from Saturday, December19th of the year2009.
Last night, I had one of the most spectacular & serendipitous food experiences of my life. It went down like this. I have been staying at an Ä€man hotel, which is essentially a temple to the most extremest of luxuries. I’d heard tell about these places for years, and so when I was planning out this trip a few months ago, started secretly saving enough for a three-day stay. Anyway, a friend of a friend of a friend of a friend emailed me saying that his friend was having a staff party and would I like to join them. Sounds fun: I have made it a habit to crash other people’s staff parties this year. (Weirdly, and slightly awkwardly, I was meant to have a meeting with the music director of the English National Opera, and he gave me a time and a place to meet him, and that time and that place turned out to be the retirement party for a Belovèd Administratrix at the Opera; so what I had thought would be a slightly informal but still business-based rendez-vous with a conductor turned into a somewhat sloppy +44 affair involving weepy toasts, chilled rosé, and a lot of in-jokes about stage managers).
Why did the Cambodians keep the Khmer script while Vietnam ended up with their wild diacritix? Why did the French do such a weird job transliterating the language? Why does everybody get up at 5:30 in the morning here? Why, in a city with a monkeys in it, do there seem to be, comparatively speaking, so few? (compare to, like, Rishikesh where it’s monkeys all the way down) After de-collectivization, who decided how much land each family could own? Why did half the people I talked to hate the Chinese so much? Why is really really expensive wine at home really really cheap here?
In any event, last night, a driver (who was later described to me as my host’s “Majordomo”) met me at the gates of the minimalist citadel, and I hopped into his car (all vehicles capable of transporting foreigners here appear to be Toyotas Camry; I have no idea how this came to pass; this is one of my many Logistical Questions about Cambodia (see sidebar)) and we drove off, over a bumpy red-dirt road (not unlike the one that leads to the insanely out-of-place Le Creuset outlet in Gomorrah, South Carolina) and pulled up at what I immediately recognized to be a Gay Household! Yay! Great lighting and beautiful tile. (What’s the line from The Opposite of Seggis: “Gay houses usually sell real quickly…because of the recessed lighting and the good faucets. ….”) “” in any case, it turned out to be the farewell party for a young, smartly dressed graphic designer (who starts a new job in Phnom Penh on 1 Janaury), and he had requested that his friends all pitch in and organize a veal roast!
Veal roast! Y’all! This is everything I ever wanted. A very slight, incredibly soft-spoken man explained to me that he had beheaded the calf that morning, and that they had been roasting it over coals all afternoon. He and his colleagues then gutted the creature, and filled its insides with a chaotic jungle of lemongrass and holy basil, and impaled it on a huge bamboo pole. These are graphic designers, all of them, FYI. A piece of fresh bamboo (or was it a perversely large leek?) served as a basting brush for a marinade of fish sauce, garlic, ginger, and chili:
The skin, somehow, achieved suckling pig crispiness, but the flesh was a combination of perfectly rare & pink, and at other times, gelatinously fatty, wobbly and condensed-milk off-white. Just underneath the carcass, resting on a plinth of bricks and coals was a giant cauldron filled with drippings, the head, the hooves, and other baseball-sized chunks. A man wearing a New York Knicks hat was skimming the pot every few minutes, getting up only to refill his plastic cup of Angkor beer from the keg. To the side of the roasting area (which was essentially two piles of bricks outlining a heap of coals) was a table of plastic colanders and trays filled with thinly sliced onions, green tomatoes, and then a pile of cut-up assorted lettuces, basils and mints and what was described to me as cumfrey (although I’m not sure of this translation; all of this was happening in very manic French by those who spoke it; I was the only non-Khmer person in attendance, and while everybody was really eager to converse, an enormous amount got lost in translation and the general drunken atmosphere).
So, it was a giant, communal affair, very politely conducted, until such a time as the head of the calf was removed from the cauldron:
At that moment, everybody gathered close and started making what I can only describe the Anticipatory Clucking of Sucking Meat off of something’s Face. A Khmer-language Akon cover came on the hifi and a man in a striped polo shirt got out a huge cleaver and started hacking the head into small bits: the eye socket, the cheeks, la nuque, which translates to the “nape” but I think of it more as the place where the hoses connected to u in the Matrix, or something, and, a first for me, the soft palate (?) above the jaw but underneath the brain. Another man took the trimmings, organized them, and cut them with a smaller cleaver into bits, and the rest of us hungrily grabbed the bite-sized pieces, and dipped them immediately into a dish of prahoc and, then some soy and chili, black pepper, and tossed them right into the mouth, exhaling like Darth Vader to cool off the steaming meat. The ears came off; they were sliced diagonally into crispy parentheses with a layer of fat making a halo upp-around. The tongue was quickly skinned with a paring knife, and cut into candy-corn sized chunks, and picked up with a lettuce leaf, dipped in the fish sauce, chili, pepper, into the mouth. A metal soup spoon helped scoop out the off-puttingly grey eyeballs; I tried to grab one but an elderly woman beat me to it and I nearly got my hand cut off by a cleaver swipe aimed at a stray piece of jawbone. Then, with a giant, quite disturbing crack, the brains were revealed:
These had been boiled inside the head, in a stock made from the feet of the same animal. By this point, my Khmer hosts seemed suitably impressed with my enthusiasm about this food (which was beyond delicious; it was the intersection of the Communal and the Offal and the Akon that is, essentially, the guiding force behind my entire life) and the butcher casually elbowed some grandmother aside so that I could have first dibs on a lobe of the brain. On his advice, I held a piece of lettuce in my hand, and with chopsticks, placed the brains on the lettuce. Then, I threw a leaf of basil on it and a leaf of torn mint, let it sit for two seconds to allow them to wilt, and then folded the parcel into a loose triangle, dipped it in fish sauce, popped it into the mouth. It was fantastic:
I was so absorbed in this process that I didn’t notice a woman behind me furiously chiffonading more herbs, throwing them in a waiting coral reef of soup bowls, and ladling the veal stock into the bowls along with a sprinkle of chili. Broth! The whole thing felt hysterical and babylonian and, for me, made the whole trip worthwhile. I went back and sat in my plunge pool and looked at Orion’s belt and was Most Satisfied.
(That having been said, I think it’s the combination of rural backyard pig roast and staying at this absurdly fabulous hotel that does it for me; I’ve learned about myself the various forms of roughing it that I still enjoy, and also the various forms of luxury that sooth and oppress “” being waited on oppresses; luxury for me is being left alone in a space where one can Help Oneself, as in the Honesty Bar at Hazlitt’s Hotel in London “” I never quite know how to behave at, say, a Mandarin Oriental or even a Raffle where it’s inappropriately obsequious Vixens d’Asie hiding around every corner asking if you want another Ãžingapore Ãžling or some kind of paraffin wax treatment applied to your person; this Ä€man business hit the note just right, where the result of service (stuff getting done) was completely shielded from the rituals & social mechanics of same (asking if you need anything, the constant Ø¨Ø®Ø´Ø´ (baksheesh) performance) “” the trade-off, of course, is that you pay handsomely, but one hopes (and takes especial care inasmuch as one can) that the employees are compensated equally handsomely, although I wish there were a way to make sure that’s how the money is working “”Â I’d like to think that opulent, Maharajah-style hotels & restaurants are hideously greedy & medieval about their employees and that minimalist, subtly lemongrass-scented places are effortlessly fair-minded and that each cleaning woman receives, you know, a Le Corbusier-designed concrete box filled with Remuneration.)
Just writing this blog post has made me ravenously hungry, but I am unfortunately in the departures lounge at Siem Reap Airport, domestic terminal, which only has Western food, whose interpretation here is one lonesome looking tunafish ciabatta on a plate in a fridge wrapped in plastic; the “local” food options appear to be only an Oodle of Noodle-like styrofoam goblet. I’m going to wait for Phnom Penh and some kind of Airport Fritter. [Important update: since writing that last sentence, I have arrived in Phnom Penh and have eaten a streetside shrimp fritter.]
Last night I made the mistake of having Asian Dessert; readers of this blog know that I will put most things in my mouth, but Asian Desserts from India up to China and over to Japan all freak me out in a major way; I half-drunkenly tweeted (@nicomuhly; follow me!) that they all seem to be composed of the holy troika of design elements: Squid, Semen, & Jell-o Jigglers and, really, I stand by it. Sometimes there will be a notable exception like gulab-jamun which is merely suspended in semen and can be quite delicious, but really, at the end of the day, come on: