Tag Archives: Cambodia

More Than Meets the Eye

In my orientation to living in Korea, I was told to consult YouTube to learn how to operate my Korean appliances. Needless to say, I was thankful when I arrived at my new home and my rice cooker only had one button. I scoffed at my friend’s futuristic device, with a flurry of Korean characters dotting the front control panel.

When things were not so simple, a strategic trial and error process ensued. Sometimes, there were surprises, such as when another friend discovered a toaster lurking within her microwave:

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It paid to keep your mind open to new discoveries.

With this guiding mantra, this past spring I embarked on a journey. Following two years teaching in Korea, it was time for the next adventure. I decided to travel Southeast Asia by bicycle. Travel by motor vehicle inhibits the senses. Countless sights, sounds and smells are lost with the speed of transit. On bicycle, I wasn’t taking in the scenery – I was part of the scenery.

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Besides this non-traditional path to experience the region, I wanted a way to connect with the community. Previously, I had worked with the environmental organization Trees, Water & People on their fuel-efficient stove program in Honduras. Their program works in developing countries to introduce slight modifications to an existing cook stove design for greater efficiency. With their help, I was able to identify a similar organization, GERES, leading the way to clean cooking in Cambodia.

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Living divides us, but eating is universal. It was decided that my riding partner and I would stop through one of the communities where GERES was active to see their work in action. The use of stoves with modifications introduced by GERES has the potential to save up to 2 million tons of resources by 2017. My hope was to show support for their mission, and to experience clean cooking firsthand.  It was arranged that we would prepare a collaborative meal for the community on one of GERES’ stove models, the New Laos Stove.

After receiving a tour of the stove production facility and a cooking demonstration by our host (read about it here), the first order of business was a visit to the market. Our brigade was made up of my riding partner and I, our GERES host, Makhara, and friendly Savy, whose home was hosting the event. With a rough sketch of a menu, we entered the web of local vendors in search of fresh ingredients. Surrounded by mounds of produce, fresh pineapples caught my attention. Encircled by spiraling ridges, my eyes were intrigued by the intricate pattern carved into the fruit.

I decided that the pineapple would be of use, and we requested to take four. With only one fruit manicured for sale, we patiently waited as the vendor prepared our order. Watching the woman carefully wind her knife up the sides of the fruit, I noticed she followed a pattern. Her knife seemed to follow the spiraling growth of the fruit’s outer “eyes.”  It struck me that the carved pattern wasn’t simply a facet of presentation, but an ingenious way to preserve the greatest amount of flesh while removing the sharp outer skin. Smitten by the new technique, we finished up at the market and returned to the village.

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One characteristic of the New Laos Stoves is their mobility. Essentially self-contained buckets, the three sizes are able to be shifted and moved depending upon the occasion. The modified design also has a better ease of use than traditional models, with lesser amounts of harmful gases escaping during food preparation. Outside of Savy’s home, we found our set-up for the day. With her family’s production facility beneath her house as a backdrop, we had one large stove on the ground, accompanied by a prep table and loads of curious onlookers.

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We began our prep work, dicing up the pork slabs and comparing the worth of our biceps with a turn at the mortar and pestle. At some point, a loud-speaker was rolled out on a dolly, and before we knew it “Gangnam Style” was echoing throughout the village.

When the coals were deemed ready, we began to cook. One stove, one pot, one thing at a time. We started with the main event: pork and pineapple stir fry. We put the ingredients in the pan and the nominated stove attendant stood by, spatula in hand. 

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As things simmered away, eventually it was time for the taste test. Skeptically, the spoon was passed around. Just as I was wondering what was missing in the flavor, someone appeared with a bottle of soy sauce. It was tipped in, along with a few tablespoons of palm sugar.  

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Preparations continued with a version of basil fried rice, and were remedied again by the ladies’ culinary know-how. At last, lunch was ready.  Our panel of discerning judges, the local children, waited on a tarp rolled out for the occasion.

Nervously, I waited for the first gag. But, it didn’t come. When I got the universal signal for all clear, a thumbs up, I eased up and wiped my brow.  

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Happy with the meal’s success, we kicked back and enjoyed each others’ company.  More than anything, I was impressed by the warmth with which we were received.  At first difficult to find our common ground, in no time we were taking turns tending to the stove and comforting the baby, all anxiously awaiting a meal to share. The result was fusion stripped down to its core, peppered with laughter and garnished with cultural exchange. 

With a few new culinary tricks in my back pocket, and an unforgettable experience, we pedaled off into the sunset with a new respect for Cambodia, its people, and the work GERES leads within the community.

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Pork and Pineapple Stir Fry

Serves 4

pork

2 cloves garlic

2 tbsp. ginger

2 tsp. salt

2 tbsp. oil

1 lb. pork shoulder, diced

1/2 pineapple, diced

2 dried chili peppers, crumbled

1/8 cup soy sauce

1/8 cup palm sugar

2 limes

Rice, to serve

Combine garlic, ginger and salt in mortar and pestle, and mix until ground together.  Or, crush together using the side of your knife on a cutting board.  

Next, mix all ingredients together in a large bowl and stir to combine.  

Heat oil in a large wok or skillet over medium-high heat.  Add pork mixture and stir-fry until pork is cooked through and pineapple is tender, about 10-15 minutes.  Add more soy sauce and palm sugar to taste.  Squeeze lime juice into pan to finish.  Serve with rice.  

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One’s Waste, Another’s Potential

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There is a certain sense of satisfaction that comes from overtaking a motorized vehicle.   On a dusty road in central Cambodia, the game of catch-up continues down an expansive stretch.  Ourselves on bicycle and our challenger being a heavily laden motor-cart, we smile and wave each kilometer or so as the vehicle creeps slowly along, boasting a variety of fine ceramic goods. Amongst the rust-colored selection, the glint of sun on metal highlights one particular product for sale: the New-Laos Stove.

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Across Cambodia, carts such as these make their way through communities – stopping and starting down the highway to make sales to local consumers.  Operated by distributors of ceramics from the Kampong Chhnang region, they sell their wares off one-by-one and then return home to reload and set off once again.  Seemingly straight-forward, it is the cooperation with stove producers and distributors such as these that has led to the success of GERES’ Improved Cook Stove initiative with over 2 million stoves sold to date.

Begun in 1994, the Improved Cook Stove initiative was a response to the stress being placed on Cambodia’s precious natural resources.  The program brings change home, quite literally, with the introduction of new technologies to the long-standing stove design.  Traditionally a self-contained device allowing for fire or charcoal to apply direct heat to a pan nestled on top, GERES partnered with the producers of the region to implement slight design modifications for greater efficiency.

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Research dictated that by increasing the number of holes in an internal grate allowing for oxygen flow and by controlling the amount of heat loss with insulation and the narrowing of gaps, it was possible to increase the stove’s efficiency by 22%.  Producers embraced the new design seeing a promise for greater sales and the stoves hit the market.

Intrigued by the success of this program, my riding partner and I decided to stop and see the results in action, hoping to learn a thing or two about Khmer (Cambodian) cuisine in the process.  We made our way to the project center, Kampong Chhnang, about 80 km northwest of Phnom Penh.  There, we were met by Mr. Makara Srey, one of GERES’ 80 employees working in the region.

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First, our new friend escorted us to see the production.  We arrived at what seemed to be a typical cluster of houses lifted up from the earth on stilts.  Makara explained that the lofted home design allows for the families to do their living up above, while also having a sheltered space underneath from which to run their business.  In the community where we arrived, the trade of choice was stoves.

We were introduced to Ms. Sakun Tes and her family.  Ms. Tes is the matron behind a production facility of New Laos Stoves.  Working independently from GERES, this facility is part of a nationwide cooperative of stove producers that is reaping the benefits of the demand for modified stoves.  Made with materials such as locally sourced clay and rye ash as insulation, each stove takes about 7 people and 14 days to complete – depending upon the season.  After a tour of the assembly, we settled in to observe Ms. Tes’s daughter, Soy Savy, as she prepared the family’s meal on a tandem of New Laos Stoves.

Working in the corner of a cinder-block structure, Savy lit the charcoal in one of her stoves.  Able to be used interchangeably with charcoal or wood, Savy rationalized her preference for charcoal in that it left her cooking pans clean while wood tends to blacken the surface.  While she waited for the briquettes to burn down in order to cook, she began her preparations on the menu of the day: fish head soup.

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Savy chopped and pounded away with little Sovanphanha tugging at her pants, scurrying in and out to make sure her father didn’t need anything and her baby was still sleeping soundly in the hammock.  When the briquettes were glowing at temperature, she set a pan with rice on the stove to simmer away.  Once confirmed as done, she removed the pan, shuffled a few of the warm briquettes over to her second stove to warm the rice, and set to work on the soup.

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Savy relied on a common selection of Khmer ingredients to develop her flavors.  Simple and straight-forward, she made a stock of sorts by simmering the fish heads in water.  Later, she tossed in salt, palm sugar and kaffir lime leaves. A crispness was added to the dish when Savy finished each bowl with a julienne of green mango.

Eyeing up our supper nose-to-nose, a taste confirmed that a harnessing of often wasted resources can lead to great things.  The depth of flavor the heads imparted the soup was simply divine. Myself included, squirming at the thought of heads for dinner, it goes to show that when we open our minds to a new way of thinking, as was the case when GERES consulted with the local stove producers, what we find in the end may be better than before.

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Fish Head Soup

Serves 3-4

3 cups water

4 fish heads, butterflied and pounded to allow for flavor release

1 teaspoon salt

2-3 kaffir lime leaves, torn

1 teaspoon palm sugar

1 green mango, julienned

Rice, to serve

Bring water to a simmer over medium-high heat.  Toss in fish heads and allow to simmer, about 5 minutes.  Add salt, lime leaves and palm sugar and stir to combine.  Simmer another 5 minutes and then remove from heat.  Garnish with green mango and serve with rice. 

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For more on GERES and to support their work with families such as Savy’s, click here.

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