Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Around Cambodia; Sihanoukville, Koh Rong, Siem Reap

Over the last few weeks I've had a chance to travel around the country a bit. Over Christmas Hermione and I traveled to Sihanoukville and Koh Rong. After New years spent in bed with a rather harsh respiratory bug and work not picking up much, I decided to head off to Siem Reap for a change of scenery and a chance to bike around some of the most spectacular ruins in the world; Angkor Wat and the surrounding temples.


So the original plan over Christmas was to go to Thailand, but some logistical issues surfaced last minute and we decided to head over to the Cambodian coast instead. Lucky for us it's just a bit over a 4 hour drive and were able to get there from a taxi we picked up near Central Market not long after Hermione got out of work. Some folks unacquainted with Asia may find a speeding taxi on Cambodian roads distressing, after spending time on Nepal's highways I was at ease and could have napped. After arriving we were able to check into a place right on the main road heading down to the pier on Serendipity beach.
Tropical Christmas
So Christmas Eve and day spent out on the beach in Christmas hats, to be at least a little festive. We had white sand instead of snow, but it's still a white Christmas, and this is the type I prefer. In Asia Christmas generally isn't so much a family holiday but is instead an excuse to hold lots of parties, and this seemed to be the case here. To be honest the party scene here was a bit too backpackery and the DJs playing on the beach were some of the worst I've tried to dance to in recent memory....and that's saying something. I've danced to some rather shit music over the last five years, but this was just dumb. You're a DJ, blend songs and eventually drop the friggin beat- it's not rocket science. It might take skill to be really good, but it doesn't take much to be passable. This was for the most part not.

Serendipity Beach
On the plus side, the beach was nice. lots of sand, lots of shaded spots, some decent surf, plenty of excellent food being brought around and cheap quality cocktails. For me this was the high note of the place. $2 well made Mojitos at one of the beach bars were a nonstop source of something worth smiling about. Grilled seafood is carted around the beach by locals and is quality and cheap. Ate plenty of grilled squid, prawn, and the local version of lobster. While on the food front it's worth noting that the places that do set BBQ menus with fresh fish and meat are by far the best food deal in the tourist area. Had some excellent barracuda, more prawn, pork ribs and wings. The places we enjoyed most were the ones set just one street back from the beach. 

Golden Lions at a Roundabout- why?
Because Asia
Something else worth noting is that Sihanoukville has this reputation as the kind of trashy part of Cambodia with a bit of a seedy underside. It very well may be, but I really didn't see much. Yes the tourist demographics tended a bit more toward the overweight and tattooed, a few more Russians than is probably good for any holiday destination, and there was a good sized backpacker contingent, but it all seemed rather chilled out. It's a beach side resort town and has a kind of cheap resort beach town feel. Nothing wrong with that really. And while there were certainly a few working girls about, they were fairly inconspicuous, and there was only one small area set back from the beach that had a concentration of girly bars, most of which looked fairly empty when we waked by. Pattaya (or any holiday location in Thailand) this is not. 

Lastly it should be noted that we ended up having to take medication for Giardia, a stomach ailment which comes generally when you've ingested fecal matter of some kind. Gross? Yup. But quite common in Asia. Recognized it quickly due to previous bouts of it in Nepal. Raw sewage gets into the ocean here, and though the ocean looks great, it may not be the cleanest. Could have also picked this up on Koh Rong, or it could have even been in food- but I suspect it was swimming off of Serendipity beach, even though symptoms didn't really manifest until just before leaving Koh Rong.

Koh Rong

Looking Down Toward the Pier at Sunset
So on to Koh Rong, which might be one of the most pristine islands I have ever spent time on. The sand is about as bleached white as I have ever seen it. There are not really any resorts and no airport means the island is thankfully free of large scale package tourists. It had a very backpacker vibe to the place, which is both good and bad. On the plus side I love the cheap accommodation (though more expensive than it should be for Cambodia now that I think about it), decent cheap food, and all in all a rather chilled out atmosphere. You do however have to endure late teen and twenty somethings trying to impress each other, binge drinking, talking about things like they know what they're talking about and hippies. Too many damn hippies. It takes all types I suppose. 

Some of the Best Beaches I've Been To
The pictures here are of Tui beach that is near the pier and the majority of the accommodation on the island. The coast line of the island however has a number of really great beaches. It does not however have any real roads, so to get to said beaches one must hike over the islands surprisingly steep trails that traverse the cliffs or take a water taxi (basically some guys fishing boat). This is highly recommended. Long Beach on the west coast of the island is just miles of some of the best beach I have ever been on. I don't have photos because I didn't bother bring my phone, but the water was perfectly azure blue, the sand was bright white, and there was so little sediment in the sand that it squeaks between your toes as you walk. It's just really spectacular. I say this as someone who has been to some really wonderful beaches in Mexico, Thailand, Fiji, Australia, etc. This very much vies as one of, if not the, best I have ever been to. Also due to how inaccessible the other beaches are, and how massive they are you'll likely have this spectacularly beautiful spot all to yourself. We also did some snorkeling at the north end Tui beach near the Treehut Bungalow place, and was actually quite surprised that it was decent. There are a few coral gardens out there and we saw a rather decent array of fish. I got to chase around a school of at least a hundred or so fish for a bit that had a mix of different species including a few really good looking parrot fish. Not a bad way to spend the afternoon.

Another note on this is that when we went over we took the afternoon speed boat, which is much much worse than the morning boats in comfort level. We were in rather calm seas and that thing was all over the place, I can imagine a few people get seasick if there are any decent waves. So when I was heading back and feeling quite ill, I was not looking forward to the ride at all. Thankfully the morning boat is a much bigger and much more stable boat that actually made for a rather comfortable ride even in my depreciated state.

It should also be noted that it appears there are some seriously grand plans to develop the island. Airports, golf courses, resorts, malls, and everything that ruins a destination like this. Sure there are other islands to go to, but if you want to see this island as a pristine gem, I advise going sooner than later. It's like the difference of a place like Phi Phi in Thailand 15 years ago compared to today, or Samui 20 years ago compared to now. Always best to get there before the resorts and airports, it all goes down hill once the people on planes start arriving.

Siem Reap

Looking for a change of scenery I'm currently sitting and writing in a Hotel in Siem Reap, which has to be the most visited city in Cambodia for tourists. I can't get over how many are here compared to when I was here five years ago. I arrived late and just grabbed a place that was a short walk from pub street. As I approach 40, I've noticed that I am in an odd demographic where I don't really want to hang out with all the retirees and if Hermione is not around I am just too damn old to go into a place full of twenty somethings dancing and drinking. So while multiple people recommended Angkor What? and Temple Bar, they just dint feel like a place for me. I stopped at Triangle(?) bar for a bit as the live singer was playing some excellent old Khmer music that I really like. 

Angkor Wat is Stunning
Relief on the Walls of  Angkor Thom
 Of course most people aren't here for drinking and dancing, they're here to see the temples of Angkor. Angkor wat remains one of the top destinations in the world for just spectacular ruins. Pictures don't do most of it justice. These are spectacular ancient temples spread over a rather large area of jungle. It should be on the bucket list of anyone who likes to travel, and probably for some that don't. Angkor Wat in Cambodia, Machu Picchu in Peru, Pamukkale in Turkey and Karnak in Egypt are my favorite ancient ruin sights I've been to, and of those Angkor is near, or at, the top of the list.
Having already spent days wandering around the ruins a few years ago I thought I would take a different approach. I rented a mountain bike and picked up a day pass. The sun is quite intense at this latitude, but most of the time you are cycling in the shade of the trees. It was really pleasant, and the ability to just stop anywhere I like and take in the scenery at whatever pace I liked was nice. Then it was back into town for another evening.

On the whole I remembered Siem Reap much more favorably then this experience. On the whole it has been pleasant, but the city has lost a bit of its charm. Pub street is kind of a subdued  version of Bangkok's Koah San Road, but without that element that makes it fun. The local food is mostly overpriced when you know what it costs to make, and the foreign dishes are mostly what you would expect, edible but mostly imitations of what they are trying to be. 

After having to change hotels due to not booking enough days I moved up to the north side of the highway to a much nicer place for almost the same amount of money. On the way I stopped at a restaurant named Abacus which is run by a couple of French guys apparently. Can't say enough good things about it. A little on the pricey side for Siem Reap, but the quality is there to make it very much worth it. Best meal I have had out while in Cambodia. The crab & mango salad was really excellent and the duck confit wasn't bad either. Will definitely go there again when visiting people inevitably want to come see the temples, glad I know about it now.

This north side of town seems ok, though as I write this I can hear a lot of Karaoke, which is entertaining now, but could be a bit much if it goes on to 2 or 3 am. There are not thousands of Chinese tourists up this way stopping in every part of the road for photos with everything at least. I get that Asians like their photos, but Jesus....when there are so many people stopped taking photos in congested areas it tends to get bothersome. Move on Folks! You can take a selfie with the menu some other time. Besides no one wants to look at that photo! Anyway, Khmer pub street is just around the corner and seems to be full of Khmer style beer gardens and plenty of KTV places. None of it is really my scene but may be worth checking out. Well not the KTV, that requires substantial amounts of alcohol and other people to go with. Regardless, will strongly consider staying up this way in the future. 

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Rediscovering Practiced Philosophy

This is a bit of a detour into a completely different direction for this blog, but I think it is important as it lays the foundation of how I come to many of the views I occasionally express and even plays a role in things as simple as cooking and making cocktails. 

One of the greatest shames of the modern era is that philosophy by and large is no longer a practiced art. The modern form that you possibly take some classes in at university is not really philosophy but just some lessons in rhetoric, logic, history and lots of word games. Modern philosophy is mostly dominated by semantics, defining language in a certain way to make certain precepts to support an argument. This is not really philosophy, in the same way that reading about or arguing about judo does not make you a master of that art. There is a difference in practicing something and talking about it. You can not really know without doing, you may be better prepared by reading and discussing, but it is the act and experience in practice that brings real understanding.

Today there are a few monastic traditions that resemble practiced philosophy, mostly in Buddhism but that is essentially it. Prior to the advent of Christianity the west had a number of its own traditions from the Stoics to the Epicureans to the Cynics. With the domination of Christianity in the west anything resembling practiced philosophy was absorbed into Christianity. This isn't to say that nothing worth while was developed in the Christian Monastic tradition, but nothing I personally find all that useful. The injection of religion is often a lazy way to practice, as most of the heavy lifting is done by a supernatural being of whom the practitioner has no concrete knowledge of. The salvation of the individual relies not on his own hard work, but instead is a gift from the divine. 

The Enlightenment; When applying logic, and reason was trendy,
and probably got you laid.
When non-religious philosophy re-emerged during the enlightenment it was taken up by the
fashionable houses and discussed in salons as opposed to practiced in schools. This proved incredibly useful and in effect laid the groundwork the explosion of scientific discovery, liberal democracy, and a number of the better things in the last few centuries, but religion maintained a grip on practiced ethics and anything that could be described as "spiritual development" (as someone who doesn't really believe in souls or spirits I'm not a fan of this term, but it does encompass a certain meaning when it comes to developing certain traits in ourselves.) While this may work just fine for some people, it doesn't work for many of us. In the void of any coherent moral strategy or practice to strengthen our character, most people practice what can at best be described as a kind of lazy enlightened hedonism, in that we in measured steps seek out what seems to be the good with some forward looking toward the consequences. This is kind of our default mode, with the variation of different schooling and cultural teachings adjusting to some extent what and how we value certain things and just how disciplined we are in delayed gratification.This isn't really much of a strategy.

Of the three main branches of philosophy, logic, epistemology, and ethics, the core of it is really ethics. The other two are just support to assist in arriving  at making decisions, and the making of decisions itself lies squarely in ethics. For when we consider what it is we are going to do next we are in effect asking ourselves an ethical question, we are asking what is the right thing for me to do now. As all of us know from living as human beings, knowing what the right action to take is and preforming that action up to par are not one and the same thing. The role of practiced philosophy is to move you from unsculpted and undisciplined donkey chasing the carrot before you and fearing the lash behind you to a person that can see the decisions before them clearly and make the right one in even trying circumstances. The goal of practiced philosophy is to allow the practitioner to keep making decisions and taking actions that add up to create a better life for the practitioner. As Epictetus once put it, as the carpenter works with wood, so does the philosopher sculpt a human life.

This goat does not subscribe to deontological dogma.
When determining action there are two schools that have dominated the west over the last few decades, the first is deontology, which views breaking rules as always wrong. This has been what religious folk are essentially told and what the state would like us to believe when it comes to their laws. The other view has been consequentialism which believes that ends justify the means and has been by and large the ruling theory of state actors under such theories as utilitarianism. Both of these approaches have some serious limitations. Deontology just can't be taken seriously. There are just no simple hard and fast rules to life, and that is clear to anyone who has spent more than a few minutes observing things. Is it wrong to lie when hiding refugees from genocide? Is it permissible to murder if the state says it's sanctioned? Is it always wrong to steal if the corrupt horde resources? I personally think any theory that turns over moral authority to another agent, especially the state or other power structure is rather bankrupt on the face of it. Consequentialism has proven not a whole lot better. First, determining the worth of external outcomes is a tricky proposition, and often it leads to some really terrible circumstances. It is this line of reasoning that has lead the US to support some really terrible people over the years, and can sum up why I think our foreign policy is such a shambles. The ends justifying the means lead us to support Pol Pot in Cambodia in the misguided effort to counter the Russian influence via the Vietnamese. This simply creates untenable situations, and it asks too much of the participant, we simply never have enough knowledge to predict all of the consequences nor is there any way to correctly measure their worth. Consequentialism fails because it places value on things we can not control, on consequences we can not predict, and often supports horrible things in the hope that good things may follow which seems logically flawed on its face.

The remaining theory, and really what I actually wanted to talk about is virtue ethics, which is what most of the schools of practiced philosophy used, and I think it is clearly the superior choice. The gist is that by developing strong central character traits such as Wisdom, Courage, Prudence, Justice, Compassion and Temperance that the individual can approach each situation and make a better decision in the moment deriving the answer from the traits he has honed. Buddhism essentially sets out a theory of virtue ethics with its eight-fold path which is a list of virtues that if practiced result in the elimination of suffering. Ancient greco-roman philosophies had a similar approach where the focus what not so much on the action itself, but on how the action is a reflection of the inner character of the person making it. In short, if you can develop a virtuous character than your actions will also be virtuous. The reflection of this is that a poor choice in actions is the result of the presence of flaws of character. The arising of negative emotions such as guilt, anger, fear, jealousy are often seen as the lack of application of these traits to ones life, most often a lack of Wisdom when one creates expectations of the world in their head which is not met in reality. In all traditions, they did not look to coddle or make excuses, but to sculpt the individual to be able to deal effectively with the human experience in day to day living.

One of my goals over the last seven or so years has been to develop a practice of virtue ethics. It's been a bit hit or miss at times, and I've certainly been a more conscious practitioner at some points than others. It has however become a permanent fixture in my head, and over all I feel I have benefited greatly from it. While I would like to take credit for most of it, I simply can't as most everything I have stolen from a number of different sources, mostly from Stoicism, Buddhism, and Pyrrhic Skepticism. While I won't ever claim to have all the answers, I do think that we would certainly benefit from developing modern schools of practiced philosophy. While there is quite a bit of literature out there to piece some decent things together we do currently lack any kind of support structure that would come with a more organized school, and those like myself could benefit greatly from having older more practiced individuals to discuss things with or turn to for guidance.  

Sunday, December 20, 2015

First Batch of Infused Cocktails

Cheap liquor and a wide variety of interesting fresh ingredients is the perfect recipe for experimenting with infusions. My first batch of infusions got made into cocktails over the last week and here I’ll document the results.

Christmas in Cambodia

1 Shot Absolut Orient Apple
½ Shot Tamarind Infused Vodka
½ Shot Citronge
5ml Cinnamon Tincture

 Mix ingredients in a shaker with ice and shake until chilled. Strain into a cocktail glass and garnish with a strip of orange peel.

This was a slightly tricky drink to get the balance right on. I assumed at the outset that I wanted it sweeter and used simple syrup and a cheaper triple sec. In my opinion the drink benefits greatly by moving away from this. It’s nice and complex with the initial apple and orange flavors hitting you first and the tamarind comes in on the finish. While I’m not usually a huge fan of pre-flavored vodka, the Orient Apple flavor from Absolut is quite a nice mix of apple with a bit of ginger. For the tamarind infused vodka I let about 4 whole tamarind pods seep for roughly 6 days. The tincture was made by toasting 4 whole cinnamon sticks and then crumbling them into 500ml of vodka for just about a week. The tamarind, and to a lesser extent the cinnamon, give this cocktail a really nice pale orange color.

Phuket Margarita

2oz Kaffir Lime & Lemongrass Infused Tequila
1oz Triple Sec
1oz Lime Juice
1 Thai Chili, sliced

Mix ingredients in a shaker with ice, including a thinly sliced chili, and shake until chilled. Rim a margarita glass with a mixture of coarse sea salt and chili powder. Strain contents into glass and garnish with a sliced chili.

This is your classic margarita ratio and ingredients with a bit of a South East Asian twist. Getting the infusion right is a bit tricky. Most recipes call for the kaffir lime leaves, but I wanted a bit of the bitterness you get from the zest, so I sliced one whole kaffir lime and used a couple stalks of lemongrass. The trick is getting the lime out before the rind makes the tequila too bitter. I had it seep about two days and was happy with the result. I left the lemongrass in. The tequila has a very fresh, citrusy taste and I really like the contrast that you get by adding the heat from the chili. Like many Thai dishes, this cocktail is all about attaining balance of flavors, and in doing so getting more for the whole.

Kampot Pepper Gin Bloody Mary

2oz Fresh Pepper Infused Gin
Bloody Mix

Fill a tumbler with ice and pour the gin in over the ice, then top up the glass with bloody mix. Stir until contents are well mixed. Garnish with a lime wedge, olives, pickle, and a sprig of fresh pepper.

The fresh pepper from Kampot is known as some of the best in the world. It’s excellent to cook with and it turns out it makes quite a nice cocktail too. You only need to seep the gin with the fresh pepper for a couple days. One of the interesting things with this is the color; the infusion originally takes on the greenish color of the peppers, but then it turns dark black. Black is actually a very rare color for liquor as I found out trying to do Halloween themed drinks one year. The extra peppery taste adds a lot to a Bloody Mary. The real trick in Asia to making a good bloody though has been finding all of the correct ingredients to the mix itself, with horseradish and celery seed being the tough components to collect. If really desperate you can always use some wasabi powder to substitute for the horseradish and sometimes the celery seed can be dropped all together- or you use celery salt or even mince a bit of the top of a celery plant if they are available. Luckily I was able to assemble the ingredients within a day or two of arrival (priorities)!

Other infusions I’ve worked on here are a basil infused Gin, which makes a nice gin & tonic, and I’m working on a tequila infused with roasted chilies that were smoked with bacon. Hopefully will follow up at some point with a recipe to go with that.

This week we get to fly to Phuket to meet up with some friends from Nepal for Christmas, and then it will be back to Phnom Penh overland via Bankgkok. Hopefully I’ll get up to enough fun to have something to post about!

Friday, December 11, 2015

Not Easy Rock 'N' Roll

Traveling in the past I’ve never really gotten that into the music of the place I visited. Nepal had way too much of an Indian influence, and no one born outside of South Asia can really take Hindi pop seriously. Cambodia however has an excellent legacy of their own take on rock from the 60s and early 70s when the arts flourished in the Kingdom. I was first introduced to the sound initially via the band Dengue Fever, and was hooked after listening to it. While the band played plenty of their own songs, many of my favorites were covers from singers I had not yet heard of like Ros Sereysothea, Pen Ran, and Sin Sisamuth. Before moving to Cambodia much of this music became regular listening music, either while relaxing, running or in the car.

This week we got to enjoy the Cambodian International Film Festival, which had possibly more murmurs about it this year than average due to the involvement of Angelina Jolie. One of the films we went to see was Before the Fall, a kind of film noir thriller set in the days leading up to the fall of Phnom Penh to the Khmer Rouge. The central character was a Cambodian singer who is caught between an increasingly besieged city and two lovers- one American and the other French. The film was a lot of fun and I’d recommend it to anyone, and the soundtrack was absolutely excellent. The music was done by a band called The Cambodian Space Project.

A couple days later, this band was itself the subject of a documentary Not Easy Rock n’ Roll which followed the discovery of the lead singer in a Phnom Penh karaoke bar to their current success touring internationally and all of the struggles getting there and that remain. The story was quite touching, following the hopes and dreams of a woman from a rural province in Cambodia that has dreamed of being a singer all her life. As anyone who has visited South East Asia in the past knows, more than singing goes on in the dens of karaoke bars, so it was great watching her transformation from someone who was essentially shunned by society to someone that was drawing large crowds around the country, supporting her aging parents, and generally going from pariah to respected singer. Highly recommended watching to anyone that gets the chance. 

Cambodian Space Project preform with the grandson of Sin Sisamuth
Not only was the story great, but the band is excellent as well and Srey Thy has an amazing voice. Just a day after seeing the documentary they put on their last gig in Cambodia for the year at The Exchange in Phnom Penh. It was one of the better small venue live sets I’ve been to and was an absolute blast.  One of the things I love about that style of music is that I genuinely enjoy dancing to it, which is not that common for me. They played for almost 3 hours and we danced just about the entire time. The old Cambodian rock songs especially are just pure fun.

All said, it is exciting to be in a country where the music I enjoy is not just things imported from home, but music that was created and is unique to the place where I am living. Often times local arts are in many places supported for the sake of it, not necessarily because they are actually any good. In Phnom Penh this is not the case, there is plenty of really good stuff going on here. So far my impression here is that there is some really talented people putting together things that are not only unique to here but stuff you really want to be engaged in just for the experience of it. That’s exciting, and really makes me look forward to spending more time here. 

Monday, November 30, 2015

I'm Thankful that Cambodia is Awesome

Last Thursday was Thanksgiving, which is one of my favorite holidays. It also reminds me that I have a hell of a lot to be thankful for. I've got really great people in my life, a supportive and loving family, and I have had and have taken advantage of a number of great opportunities in my life. I can very honesty say that I wouldn't trade my life with anyone in the world.  Most recently contributing to this is the latest thing I am very Thankful for which is how awesome Cambodia is.

I really love East Asian Markets
As already stated in the previous post, the food here is excellent. Fresh vegetables, fresh fruit, live seafood, excellent cuts of pork, duck that is cheaper than chicken, tons of fresh herbs and spices- simply put if you really love working with food these markets are like paradise. Central Market is especially awesome, but even the smaller markets around town surpass the experience of all but the best stocked grocery stores back home and lack the pretension of a place like Whole Foods.

Hermione in appropriately themed American  top
 with Thanksgiving Dinner
 For thanksgiving I bought my first whole duck- like not even gutted and beak still on it's head (well the butcher removed this as I ordered it). Fresh vegetables easily found for roasting and the imported items that you can't find at the local markets can usually be found in the more expensive super markets. Things like cream to go in the pumpkin pie (made with fresh roasted pumpkin) or decent Parmesan cheese to go on the salad, or even horseradish to pair with the fresh oysters- all of it was found in a store just a 15 minute walk from the house. While I love Nepal, one can't help but compare experiences with other places they have lived and after struggling there for years to find and secure decent ingredients, Cambodia feels like I've died and gone to heaven. It all doesn't just end with food either, it's just the beginning.

Tamarind Vodka, Kaffir Lime and Lemongrass Tequila &
Fresh Pepper Gin
There's the absurdly low cost of liquor here. Apparently Cambodia just doesn't bother tax it. This means that setting up a fully functional home bar that can produce most classic cocktails is a rather simple endeavor. Currently the only thing I'm really missing at the bar is Chambord- so no French Martinis or Chat Noirs served here at the moment, but I'm sure with a little digging I can find it. Combined with the excellent markets you are also given the opportunity to put together some really cool infusions- as seen in the adjacent photo. The other night we had Mezcal margaritas shaken with fresh local chilies, they were excellent. Even things like using the local chili/salt mixtures to rim glasses are really promising.
Riverside during the  recent Water Festival
Cambodia is also a very fun place. Like many places in Asia, holidays go on for almost a week as opposed to a day. Out and about during the recent water festival was a good time. While the service at restaurants and bars can be a bit sulky, it can also be really interactive and fun. $1.50 margaritas also help (see above points). Even on quiet nights out though it's been great getting wood fired pizza out of a modified food cart  tuk-tuk or watching the people pass by on riverside sipping drinks from atop the Foreign Correspondents Club. Even the girls at the well named Mr. Butterfly Bar have been quite charming and were fun to have a couple of drinks with. Then we can always just sit out on our balcony on a tropical evening and relax for an evening, and that isn't bad either.

Just up the road from me is Phnom Penh's Olympic Stadium, which is an excellently designed area, that becomes quite lively before sunset. It has a great community like feeling where groups of people participate in exercise dance classes to horrible pop music, grill chicken and make fresh sugarcane drinks, while others run down on the track or play volleyball in the adjacent sand pits. In a city that isn't very good for walking or running, it's really nice to have a space like this that can be utilized by the public. And honestly I love running on good rubberized tracks, so I'm very excited about running here regularly.

Then there is just the relative ease with which everything seems to happen. Furniture supposed to be delivered at 9am? It actually shows up and is delivered up your absurdly steep stairs at 9am. Need a visa for a year? Showed up to a travel agent, forked over some cash and they said please pick it up on Friday. Even the local currency is in my native currency, meaning when transferring funds from the US I don't get murdered slowly over exchange rates. Even dealing with internet and buying electronics for work was a piece of cake. Because of past experiences trying to do anything in Asia I enter most situations expecting the worse (Nepal had an uncanny way of exceeding my worst expectations) but Cambodia so far has just been one pleasant surprise after another.

Stay awesome Cambodia, and thanks for a great introduction.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Pineapple & Tamarind BBQ Ribs with Prawn & Avocado Salad

 After about 30 hours of travel I finally arrived in Cambodia. As Hermione arrived a month ahead of me she already had many of the logistics taken care of, all that was left for me to do was unpack and adjust to the heat and time zone difference.
Welcome to the Kingdom of Wonder

One of the first things I got to do was check out the great Central market here and check out what kind of food was available. To say I'm impressed with the selection and quality of the produce, meat and seafood here would be an understatement. The butchers seem skilled and the pork cuts especially looked great. Seeing a really nice rack of ribs I couldn't help but grab them and then run around and find some stuff to go with them. I love to take something I know well and then put a local twist on it with some of the nicer ingredients found locally.

Pineapple & Tamarind BBQ Ribs

Marinading the Ribs

One of the other great things about Cambodia is that liquor is absurdly cheap. Bourbon costs the same as a bottle of wine. What this means is that it's cheap to cook with plenty of liquor which can add some really nice flavor to food. so once home i rubbed the ribs down in salt, pepper and oil and then marinaded it in a mixture of oil, vinegar and bourbon.

1 Part Apple Cider Vinegar
2 Parts Sunflower/Olive Oil
4 Parts Bourbon

Rough chopped 

Added a bit more salt, pepper and some sweet chili powder.

Mixed it all together and set the ribs aside in the refrigerator for a while

BBQ Sauce

I love fresh tamarind and you just don't find too much of it outside of Southeast Asia. Instead of using tons of brown sugar I instead used pineapple as a natural sweetener and supplemented it with some palm sugar which has a really nice almost caramel like flavor.

First thing to do was to make a paste out of the tamarind. I softened it up by simmering it in a 50/50 solution of bourbon/water and then once cooled a bit took the pits out and mashed it up in one of the worlds best traveled mortar and pestles (it's now traveled from Nepal to the UK to the US back to the UK and then back to the US before getting to Cambodia). With the pulp made it was time to get the rest of the ingredients together.

Shallots, diced
Garlic, diced
Fresh Chili, thinly sliced
Ginger, julienne cuts
Sunflower Oil

Fresh Pineapple, sliced and rough chopped
Tomatoes, Diced  
Tamarind Paste
Palm Sugar

Dijon Mustard
Worcestershire Sauce
Apple Cider Vinegar

In one pan saute the shallots, garlic chili and ginger in a bit of oil until it browns. In another pan mix the pineapple, tomatoes, tamarind paste in some bourbon and toss in a healthy amount of palm sugar. Cook until the tomatoes dissolve and then mix in the sauteed mixture as well as a spoonful of mustard, a good couple glugs of Worcestershire sauce, Tabasco and  a bit of vinegar. Cook until the sauce thickens a bit. Let it cool a bit and then toss it in the blender.

Cooking the Ribs

I would have used a grill, but I only had my newly picked up large toaster oven. In any case preheat something to a lower heat, around 285-300F. Heat some oil and sear the ribs briefly on either side. Coat them in sauce and place in oven or grill. I cooked them for 2 hours and applied more sauce about every 30 minutes. 

Prawn & Avocado Salad

The seafood at the market was excellent; squid, scallops, prawn, skates, plenty of fish and so much more. Not able to resist some good looking prawn I decided to mix them in with a light mix of thinly sliced cucumber, avocado, diced tomato and a light citrusy Honey-lime and chili dressing.

1 part lime juice
1 part honey
a glug or two of fish sauce
thinly sliced red chili
Salt & Pepper

Mix the dressing ingredients and let it sit as long as you can as it lets the chili diffuse. The prawn can just be boiled in a bit of water, I usually add some lime and salt to the water as well. Prawn just need to cook for about 8 minutes or so. Once removed from the water, just let them chill in the refrigerator. 

I find that for salads like this a really thin cut on the cucumber is nice and, depending on the consistency, for the avocado as well. Add the diced tomato and then toss it all in the dressing. Some of the avocado will dissolve a bit making a bit of a nice creamy dressing. Throw prawn in around the side, they were quite tasty with that dressing. 

Saturday, October 31, 2015

5 Things- What I will Miss and Be happy to Be Rid of from the US

This is my last few weeks in America, so thought it was a good time to reflect on some of the things I will possibly miss a bit and those things I will be Happy to be rid of. First let’s get the negatives out of the way;

 Political Correctness- I grew up in the original hey-day of political correctness, and it was as painful then as it is now. Sometime recently the pendulum has shifted back to this crap and everyone is offended all the time. It’s simply obnoxious watching a bunch of first world people bitch about their lot in life. New terms like body shaming, fat shaming, micro aggressions, trigger warnings and much more reminded me of why I left college the first time. Being offended is a choice people. Grow the fuck up and move on.

 PC Principle Makes Sure Kids Check Their Privlage

People in Asia also get offended of course, in fact they can be exceptionally thin skinned about a number of issues, but they are not politically correct. In fact there have been plenty of moments where I was the one blushing and slightly embarrassed at what someone was saying in my company. That said, I will take a world where people are unafraid to speak their minds, even if they are in possession uninformed and bigoted opinions, then a world of self censorship and feigned moral righteousness any day of the week.

Politics- American Politics has become abhorrent, and I am exceptionally glad to be out of the country for the upcoming election year. We have a two party system that minimizes the choices we have and the primary process is terribly corrupt. Not a single person running for president should become president and more than half of them should probably be in jail. No more Clintons or Bushes should ever hold public office ever again and Donald Trump is a clown. It’s pathetic and it’s a horribly sad statement about how much of a sham the election process has become.

From what I do know of Cambodian politics it appears to be complete sham as well. But at least Asian countries don’t even really try and pretend they are a Democratic Republic. I think the next election is about three years out, and I doubt that when it does come around there will be quite the same outpouring of campaign advertising and “news” that we have to endure in the US. Good riddance.

Daylight Savings Time- We are setting the clocks back this weekend, and ending DST. Why? I couldn’t tell you. Is anyone excited about the sun going down an hour earlier? Probably not. Why we try and adjust time itself to the natural ebb and flow of the seasons and not adjust ourselves around these factors is something I’ve never understood. Generally I also just hate getting up before the sun and then working until after it’s dark. Winter in the northern hemisphere is just miserable for so many reasons.

All of South East Asia gives all this stupidity a pass. It also keeps a rather even keel year round with regards to when the sun rises and sets. Being closer to the equator it will be a near even split of sunlight and evening. Skype and flights still have to account for the rest of the world engaging in this foolishness, but at least I don’t personally have to deal with it. This sounds like a small petty thing, but there was barely a more motivating factor to me wanting to stay in the third world than the West's unwillingness to fluctuate behavior based on environment. Seasons are different, our bodies react to them differently and we should behave differently to compensate for this. Changing the time on the clock isn't the solution.

Predictability- Every day here you have a rather good idea about what is going to happen. Occasionally you may be surprised, but generally not so much. The well organized societies function like clockwork- they are safe and predictable. Some people really like this, it offers a sense of control and security. I find it mind numbingly boring. I like a little chaos, a little unpredictability, and working on the fly reacting to situations as they develop without really knowing where they will lead. That’s daily life in places like Nepal and Cambodia and I think I miss that more than anything else.

Shit Weather- Now during most of the months I’ve been in New England, the weather has actually been great, but I know what’s around the corner. Winter. Cold, shitty, freezing winters. Last year there was so much snow in New England that people were literally tunneling to work. No thanks! Although we only have one word for snow anyone that lives up this way knows it comes in a plethora of varieties from that freezing pelting stuff to that light dusty powder and about thirty varieties in between. What does it all have in common? It sucks. Yes you can ski, snowboard, snowshoe, or even sled in it and I’ll be the first to admit that these activities can be fun. That fun is negated for me by the sheer ratio of time spent living in the same bitterly cold temperatures and shoveling or driving in snow.

This is sacrilege coming out of the mouth of a New Englander, especially a Mainer, but I’ve been too far afield for too long. A friend of mine noted that it is “just weather”. Well sure it is. I mean hanging out in the arctic in winter is just weather too. For me it’s the same as living in a place where some old guy comes around a couple times a year knocks on your door and when you open it just kicks you square in the nuts. You can call me a pussy for not wanting to live in a place where I won’t get kicked in the nuts, but I’m content to live in a place where that old bastard just doesn’t show up at my door. I’ll admire your toughness via Facebook. Sipping rum. On a balcony. Without a coat.

Now five things that I’m going to miss about the good ol US of A

Things Work- Last time I was in the third world I had gotten into the habit of assuming that nothing would ever work. I often had contingency plans for my contingency plans and still it was almost impossible to predict how a system would break down or fail. In the US you expect everything to work, to the point that people become indignant if they don’t. People show up early or on time, things you purchase work as advertised, infrastructure is reliable and services you hire people for generally get done as promised. While there are certainly exceptions they are just that- in parts of Asia I would say the exceptions are the rule.

Some days you just don’t want the headache and when you need something done, it’s nice to know that with minimal planning you can generally just do whatever it is you need to do. I suspect there will be more than a few instances in my not so distant future where I will be sorely missing this about the US.

Lack of Corruption- At the national level we are horribly corrupt, and I do fear that there has been a bit of a trickledown effect. That said I can think of nothing that the average person here holds in more contempt than public corruption. The result of this is that in our daily lives we very rarely encounter too much corruption. For all the problems we do have with an overly militarized police force, they are generally made up of decent men and woman who won’t ask you for bribes every time you interact with them. I like knowing that if I need to go to city hall for a certificate I’m going to pay a single fee that is the same fee that everyone else pays.

Now I haven’t spent much time in Cambodia, but it sounds like it operates closer to Nepal than the US when it comes to the common practice of paying off anything that involves government procedure. Greasing palms to get government documents to move has never been a practice I was comfortable with and I suspect never really will be. I’ve spent months of wasted time dealing with procedures simply for refusing to convert to the way things are done over there. Luckily I hope to minimize this type of interaction, as I won’t be trying to run a business over there and the visa process is far simpler.

Anything You Want at Any Time- If you are willing to pay for it you can get just about any goods or services you want at almost any time in the US. You want sushi at 2am. No problem. Want to order a aviator sunglasses with an American flag across the lenses- it can be delivered the next morning. Want grapes in winter or oranges in Autumn? Seasons affect more the price and freshness of fruits and vegetables but not their availability. In the US you never think of if you can get something or not, it’s much more of if you can be bothered to possibly shell out the money for it.

Unlike some other western countries we also operate in a much more around the clock manner. One of the things that seemed just foolish in the UK was how everything just shut down for Sunday. Cambodia will be another whole ball of wax though, and I suspect that many things just won’t be as available as one might like. Can you get Amazon deliveries there? Maybe. While cheeses might be available at some higher end markets I doubt there is a massive selection and am even more dubious as to what to expect for quality. Clothing in Asia generally doesn’t fit well and things like shoes tend to either be terribly overpriced or cheap imitations that fall apart quickly and fit funny. I’ve already bought deodorant, stuff is hard to come by over there.

It Probably Isn’t going to Kill You- Now I have plenty of gripes about the insurance system in the US- it’s abysmal, but if something happens and death can be averted it most likely will be. People don’t generally die over her until we’ve hit the bounds of medical science. This is however not quite the case in some parts of the world. I was reminded when getting travel vaccinations that there are a number of tropical diseases like Dengue fever and Malaria in places like Cambodia that I also just don’t have to deal with here. More concerning is how things like a burst appendix or a gash from an accident that would normally be just a painful easily resolved issue in the US can be deadly in countries with a very poor medical infrastructure. While I don’t mind living a little on the edge, I’d also rather not die from a simple infection.

Clean, Clean Everything- Arriving back in the US it was nice to have unpolluted fresh air. There isn’t trash everywhere and garbage is picked up in an orderly manner. Restaurant kitchens generally look like places that have been cleaned in the last year and you can go swimming without bumping into floating soda bottles. Running and jogging in fresh air is especially nice. It’s also nice to go past rivers and streams and not have to hold your nose. I think Cambodia lacks the industrial pollution that Nepal has to put up with drifting up from the Ganges basin, but as a country with a dry season I know there will be lots of dust. I don’t miss the dust, and I will miss the clean air and water here.

As an honorable mention I should probably mention American Football. It's the only sport I find interesting to watch and it's difficult to watch with foreigners because they have no clue what they're watching. Then you have to listen to some half drunk Scotsman go on about how there's no action because of all the starting and stopping. Usually you just have to bite your tongue and shake your head at these simpletons that equate motion and exciting action. I've watched more than enough soccer matches where people were moving the whole time but there were only about three moments in the entire game where something might actually happen and anticipation ran high (and usually the shot on goal is missed anyway and the score remains something thrilling like 1-1). I'll take a violent game of chess where more happens before anyone starts moving than in an entire soccer match, thanks. 

I'll still be watching football over there though, so I won't miss it too much.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Next Stop: Cambodia

Mad hatters at a tea party
Before moving on to discussing moving to Cambodia, I need to briefly address this blog being entirely dormant. London was great. I enjoyed it so much in fact that I rarely took the time to write about it. This may seem somewhat paradoxical, but between mad hatter themed tea cocktail parties, trips to Portugal and Thailand, ancient Roman themed dinner parties and generally enjoying some of London’s excellent restaurants, hanging out with friends and meeting up with family I just didn’t make time for it. Writing about it just didn’t seem as interesting as simply doing it I suppose.

Shortly after returning back to the US, Nepal was hit by a large earthquake. Thankfully friends I had over there all survived and it turned out that the actual damage in Kathmandu wasn’t nearly as bad as initially feared. That said, the damage in the hillside areas outside the city was devastating. I was contacted by my friend, Amelia Hillary, about a week after the first quake and was on a plane the next day to assist up in the Helambu region just north east of the capital. I got to work with some great people and feel like we did some really meaningful work as we assisted in getting medical teams out to remote areas and toward the end began distributing corrugated metal sheets that could be used as shelter in the quickly approaching monsoon. I was also there for the second earthquake, which was a bit sketchy. After 10 days in country I was back on a plane to return to the world of pipeline engineering.
The remote village of Tarkegyang in Helambu shortly after the April earthquake in Nepal

Thursday, February 12, 2015

I've Been Busy!

So much to write and so much unwritten!

Let's see, I've been in the UK  long enough to write plenty of observations.

The Patriots won the Superbowl! That and a tie in on how surprisingly popular the NFL is over here.

Skiing in France. This was really great! Southern Alps are really beautiful and French food is wonderful. Also me trying to ski is funny.

Food continues to be great, the UK has great access to really nice base ingredients and their much maligned food is better than their reputation gives them credit.

Found an online PDF of one of my favorite books; Pyrrhonism, How the Greeks Reinvented Buddhism. Have been happily reading this again and recommend it to anyone interested in this kind of subject matter.

New England has been slammed by one snow storm after another and the temperature continues to be well below freezing. Britain is no tropical paradise, but an average temperature of around 40F seems like paradise in comparison. That said, Krabi in Thailand seems to be sitting at around 90F which really seems ideal.

Which brings me to this,
I feel like I'm trapped in somebody else's master plan; go to school, get a job, get a mortgage. All I'm really doing is dying.

The tone of the video is a bit self indulgent, but I really felt exactly the same way at one point. While there is certainly a balance somewhere- balanced is not where the vast majority of people seem to sit. The number of people who define success by acquiring things that don't actually make them happy is massive in society and our reaction has been to assume that there is something wrong with us and not with the social norms that we've been conditioned to follow. Thus we are more likely to medicate ourselves than to try to change our lives, and the psychiatrists reaction in the video of "Let me get you some more pills." is perfect.
Not all of us are cut out for this Brave New World
There is actually a great reference to Fight Club in the video where her shoe shopping site is called I am Jill's Footwear. Fight Club, was a movie that despite the violence, dealt with exactly the same issues and was essentially about a person finding a way to change their life and becoming an active participant in it as opposed to a spectator.

The real world has its advantages. It's safe, it's secure, it pays well, and it can be a lot of fun. It also can be slowly soul crushing and has a tendency to take vibrant interesting people and make them dull as hell. While freedom might be a bit easier where there are palm trees, the truth is as Voltaire stated;
"Man is free at the moment he wants to be."

To do list;

1) Don't give a fuck.

2) That is all.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Farmer's Markets, Game Birds & Venison BBQ

Selection of squash and other veg at the local Saturday market.

Saturday's in Nepal were defined by one thing for me, the local farmer's market that we had at 1905 on Kantipath. It was a great opportunity to get ingredients that were otherwise hard to find and catch up with people. Saturday's here aren't quite the same but I'm already looking forward to being able to get my hands on some really great ingredients at the market just down the street from us.

A really good habit I got into while in Nepal was making just about everything I ate from scratch. It forced you to learn a wide array of techniques with many different types of food, aside from also reducing my intake of preservatives, corn syrup and other junk. What I find most exciting about food is taking ingredients that you aren't so familiar with, and then preparing them with techniques that you are familiar with. Sometimes the resulting fusion style food is a miserable failure (Wild Boar Pulled Pork comes to mind) but more often your left with something kind of exciting and very often quite tasty.

One of the things I was most excited about in the UK was the wide availability of game birds and meat. I had already gotten into duck, so when I saw pheasant and partridge I picked up a few decent looking birds. The same lady also had some venison shoulder which looked great so I grabbed that too. England really doesn't get enough credit for how good their cheeses are either. While everyone knows that the French and Italians produce some of the worlds best, Stiltons and aged English cheddars are among the worlds best cheeses.  So aside from some great meat we picked up cheeses, lots of fresh herbs and some vegetables. Over the next few days it all got cooked into some really great dishes.

Roast Pheasant Stuffed with Wild Mushrooms & Pear

I served this dish with a fig & cranberry red wine sauce and roasted parsnips & carrots in with the bird, flavored with pear, cranberries, shallots, and garlic. 

For the stuffing i combined sautéed wild mushrooms, diced pear, celery, a few cranberries, and some crushed walnuts all mixed with some fresh rosemary, thyme, sage and butter. The cavity inside the bird isn't all that large so there isn't really room to make use of any filler like bread crumb. 

To season the bird itself I simply rubbed it down in olive oil and liberally applied salt and pepper to the skin. I stuffed fresh rosemary and thyme under the skin and then covered it in a bit of foil. I put it directly into the roasting pan placing on a few pieces of carrot and parsnip to keep it off direct contact with the pan. I cooked it at a relatively low heat, right around 300F for a a few hours, removing the foil for just over the last half hour. 

For the sauce I sautéed finely diced garlic and shallot in butter, then added diced dried fig and a handful of cranberries. I then added about a cup and a half of wine and some of the fat that had thus far cooked off the bird. I brought this to  a boil then simmered it until it was reduced by a little more than half.

Pheasant In Squash Curry

Roast Squash, dressed pheasant, Nepali Spices and pheasant stock on the stove
When I left Nepal one of the first instances of reverse culture shock I faced were the ridiculous prices on spices. After spending a stupid amount of money on some rather sub-par spices for an Indian dish I had wanted to make I got Skype with Hermione and asked her to go pick up a whole bunch of spices from the market in Assan Bazaar. Those well traveled spices came with me to the UK from America, and were put to use in this dish. 

For this dish I dressed the pheasant, (and used the carcass to make some really great stock) and flayed the legs a bit. I noticed when roasting that the leg meat on these birds was a bit tough, so I wanted to get some more exposure to the juices they were going to be cooked in in order to soften them up. I used delicata squash for the base and roasted it until it was very soft (probably over an hour but I didn't time it). Once roasted I took out the seeds and flayed the skin. I then toasted some cardamom, cloves, coriander seed and cumin seed before grinding it up to powder and discarding any parts that were a bit too fibrous. I then sautéed shallot, onion, garlic, carrot and the spices in butter before adding the squash and then cream. I then added the pheasant and a bit of stock to the mixture and put it in the oven at around 320 for not quite two hours. Not traditional curry, but nice thick and creamy with all the same tastes that I do like in curry.

Truffled Pancetta & Sage Wrapped Partridge 

This was served over sautéed spinach and mushrooms with a white wine sauce and a watercress salad with cranberries and sliced almonds. I really like partridge meat as it has just a slight game taste to it making it more interesting to work with than chicken, but neutral enough to do just about anything you want with it. This was a nice chance to get away from some of the heavier winter flavors and go for something a bit lighter and delicate. We had picked up some great Truffled pancetta, and I thought this would work nicely with the partridge. 

The sage I got at the market was really nice and fragrant, and I stuck just a couple of leaves between the breast and the pancetta. Using toothpicks to hold it all in place, I pan seared everything first and then finished it off in the oven to finish cooking the partridge breasts. For the white wine wine sauce it was just the basic mix of shallots and garlic sautéed in butter and then cooked in white wine that was reduced by about two thirds and then some butter stirred in at the end. 

BBQ Style Venison Shoulder

I should probably devote an entire post to this, as it was one of the top five meals I've ever cooked. Not much to look at in the photo, but this was absolutely amazing on the taste buds. One of my main complaints about venison is that it is normally a bit tough, so after I picked up this shoulder cut I thought I would marinade it a bit in order to soften it up and then slow cook it like I would BBQ for a couple hours. 

I cleaned and oiled the shoulder before patting it down in plenty of salt and pepper. The marinade itself was an oil and apple cider base with sliced onions, garlic, mustard, horseradish, honey, ground chipotle,Worcestershire sauce, and paprika. It only sat in the marinade for about five or six hours. It was then cooked in a concoction of  BBQ sauce, apple cider vinegar, sliced onions, garlic, shallots, fennel, mustard, honey, hickory smoke, bacon, sliced Bamley apple, freshly ground chipotle peppers, Frank's hot sauce and mixed whole pepper and fennel seeds. Cooked it covered for three hours and uncovered for about another hour or so. 
Made some wheat biscuits (the American version- though I'll use white flower in the future), and served it with a cucumber slaw, which was really nice. From the looks of the photo I washed it down with some decent rum too! The meat was fall of the bone good and the flavors were really rich and layered. Will absolutely make this again.

Cranberry Stuffed Red Kuri Squash

Red kuri is my new favorite squash. It has a great pumpkin like taste, and has this really cool teardrop like shape. Best of all when you hollow it out there is plenty of space to work with. My favorite so far was to add a sprig of rosemary, crushed walnuts, lots of cranberries, some whole cinnamon & nutmeg, a spoonful of brown sugar and plenty of butter.

I wrap it in foil to start and cook it for about an hour or two, depending on the heat of the oven (generally it's cooking along something else). For the last half hour or so I take off the foil, making sure the exterior doesn't get too mushy.

So already looking forward to Saturdays. Just last night I had a leg of lamb I got last weekend and cooked it in a red wine, which came out really well. I'm hoping this trend of buying great ingredients on the weekend and making fun meals during the week continues!