The most unusual food offered among the scores of booths at the Cambodian Cuisine Festival that we attended did not much appeal to me. Although I am a fairly adventuresome eater, I passed on the grilled chicken with red ants. Had it been lilac ants, turquoise ants or even fuchsia ants, maybe I would have given it a try. Uh, uh. Not a chance.
I am phobic about insects. (Yet here I am in Cambodia, where it happens that we entertain a tiny endearing lizard nightly. Since lizards dine on insects, I welcome her/his presence — pretty hard to tell the sex.) In contrast to me, Lin likes to rescue flies struggling on the surface of the building’s pool. I wouldn’t touch them with a 10-foot lifeboat.
With regard to the grilled chicken, apparently it is what is inside the ants that flavors the food with a vinegary tang. I’m not sure that the ants themselves actually touch the chicken, just their insides. That’s more than close enough for me.
In any case, the festival on two evenings of the last weekend in March was pretty cool and unexpectedly exciting. I estimate that more than 1,500 ruly folks attended on the grounds of Phnom Penh’s Olympic Stadium, the vast majority of them Cambodians who were tempted to indulge themselves in regional specialties, enjoy the spectacle of entertainment on a big stage, accept myriad free samples and soak up the events’s considerable energy.
It was a fun evening in which three of us dined on soups, a dish evocative of General Tso’s chicken, forgettable palm curry with chicken from Kampot and homemade ice cream for all of 10 bucks. There was a $3 admission charge, and the evening’s beneficiary was an NGO called Pour un Sourire d’Enfant (PSE).
I thought something called “fruit-jam ice cream” would prove to be an adventure, yet it turned out to be merely a decent close cousin of the rum-raisen flavor back home, the fruit being raisins. I had wanted to give durian ice cream a taste for the first time, but they ran out. (For the uninitiated, durian, called turen here, smells so bad that some airplanes ban its transport. But it tastes great if you can get it past your nose.)
Truth be told, the food was by and large mediocre, except for the General Tso dish, two small cups of which I ordered twice. The ambiance reminded me of a New York City street fair without the street and the endlessly repetitive stalls with food better left uneaten for reasons of quality, never mind potentially clogged arteries.
Although the times and even the two dates of the festival had been advertised differently, depending on where we found information, I was impressed with how well organized the affair was. There were volunteers near the entrance, coupons to purchase for payment of the food and an orderliness I don’t expect in most Asian venues.
To me, the most intriguing aspect was the entrance. We were herded into short lines, one for males and one for females in keeping with a tradition in which touching between sexes is considered unacceptable by many Cambodians in this relatively conservative society.
Although that restriction may endure in many quarters, I have noted that it may be more honored in its breach by teens and young folks in their 20s than in its adherence, especially inside the festival itself and with couples riding together on motorbikes. (Still, as close as I am to our family here, I mentioned in my last post that for me to embrace either Mom or teen-age daughter would prove to be a misstep, if likely a forgivable one.)
I snapped a bunch of photos and, below, impose more of them on the unwary.