Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Lonely Planet's Top 5 WE DARE YOU!

I did it! Lonely Planet's Cambodia guidebook has a list of five foods they dare visitors to try. They are deep-fried cricket,

the fruit durian,

duck embryo,

and finally, the fermented fish sauce prahok.

Deep-fried cricket, durian, and duck embryo have been available throughout Southeast Asia. Crickets are rare but because Laura and I enjoy visiting the markets of each location, we've seen them in each country. They typically accompany many other deep-fried creepy crawlies.

Locals eat them as a snack, sort of like picking up a pack of sunflower seeds for us. Imagine baseball players up to bat with a cricket leg hanging from their mouth!

Durian is the easiest to find at most fruit stands.

It is a larget fruit that, once opened, emanates a tremendously horrible smell. It's like opening a package of strong limberger cheese. Many hotels and restaurants don't allow durian inside due to the strong scent and possibility that the scent will be difficult to remove. Interestingly, there isn't a single local person I have asked that does not like durian. They all say that the first trial is horrible, but afterwards, you will fall in love with it. The other very common "we dare you" food is duck embryo. This is the one I've seen locals eat the most. We initially had a difficult time identifying the duck embryo egg. It is typically kept in a steaming kettle until the moment of purchase. Attempting to purchase the embryo, I ended up puchasing a few hard-boiled duck eggs. Eventually, a Lao local taught me how to say "kai lu", duck embryo. Locals always did a double-take when I asked for kai lu knowing that farang typically don't want it (and often mistake it for hard-boiled egg). Interestingly, kai lu comes in numerous development states and thus the egg oftentimes comes labeled with one, two, or three. The higher the number, the more developed the embryo is. In many locations, there were stands that specialized in only kai lu and drinks. So, it seemed that locals treat it as a snack to go out for, like ice cream for us.

As a replacement to Thailand and Laos's fish sauce, the Cambodians make a fermented fish sauce called prahok. It is used for cooking. We've had the unfortunate opportunity to encounter prahok in the markets, where minnow-sized fish soak in a sauce filling a five gallon bucket. This is one of the worst stenches known to man. Prahok is used in many meals, but to get its strongest flavor, fish paste is the best option. Fish paste was a fried rice patty with ground vegetables, herbs, and prahok.

Finally, there is only one place for the deep-fried spider. We made a special trip to Skuon where we found them being served up in mounds.

Nobody knows how this tradition got started; it's suspected that during the starving years of the Khmer Rouge, people began resorting to spiders. Now, it's possible to go on a tour where one can watch the process of spider-finding, spider-catching, spider-frying, and spider-tasting. The poisonous spiders live in the ground and once captured, their teeth are removed so their poisons cannot be given to a person. They are taken live to the fryer to make the local delicacy.

Upon looking at the list initially, I thought the order from most difficult to easiest would be: duck embryo, spider, prahok, cricket, durian. It turns out, for me, taste and smell matter most. I can close my eyes and eat anything, but if it tastes or smalls bad, that's no fun. The first and easiest of the list was the cricket. At Chiang Mai's Sunday night market, I purchased a small bag of five or six. After eating the first, I finished the rest!

They tasted like the oil they had been fried in, something like a potato skin.

Second easiest was the deep-fried spider. Its hairy legs and beady eyes were difficult to look at but it tasted the same as the deep-fried cricket. I gobbled it whole giving me a mouthful where as next time, I think I'll break the legs off first.

In the middle is the duck embryo. I actually purchased this twice to try two different development levels. I tried the first in Pakse, Laos at the day market. It was an egg yoke surrounded by blood vessels and tasted quite good. The second was at the Mekong riverside in Kratie, Cambodia. When I asked for it, the vendor continually flapped her hands and said "Tweet, tweet, tweet!" to warn me. Her 10-year old daughter helped show me how they eat it and enjoyed my reactions. The Kratie embryo was more developed with the semblance of feathers and a beak.

On the difficult side was prahok. I don't enjoy strong fish taste and prahok has that. In Kompong Cham, Cambodia, I found a menu that contained prahok as an item. I saw it as my opportunity to check an item off. The waitress arrived and I ordered it. She said "No, no, no, can't eat, very smelly." I gave her a confused look and she responded "Order something else." I followed her orders, then approached the English-speaking restaurant manager. He explained that prahok was a cooking sauce and isn't ordered to eat. I'm still not sure why it's on the menu. On arrival to Siem Reap, we hadn't eaten all day due to a long busride. At the restaurant, I asked if they had anything with prahok. They did, and it was fish paste. Despite my hunger, this was extremely difficult to get down. Thank god for that year and a half living with Mediterranean food. The last bite felt like I had crossed the finish line of the Tour de France.

In Phnom Penh, Cambodia, I tried durian. The fruit stand had more than fifty to choose from and once purchased, the vendor chops it open and removes the fruit.

The smell is immediate. The scent is like smelly feet with a hint of tanginess. It's impossible to describe. It thought it smelled bad enough that I needed to eat it immediately or throw it away. The initial taste was horrible but the soft meat of the fruit was tangy and tasty. This was the only of the five that Laura tried and we determined the skin of the fruit was what had the bad scent and taste. Once removed, the meaty inside was tasty. We each ate one piece of the fruit and that was enough.

Unfortunately, the fruit gave me gas and I burped up that nasty durian taste most of the evening. With the fruit options at the equator, I won't be spending any more time with durian!

Now, a break from the travel blog to discuss the good-hearted tuk-tuk driver. After my Beng Mealea post degrading tuk-tuk drivers, Laura reprimanded me for not talking about Thai. I told you these guys are masters of manipulating emotions; now, my wife is demanding blog space to write positively about a tuk-tuk driver. Upon finishing our Angkor temple tour, we visited the market in Siem Reap. As we left the market, a tuk-tuk driver approached us.

"Tuk-tuk... Tuk-tuk..."


"I'll take you anywhere for 99 cents."

Since drivers rarely speak English well, it was odd to hear a nearly perfect American accent from this tuk-tuk driver. I replied, "OK. How about Beng Mealea?"

"Let's talk."

Eventually, the deal was sealed and Thai the tuk-tuk driver would be our driver for the visit to Beng Mealea. Due to the length of the ride, we learned a lot about him. He learned English from an American missionary. He was 15 years old when the Khmer Rouge took over the country. During their four year reign, he worked in fields with just one rice porridge meal per day; he starved. He lost his mother and five siblings in those four years. Only his father and one sibling survived. When their reign ended, he stepped on a land mine. It took him six months to walk, but he was lucky that his foot was not amputated. The only scar that remains is a piece of his heel that is missing. To support his family (his father, wife, and two children), he payed off a hotel employer to get a $60 per month job in hospitality. That's how bad corruption is in Cambodia; few care about your skills, just the money you can offer for a job. Thai speaks fluent English, a very rare quality in Cambodia, yet he can't get a job in tourist-rich Siem Reap without paying people off. From his hotel job, he purchased a tuk-tuk and now drives tourists for six months out of the year. His day-to-day life depends on encountering tourists who want to travel locally; his English puts him ahead of the tuk-tuk crowd. After helping his family, he says he can save $300 per year and hopes to save up to $1700. This amount would allow him to purchase an Apsara training course to become a guide of the Angkor monuments. This is a good job in the region as it's year-round, includes tourist tips, and has regular hours. It is amazing to think of the differences between Thai's situation and the first world. His skills aren't important to employers, so his intelligence and fluent English can't land him a job. Bribes are taken by everyone, the police, government officials, employers, and they are the only way to get things done. How can a society grow with such corruption? How can it succeed without promoting its best and brightest? Those benefiting from this society certainly aren't looking to change it and they are the ones in position to do so. Sometimes, we don't realize how lucky we are.

If you are going to Siem Reap and need a good, English-speaking tuk-tuk driver, give Thai a call at (855)0121710052 or e-mail thaicoolrides@yahoo.com. Now, Laura can't say I'm completely degrading to tuk-tuk drivers!


Anonymous said...

MOM SAYS YOU TWO CAN EXPECT NOTHING BUT LIVER AND ONIONS WHEN AND IF YOU EVER COME BACK TO VT. top 5 we dare you foods is better than you trying the top five we dare you MAN vs WILD sites to survive and escape from. you must have an iron will and an unbelievable stomach to have accomplished that feat--you should send that blog to BIG RON and tell him how living with him thru college helped you to be able to do the TOP 5 WE DARE YOU DELICACIES of Asia. They do seem a little better for you than BIG MACS or pounds of French Fries at B.&W. P.S. don't bother to bring any home with you ; the pictures of you eating are hard enough to look at. SUPERBOWL CHAMPION GIANTS FAN!!!!

Greg said...

Man some guys are so hard to live with "SUPERBOWL CHAMPION GIANTS FAN!!!!" my butt.

Did someone say food? Enjoyable to read and see the comparisons. I'm ok with all but the duck embryo. That would take some gag control; such as maybe rice wine. No mention of same. How come .. so good. Pics of LP and JP faces were savers. Thanks.

The talents vs. bribe hierarchy is soooo frustrating. Think of a USA company working in competition with non-USA is such place. For us a bribe is a felony and civil fine. For others it is an honor.

We picked our Driver/Bodyguard and ultimately good friend - Victor Akimov - because of his English and volunteered purpose to protect the family as his. The driver "put forward" was an open heart surgeon, w/o English and meek and mild. For months Victor and we caught subtle grief for not following "the system".

Sure glad you experienced first-hand.

The snow has stopped at 9 -11 inches today w/o the forecast post icing of trees. Fuel oil truck comes up our hill tomorrow morning. There is a God.

Greg 2-13-08 2210

joylani said...

nice post :) your pictures and comments had matt and i both cringing and laughing at loud. the only one of those we were brave enough to try was the durian. hope things are going well for you guys at home!

Anonymous said...

I'm planning on traveling SE Asia very soon, as well as living in Vietnam for 2 or 3 months. Was looking up good itenerary's and came upon this page. I skimmed a few blogs and as a blog writer myself, know good when I see it. You an excellent photojournalist and I appreciate the SUPER detailed blog...over the next few weeks I think your blog will single handedly help plan my vacation a ton. and you are also hilarious! In particular, I was literally LMAO about the butt hose and your experiences with the top 5 foods--I'd like to see a cricket hanging out of a ball players mouth! Thanks so much for helping other travelers with such a great blog! Phoebe*