I’m advising, is doing some fascinating work using Buddhist monks to implement HIV/AIDS prevention and care activities in Phnom Penh, Siem Riep (near Angkor Wat) and Battambang – so there will be monk stories aplenty in the coming months. I saw a monk smoking a cigar while talking on a mobile phone but didn’t think that it was prudent to take a photo because it was during a staff meeting with him.

To keep myself busy outside of work, I’ve bought myself a mountain bike for the regal sum of $35 so that I can immerse myself in the sheer lunacy of peak hour in Phnom Penh at speed. Rumour has it that you drive on the right hand side of the road but I can neither confirm nor deny this. Right of way is granted to whomever has the heaviest vehicle travelling at the greatest speed, regardless of signage, red lights or any other man-made barricades. Despite driving like the possessed, everyone acts courteously when you cut them off or run them down.

Speaking of barricades, if you have a wedding, you can erect the marquee for your hundred guests across the entire street in front of your house to further mar the flow of traffic. One was built on my way to work complete with separate catering tent, golden stupa, styrofoam Angkorian ruins and traditional Cambodian gamelan band; all scenically located within vomiting distance of the miasmal open sewer. Short of building the marquee directly over the top of the roiling sewer, there wouldn’t be a worse place in Phnom Penh to spend a few days in a tuxedo or wedding dress in the 40 degree heat.

Apart from the catering tent.

180 degrees of housing

M and I moved into our house about two weeks ago. Our landlord lives next door and he is the nicest man in Phnom Penh, possibly because we pay him ten times the monthly Cambodian minimum wage for our house. When we arrived, he had already done about four of the tasks that we thought would be a real hassle with our substandard Khmer, like refilling the gas bottle and getting some spare keys cut. Another expat lives upstairs. The bathroom is a vision in lurid maroon. The whole house is tiled, so we can just hose the place out when the dust gets unbearable.

My two favourite beers at the moment are Love Beer (because let’s face it, who doesn’t? It even tastes like love) and Black Panther Stout (because The Man can’t keep the black beer down!). I’m also a bit partial to ABC Stout because their advertisements feature a Cambodian guy who looks like James Bond pimped out like Snoop Dogg. Confusingly the two top-selling beers here are Anchor and Angkor. Thanks to the infinite wisdom of Khmer pronunciation, “Anchor” rhymes with “ranch or”; and “Angkor” rhymes with “Anchor”. Angkor also means about five different things depending on how you pronounce “or” and thankfully none of them are mortally offensive when you slur drunkenly. You really can’t go too wrong either way, when it costs $9 for a whole slab.

In corruption news, the Cambodian Government just signed a 30 year agreement leasing Choung Ek – the Killing Fields Memorial and grimly popular genocide tourist attraction – to a Japanese company for $15,000 a year. The site is currently clearing a $20,000 per annum profit, not to mention that for better or worse, it is a vital piece of the Khmer peoples’ public heritage. My only guess here is that the Government knows that some sort of tourism apocalypse is headed for Cambodia (like a bird flu outbreak or a Commonwealth Games) because the tourism market has been growing at 100% per annum for the last 4 years. I smell a rat larger than a small pony.

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Deactivating almonds: foodie backlash and the commitment to food

Overcommitted.

If you’ve been on Twitter over the past week in Australia, the slightly bewildering hashtag #activatedalmonds has been in ascendency. Pete Evans, chef, reality television judge and corporate spokesperson for Weight Watchers and Sumo Salad was eviscerated 140 characters at a time over a weekend newspaper fluff piece that documented his day of eating:

7am: Two glasses of alkalised water with apple cider vinegar, then a smoothie of alkalised water, organic spirulina, activated almonds, maca, blueberries, stevia, coconut keffir and two organic, free-range eggs.

8.30am: Sprouted millet, sorghum, chia and buckwheat bread with liver pate, avocado, cultured vegetables plus ginger and liquorice root tea.

12.30pm: Fresh fish, sauteed kale and broccoli, spinach and avocado salad, cultured vegies.

3pm: Activated almonds, coconut chips, cacao nibs, plus green tea.

6.30pm: Emu meatballs, sauteed vegetables, cultured vegetables plus a cup of ginger and liquorice root tea.

It’s the sort of empty listicle that a PR rep answers on behalf of the talent by email; a gaily-colored box of text to further brighten the weekend’s non-news. Something a bot might write on your behalf. They’re hardly the most hard-hitting or meme-worthy pieces of newsprint. Collective schadenfreude is Twitter’s raison d’etre and on this occasion, it could taste the slight alkalinity of blood. Why did this article in particular spawn a virulent response?

Search any newspaper website for the word “superfood” and you’ll get a similar bucket of nutritionism snakeoil. Pete alone is not spearheading an unforeseen interest in spirulina or the weird hubris of passing off food as nothing more than a nutrient delivery system.

Evan’s sample menu is aimed at any number of masters: his corporate sponsors, his reality television employers or the subscribers of the Sunday Age. It plays to the obsessions of desperate, rich dieters and smacks of a strange corporate fealty. It’s not the daily diet of a man who eats for the unambiguous pleasure of doing so which is what the public is lead to believe about chefs.

Celebrity chefs are strange advocates for good eating. When commercial imperative clashes with chef’s previous personal tastes and ethics, commerce wins every time. Here’s an ad for a cheap pilsener starring Ferran Adria. Here’s organic chicken aficionado Jamie Oliver making industrial chicken sandwiches for fun and profit. Pete’s transgressions aren’t noteworthy alongside his international counterparts.

There is something about the deep commitment to his routine that is unnerving. He didn’t crack at 3:00pm and eat a pastry from the catering table. No midnight drive-thru at KFC, eating powdered mash and gravy one-handed on the drive home, crying into the empty “Family” sized bucket on the couch. This was the first image that came into my head when I thought of Pete Evans’ diet. I barely know who the man is and expected the worst.

When we see the growing “backlash” against foodies, it seems to be against this deep commitment. I hate the term “foodie” because it has no real definition and seems to encapsulate any particular interest in food from haute cuisine to ethical eating. You can as easily be labelled a foodie if you can comfortably follow a cupcake recipe or you’ve taken a decade to write the world’s definitive history of cupcakes. There’s no shortage of nuanced nouns to pigeonhole people who eat. But foodie backlash it is, not gourmet backlash or glutton backlash; an all-encompassing counterattack on the commitment to food.

Instagramming your meal to death.

Steve Cumper, Australia’s best food blogging chef, recently noted the new zealotry for “real food”, the modern hipness for home-growing everything and being the person who shoots, skins (and photographs) the rabbit pre-terrine.

This real food is apparently unencumbered by status, it is home grown, it is foraged, its is hunted, it is gleaned, it is not, as Lance Armstrong put it, about the bike, or in this case, not about the Kodak moment.

This is honest, unprocessed, un-wanky, un-restauranty, un-gather your photographer mates around you to capture the ad hoc picnic in the dis-used cannery on the wharf kinda food. This is the kinda food that doesn’t need embellishments, is SO un-gourmet, shrugs off pretensions and artifice and reveals itself to a few hip but grounded uber-cools who operate high in the coolosphere where the air, I’m told, is crisper.

The trouble is: Why are people like me hearing about it all the time?

I feel smug when I publish what I grow in my garden, mostly because growing up outside the city, planting a vegetable garden was unremarkable and the least noteworthy of domestic pursuits. Hopping the back fence with a .22 to shoot dinner was just something that I thought most kids did even if it wasn’t the case. It didn’t seem to mark any deep commitment to food because it was common amongst neighbours.

And the Internet didn’t exist.

The backlash isn’t so much about the commitment but the conspicuousness of people’s commitment to food whether it is Pete Evan’s voluntary deprivation or hearing about real food all the time from Facebook updates and blow-by-blow degustations captured on Instagram. When I hear that people want out of Facebook, I wonder how boring their collected acquaintances are and I’m certain what they had for dinner is a large part of it. Where previous backlashes against foodies was more about the excesses of gourmets, it is now all-encompassing because our friends don’t know when to stop; to leave the unremarkable experiences unremarked and save the best for conversation.

How to introduce your two year old to Malaysian street food.

Wonton Mee, Malaysia

1. Buy a street food.

Street food for kids

2. Hand over the chopsticks.

So, I had a kid and thought that I should mention it for when she’s old enough to ask about why she’s not in any of the blog posts, which will be soon now that she can negotiate devices with screens and understands conceptually that the Internet exists, and it’s where Bananas in Pyjamas live. I’d been avoiding it until now so that I could hold back the unrelenting tide of parent blogger PR spam. If you think that I don’t care about your new seasons menu, imagine how little I care that your pram comes in a new shade of Viktor&Rolf.

There’s probably a few intervening steps in introducing you child to street food, such as trying to explain how she can use chopsticks or eat chilli, but frankly, I have no idea how any of that happened. It’s not like I’ve been recording every moment of this.

As much as I’d like to say this is why I’ve slowed down my writing, it’s really not. Food blogging is of as little importance as it ever was. It’s worth reading Jess Ho’s piece about breaking up with her other blog. I feel the same, although they’re also the perverse reasons that I push on with it.

Eggs, Penang

Eggs, Penang

The logistics of food is endlessly interesting when you step outside the reach of the robotic hands of supermarket distribution. Along with the produce, transport is what adds a degree of regional variation to most markets. One of my most enduring memories of one market in Cambodia is seeing a Toyota Camry, whose backseat had been hastily waterproofed with plastic tarpaulins, filled to the ceiling with live snakehead fish.

There are certainly more preferable ways to transport food, but there is no perfect means to transport food, which is why the humble cargo bike (below) can continue to compete with every other vehicle on Penang to transport eggs.

Egg Bike, Penang

Whenever I see a bike like that, I just want to follow it.

Anglia Shandy

a can of Anglia Shandy

“Brewer”:Guinness Anchor Berhad (Diageo/Asia Pacific Breweries-Heineken).

One of my dreams was to become Asia’s leading reviewer of canned shandy, the worst thing to happen to beer since the discovery of shandy. Today that dream is horribly realised.

GAB Says: “The real shandy. Malaysia’s pioneer shandy, since 1978, recently took on a new and refreshing image and look, giving it a more exciting, cooler and fun image while continuing to provide its drinkers a unique and refreshing drinking experience. It is a refreshing blend of fizzy lemonade and beer to be enjoyed on all occasions.”

I say: I hoped that this was a shandy that was built for Malaysia’s pioneers, a drink that smelled faintly of the that injured Tunku Abdul Rahman as a child and Tan Cheng Lock‘s rubber business. The only pleasant feature of this drink is that it pours a beautiful golden amber, the nicest shade of soft drink that I have ever seen. Nose of lemon dishwashing liquid and malt is obliterated by a smoked orange finish that acridly lingers in your throat.

If Anglia pioneered something, that thing would be: Burnt Fanta.

ABV: 1%