Your tax dollars buy my aid junket

Originally sent: 29 December 2005

About this series

After getting back here from Australia, I had a trip to Sihanoukville for Australian Volunteers “In Country Meeting” which I could only describe as an “utterly pointless AusAid-funded junket”. I used those exact words on the evaluation sheet of the meeting, so hopefully it will filter back to AusAid so they’ll know that AVI are spending your taxes on my weekend at the beach. The highlight of the weekend was getting a free pack of everyone’s favorite panic buy, Tamiflu (now 38% effective against flu, says the instructions) and eschewing workshops for a beachside bar that served pina colada by the bucket. Once we’d taught them that there is no Creme de Menthe in pina colada, everything went smoothly.

We’ve acquired a motorcycle from our friend H while he’s in Hawaii, so M and I are learning to ride on a 250cc Suzuki Grasstracker with a sticker that says “Big Boy” on the side. H left me with the single instruction “phil: basically, don’t crash and you’ll be fine”, so I’m managing to follow it so far when I’m doing laps of the block. We’re buying a vintage Vespa from another volunteer when they leave in the New Year, so it will be a fairly large step down in terms of raw power and credibility in the eyes of our local motorbike taxi drivers. Riding a motorbike is just like riding a 200 kilo bicycle that goes at 100 kilometres an hour. It’s a whole lot more fun than driving a car, in my vague recollection of what driving an automobile was like.

Christmas had a boozy, secular carapace filled with four kinds of meat. We bought Australian lamb shoulder for the first time since we’ve arrived and despite eating a lamb meal each day while we were in Australia, it was still outrageously delicious on the barbeque. M even cooked a monstrous Christmas pudding the week before. It takes a special commitment to the cause to boil a dessert for 7 hours in the tropical heat. To give you some idea of its mass, the ten friends we invited over for Christmas dinner polished off one third of it. Cambodians have embraced Christmas as they embrace all things Western: as a mark of success and modernity, rather than something in the spirit of ecumenism. The lack of hype surrounding Christmas here is a positive; going to work on Boxing Day, not so positive.

To fill in my time at work when I’m not looking for another job, I’ve started ranting about local food at www.phnomenon.com, mostly as a vanity project. As you’ll notice, I’ve done a fairly slack job of reviewing any Khmer food so far, but an in-depth job of reviewing the beer.

We have a vague plan for New Year’s that involves staying in Phnom Penh and drinking the leftovers from Christmas. Is there anything you can make with bad Thai-brewed brandy?

New Pastry Generator

With the advent of the cronut, humanity has entered a new golden age of pastry. Freed from the shackles of tradition, patissiers can now start a craze by pouring any number of unrelated recipes straight into the deep fryer. Uninspired? Let the random pastry generator do the work of original human thought.

You should go cook:

bakdoppelbread

Press reload for more new pastry ideas.

Selling raw human misery to Quincy Jones

Originally sent: 22 November 2005.

About this series

My bizarre marketing task for the month has been deciding how to suitably horrify Quincy Jones.

For those of you playing at home, Quincy Jones is the all-time most nominated Grammy artist with a total of 77 nominations and 27 winning Grammys. He has won an Emmy and seven Oscars. He’s the man who wrote the Austin Powers Theme, made Will Smith famous on The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, and composed the world’s funkiest organ-driven title track for “They call me Mr. TIBBS!”. To top this off, he’s one of the few jazz musicians that I like from the bebop era that didn’t burn down their career in a blaze of heroin addiction. At the behest of UNICEF, SCC are taking him to experience as much raw human misery as he can stomach for two and a half hours to try and take a percentage of the profits that he made selling a hundred million Michael Jackson albums and Lesley Gore’s 1963 teen hit, “It’s My Party”.

The initial meeting with UNICEF to plan Quincy’s visit was strange in the extreme, partly because I was the only marketing person there and saw this purely as a sales exercise, partly because the whole group of us had become so inured to the suffering that we can use it comfortably as a marketing tool. Head UNICEF guy wanted us to show the visiting party a “range of Cambodian families” which after much discussion was decided that UNICEF wants us to display:

1) A family headed by someone with AIDS, dying in a dirt-floor shack;
2) A family where person from 1) has died, but family still supported;
3) A child-headed household/kids with AIDS.

We allotted 30 minutes per family.

I have a much more cynical trick up my sleeve because I’m the only person that knows who Quincy Jones is – and I like that marketing is a dirty sport. A few of the orphans and vulnerable children (known in the aid business as “OVC”) are learning Khmer traditional music at SCC’s pagoda in Siem Reap. When we throw some monks into the mix, surely that will make Quincy bleed cash.

As instant karmic penance for doing aid industry dirty work on behalf of monks, the next day I got hit by a Landcruiser while I was riding my bike on the way to the office. It’s much less serious than it sounds. I was stationary at a crossroads and the Landcruiser hit me from behind while it was trying to barge its way around the corner. I’m thankful that they didn’t stop and either try to extort some cash from me or shoot me for denting their car. I obviously look like the sort of person who can afford to buy whatever sort of retributive Cambodian justice I feel like.

M’s parents were here for three weeks: in between working, we did all the Cambodian provinces which aren’t too scary, too wet, or too poor to have anything at all in them. To fit in our travels, there are 6 public holidays in November: 3 consecutive days for Water Festival, 2 for Independence Day, 1 for the old King’s Birthday (Hail, Sihanouk!). By juggling my leave the right way, this month I will spend 8 days at work.

About a million Cambodians from the rural provinces come to Phnom Penh for Water Festival to pickpocket the rich white folk and serve as the butt of rural/urban divide humour. They were all at the Phnom Penh’s only mall when I went there, to see escalators and air-con for the first time. About half of the kids would jump on the escalator before their parent, so the parent – bewildered by the foreign mechanical stairs – would hold on to them. This resulted in momentum knocking them over and the oncoming stairs thoroughly shredding the children, while the Phnom Penh locals would revel in rural/urban divide humour that watching kids fall into a meat grinder creates. The vein of Cambodian physical comedy runs deep.

We missed everything for which the festival was famous: live appearances by the new King (Hail, Sihamoni!); dragon boat racing and the associated drownings; a million rural people using Hun Sen Park as a urinal. Instead we caught a taxi to Kampot, which has a rotting colonial cliff-top casino ghost town (Bokor); and Kep, which has the tastiest seafood in all Cambodia.

Bokor was where the French elite went to acclimatise to Indochina before the locals formed their own substitute for European colonial rule, and as they did with anything on a hill in Cambodia, turned it into a gun emplacement. Building Bokor casino would have had the same degree of difficulty as building a quaint French village by hand on top of one of the 12 Apostles using only an infinite amount of disposable Cambodian labour. Judging by the leftovers, beachside colonialism looked like it was a whole lot more fun and profitable than my postcolonial development junket.

Street food isn’t a cuisine: it’s food that happens to be outside

Just because you barbecued that tongue next to a road doesn’t make it a cuisine

I didn’t attend the World Street Food Congress a fortnight ago in Singapore but the outcomes from it seem to have devolved into the basest discussion of street food: name-calling, jingoism and fear of foreigners at once romanticising and ruining otherwise “authentic” food cultures. Some foreigners points of view seemed to be valid simply because they get parachuted into a cuisine courtesy of a television show, others invalidated despite decades of experience in the field and most likely, being the fixers for those same television shows. While I wasn’t at the conference, I’m no stranger to being accused of both creating nostalgia for and wrecking for foreigners and locals alike.

Singapore is a strange place to hold a street food conference given that most of its street food has been moved to malls and hawker centres. Conference founder KF Seetoh conflates the two. Bon Appetit’s Jenny Miller, covering the conference interviews him:

. “Street food is a cuisine, not a physicality,” he insisted. When I approached him after a panel to press the question, “Isn’t something lost when you move street food off the streets?,” he seemed impatient: “You are romanticizing it. Do you want to get food poisoning?”

Street food isn’t a cuisine: it’s food that happens to be outside. Food that is served on the street is a subset of the wider regional cuisine. The elements that link street foods together across different cuisines and cultures have little to with the food itself and more to do with local conditions that drive vendors into the outdoors. Mostly, that condition is poverty and lack of regulation which adds an awful irony to a conference that costs $750 in a nation ridiculed for its regulations. Additionally, there is a body of research demonstrating that the risk of street food contamination is low and not any higher than in restaurants.

What is lost when a street food moves indoors is transparency. When the food is served outside, you have an often far too intimate and transparent relationship with the food preparation. One of my favourite stories of this intimacy is from Austin Bush, eating the Burmese pickled tea leaf salad, lephet thoke:

Once several years ago I ordered the dish at a street stall in downtown Yangon. The woman mixed the dish, in the traditional manner, with her bare hand, squeezing and squelching the mixture thoroughly. After serving me the lephet thoke, she then stared at me while I ate it, licking her fingers the entire time.

On the street, there is generally nothing to hide: you can immediately pick a popular stall from an unpopular one, you can eyeball the chef, see the ingredients and preparation. In a mall, this doesn’t happen. So what’s the value in rolling together food that is served on the street and food from the mall?

My guess: billions of tourism dollars. Food tourism is gigantic business. In 2003, Tourism Queensland estimated that 22% of international visitor expenditure is food. If this held true for Singapore, whose GDP is ~10% tourism, this would be worth SGD$7.7 billion. The international fight to be perceived as having the world’s best street food is a high stakes game.