Wednesday, November 30, 2016

What's Rude or Not in Cambodia

Things that don't seem to be rude in Cambodia:
1. Staring.
2. Standing in front of people at a social function regardless if the people behind you can see.
3. Talking about someone's physical appearance.
4. Going the wrong way down a highway.
5. Parking wherever you feel like it, regardless of how it impacts traffic.
6. Feeding random kids food without asking their parents.
7. If you are male; walking around with a bath towel tied around your waist at any time of day.
8. Letting your male children play naked in the street until the age of about 9.
9. Honking loudly at anything that has less wheels than you to let you pass. (The exception being a car honking at a tuk tuk.)
10. Asking personal questions about finances.

Things that seem to be rude to a Cambodian:
1. Not taking your shoes off before entering a home.
2. Not inviting someone to join you in the meal if they show up while you're eating.
3. Showing the bottom of your feet, especially with shoes, to someone (ottomans are not understood.)
4. Showing anger.
5. Not making way for wrong-way traffic.
6. Touching other people, especially hair, without permission.
7. If a non-Cambodian male, staying home while a Cambodian female cleaner is in the house. (But a Cambodian female cleaner can be alone with Cambodian repairmen or any ethnicity of woman.)

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Some Tips for Flavorful, Budget-Friendly Soups

One of the best budget meals when you have two burners and no oven or crockpot is soup. It allows you to spread out a small portion of meat while the entire dish absorbs its flavor, to bulk up with cheap vegetables and to add a wide variety of vitamins and minerals depending on your access to varied-colored vegetables. However, when bland, it's not at all a joy to eat. Here are a few tips I've learned to stretch meat, vegetables and flavor. (All opinions. All optional.)

For us, it is cheaper to buy meat once or twice a month and then freeze it into portions for one meal. This means it must thaw or be allowed time to cook longer. Regardless of if it is frozen or thawed, you can still begin the same way: browning the flavor-enhancing vegetables. For us, that means onion, garlic, ginger and/or red peppers (as everyone but me doesn't care for the raw pepper flavor.) There are two reasons that I do this: If you throw onion or garlic in without browning it first, you lose a lot of delicious flavor and end up with a more raw version of their tastes.

Once these veggies are brown, I always brown the meat next. The basis of any soup with meat is the broth. The broth will have so much more flavor if you brown the outside of the meat first. After it is brown on the outside, I fill it up with the required amount of water and dried spices or soy sauce and let it simmer for at least two hours on low. (Dried spices can possibly be a cheap option for flavor. Here, sometimes they are expensive depending on what you get.) Another tip if you want tender meat is not to rush it: low and slow renders it much more tender than a rapid boil. For a good broth, it is best to use the bones from previous meals and boil until you get the good stuff out, but since I usually have frozen meat, I make sure to leave any bones in until the last minute as they augment the broth and then I separate them out. (Here in Cambodia, it's very common to leave all of the bones in even when served. I don't do this because my little ones are likely to choke on them, but they do like the bones and will chew on them if available.) I usually makes sure the meat is in small pieces so that it can go all through the soup and everyone gets as close to an equal amount as possible.

After you've figured out which direction you want to go with your soup flavor profile, you can choose the cheap filler-veggie to accompany it. For us, the cost-effective choices to bulk up a soup include lentils, black beans, pulses, potatoes, chickpeas, acorn squash, and sweet potato. Then, to this in a smaller quantity I usually add things like greens (spinach, cabbage, bok choy), flax (for omegas), carrot, or any other colorful option.

Last, one of the most important steps is to taste the almost finished product and adjust your seasonings. Not enough salt leaves all of your delicious flavors hidden, while the right amount highlights them. I save my fresh herbs until last as they are too delicate to hold up to boiling. Usually Khmer cilantro, parsley, lemon grass, or basil are available. An exception is Kaffir lime leaves, they will hold up to boiling well. Also, if I use lime/lemon juice, I add that during this step.

 I enjoy the challenge and ability to be creative with combinations, and thankfully, my family hasn't complained about it either. Usually, we pair the soup with cous-cous, rice, dumplings or possibly baked potato if it's more of a thick stew or chili. Soup can also be thickened with a cornstarch or flour-water slurry added at the end, but that's not usually necessary. These are always our supper option, so there are other ways to fit in vitamins and minerals during the day, through fruit and raw vegetables. There are a myriad of options one can use in combinations, but following this method with any of the options has really helped me get some delicious products.

As I don't have professional chef training, I'd love to learn from you: How do you make soup flavorful yet budget-friendly?

Monday, November 21, 2016

Woodworking in Cambodia

This handsome guy has been working a lot mentally with his doctorate and job as a principal, so finding ways to work with his hands is something he finds satisfying, he tells me. For him, that means woodworking.
Something that can be challenging for woodworking in Cambodia is finding good equipment. Even if something is labeled as a name-brand item, many times it's a fake and starts smoking at the first hint of work. This happened with several electric saws and screwdrivers. (Not to mention that cordless tools are almost non-existent or really expensive here.) But, not to fear, strong muscles and manual tools helped get things finished. 
Finding comparable wood to what we are used to working with in the States isn't always possible either. Good plywood is still something we've got our eyes open for. However, there are different kinds of wood, like teak and rose wood. Rose wood is very hard! That's what he built the boy's bunk bed with.
Besides the bunk bed, he has worked on practicing his tracing with a skill saw. First, he asked me to draw a camel because their lines weren't too detailed to start on. Besides cutting off the tail because it was too flimsy to stand up to the saw and the hump and mouth being a little pokey, it was a fun experience for a first try. Our neighbors were more than happy to laugh and ask if it were a camel or a turtle.
His next project was a Brontosaurus for the boy's room, and it turned out even better. Then, perhaps harking back to his days tracing a map with all of his free time in the class room (because he's a genius and always finished everything quickly) he decided to work on a map of Cambodia. He used old pallets and sprayed it with a finishing stain.
I'm really proud of his country cut-out the most. It's nice to be married to someone who isn't addicted to video games or selfish endeavors, but someone who tries to learn new things that he can work on with his children. The kids loved being involved in each of these projects and I'm sure they will give them wonderful memories with their father for later on.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Some Ways Cambodia has Forced a Healthier Lifestyle

One can never move to another country and expect everything to be the same. If we would be honest about it, we would also have to realize that each country changes us, as well. Cambodia is no different.

When you are on a budget, typical food from the Standard American Diet isn't available. There are cheap street food options, but if you want to avoid food poisoning and amoebas, much of that isn't a good option. (There are exceptions, depending on what they are cooking, how well you know them and how fresh the food is.) This has helped us eat more healthily. Cheese and most dairy is scarcely an option because it's expensive. However, seasonal produce, rice, beans and fruit are super affordable, especially in rainy season.

Not having an oven limits things even further. There are down sides to this, as my favorite thing to give people are baked goods like cinnamon rolls, but there are also advantages. Not having access to all of those baked items I usually make, even though I try to make healthier options for my family such as banana bread, has limited our processed foods and carbohydrates even more. When I can get a kilo of sweet potatoes for .50 cents, their rich satisfying flavor curbs any carbohydrate cravings I might be missing from baked goodies, and with less sugar and processed stuff. (Then, there's the delicious battered and deep fried bananas from the market, but we don't get those often.)

Meat is something you have to be careful with in the markets, especially pork. Because of the price, we have been sticking to cheaper cuts of beef and chicken thighs. Being in Cambodia has taught me many ways to stretch a chicken thigh to feed 5 people. With a 2 burner hot plate, many dishes for one meal aren't ideal, so lots of soups with rice and tons of veggies have been gracing our table lately.

While adjusting to these things was uncomfortable and I still have times I'd really just like a regular stove, overall I've come to see it as a blessing. I've been able to learn to make do with the ingredients available. (Thanks, mom, for teaching me to cook. I have no idea how people who don't cook can make it on a budget.) Our family is able to afford protein at every meal, while so many can't here. I've been able to learn some Khmer soup recipes and enjoyed learning to enhance our meals with cheap but flavorful new herbs. I have a new appreciation for my husband who is dedicated to making the budget work and also not picky about food, and even complimentary about what I cook. I see it as a blessing that this occurred though the biggest part of my pregnancy, helping maintain a healthier pregnancy weight in a country where walking is almost impossible (but the four flights of stairs certainly come in handy for that.)

So, I'm not promising anything, but if you want to lose weight, you might want to try an extended stay in Cambodia on a food budget. :))

Saturday, November 5, 2016

Cars in Cambodia

One thing Cambodian roads are not built for is cars. The tiny lanes between houses make it very difficult for more than one car to go through at a time. Small Toyota Camrys are huge in comparison to the space allotted and the ever-favored status symbol in third world countries, the Lexus ATVs are gigantic. Being able to afford a car in Cambodia also seems to give the owner a sizeable sense of entitlement as well on the road. Everyone must be patient in Cambodian traffic, but if someone is going to be honking, it's usually a driver behind shiny Lexus armor. Any driver in a Tuk Tuk or on a motorcycle has been forced to the edge of the road by a horn-blaring car or truck. 

[sarcasm warning] Can you blame the car drivers, though? They aren't able to enjoy driving their pollution-free, air conditioned car with any sense of accomplishment. Every turn is swarmed by the faster and less bulky motorcycles, deep pot holes the huge cars can't avoid and a myriad of wrong-way-traffic and cart-pushers. I can imagine being frustrated by owning a vehicle capable of so much that never makes it over 50 miles an hour on a good day. Perhaps that rage is what built up until a former teacher riding a motorcycle was purposely mowed down by one. He lost his leg, but the poor car owner is stuck in the same frustrating situation with perhaps some guilt on top. Usually, in cases where a car causes an accident, they pay the person who was hurt enough for a hospital bill, (health insurance doesn't exist for normal people here.) My friend's brother who drives a Tuk Tuk was rammed by a car and as a result, had his thumb amputated. The car-driver gave him $50 and disappeared.

In a country where the infrastructure can not support large vehicles, the insistence of citizens in getting them anyways may slowly change what road structure is available. In the meantime, everyone has to wait in the bulk of traffic created by them. (Unless you have a motorcycle, then you can usually get around anywhere while the cars are left behind to duke it out.)