Cycle 3 – Item 269
30 (Sun) September 2012
Fried Beef with Red Ants
at Moko Café Glacier
(Golden Sorya Mall)
-Phnom Penh, Cambodia-
Research Trip to Cambodia + Lao PDR: Day 3 of 6
- Day 1 (3.267 Fish)
- Day 2 (3.268 Fried Frog in Khmer Spices)
- Day 3 (3.269 Fried Beef with Red Ants)
- Day 4 (3.270 Fried Water Buffalo with Snow Peas)
- Day 5 (3.271 Larb Gai)
- Day 6 (3.272 Pho Ga)
In Phnom Penh. Here to meet with legal experts in the Ministry of Health and the National Assembly to gather information as part of a long-term project sponsored by WHO to assess health legislation in countries across the Western Pacific Region, starting with Cambodia. Afterwards, we’ll drop by Vientiane to meet with the WHO Country Office about how to structure the engagement with Lao PDR.
With a brief window of free time on Sunday morning, we took the opportunity to take in a couple key historical sites in the city.
The first was Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, previously a prison, originally a school. An estimated 20,000 people were imprisoned/tortured/killed at the facility from 1975 to 1978, when the Khmer Rouge regime was in power.
The second site was the Choeung Ek Genocidal Center, previously a mass grave, originally an orchard. 8,895 bodies were found at the grave, making it the largest known of the notorious Killing Fields – an estimated 1 million plus people were executed by the Khmer Rouge and buried in such places, many still undiscovered.
Within the memorial, 5,000 skulls on display.This part of the post had originally been much different in tone and content. For starters, I’d included many more photos from the sites, along with detailed descriptions of what the Khmer Rouge had done to their own people in Cambodia. From there, the discussion ran to parallel criticisms of certain other regimes. After numerous revisions over several hours, I felt that it was some the best writing that I’ve ever done, both in terms of content and craft. I published it but then retracted it a few minutes later. Ultimately, I didn’t want GMTD to get too political.
Pyongyang Restaurant is a Korean restaurant. Specifically, a North Korean restaurant operated by the government of the DPRK. In Korean, the name of the restaurant is “Pyongyang Laeng Myeon Gwan.”
DPRK operates restaurants in various communist countries around the world. I’ve been to one in Bejing (prior to GMTD).
On the way back from Choeung Ek, we were passing by the restaurant and decided to stop for lunch. Korean comfort food seemed just the thing to boost our spirits following the morning’s activities.
While the establishment was indeed North Korean in management, the food was not northern in character or in variety.
Granted, my understanding of northern food derives from my mother’s home-cooking – my parents and grandparents, all born in North Korea – as well as commercial experiences at purported northern-style restaurants in present-day South Korea, where the recipes are frozen in time, brought over by former North Koreans before the peninsula was divided 60 years ago.
Since then, I’m sure that the food up north has changed somewhat, as all cuisines do over time. But because deeply entrenched culinary traditions tend to move in new directions most dramatically when external influences are brought to bear, the north’s cultural isolation renders any major changes to the food unlikely.
In any case, the menu and the modes of preparation at Pyong Yang Restaurant didn’t represent some kind of evolution as they did outright appropriation of existing southern standards, in deference both to international customers, who are now accustomed to the southern style, and to South Korean customers, who seemed to constitute the vast majority of the clientele during our visit.
I should point out that we were a party of 4.
The leader of the group, Professor KSY is inherently quirky in the best of times. But when traveling, she gets highly stressed, which drives her insane, prompting irrational/inexplicable decisions, especially where food is concerned. Once, when we were at an academic conference in Houston, Texas, she suddenly prohibited any of us (not really me, but the fellows from her department that she had brought along) from eating the lunch provided by the organizers, saying that it would make us like we were too poor to buy our own lunch. More stories abound, but I’ll save those for another time.
Here, she took hold of the menu and started ordering without consulting anyone. “I’m so hungry,” she said. The waitress concurred, “To be healthy, you should eat like a commoner at breakfast, a prince at lunch, and beggar at dinner.” So we ended up with 8 dishes, 6 of which included kimchi. By the end of the meal, the plates were still mostly half full.
Volume aside, the food wasn’t that great. The problem, I think, is that the cooks, presumably from the north, are trying to emulate southern dishes/styles without any experience or expertise, so everything ends up neither here nor there.
Overall, the prices were exorbitantly high, making Pyong Yang Restaurant one of the most expensive dining facilities in the entire city. Some of the dishes on the menu cost in excess of $30, most between $5-$15, even the kimchi cost $3, compared to a typical rice plate at a local eatery for about $2. In light of the disappointing food, both in terms of authenticity and quality, I thought that the experience wasn’t anywhere near worth the money paid for it.
Despite what this post would suggest, photography in the restaurant was strictly forbidden, probably for the purpose of preventing something like this post.
On a visit to Beijing several years ago, I’d eaten dinner at a similar DPRK restaurant, where the menu had opened to dazzling photos of ostentatiously lavish feasts, with items like lobster and rack of lamb, all described as “traditional North Korean cuisine;” upon inquiry, just being curious, we were told oh so regrettably that the ingredients had just sold out due to immense demand and politely instructed to order from the back sections of the menu. Amused, I took out my camera to photograph the menu, only to be thwarted before I could even turn it on.
This time, seated in the corner, I’d managed to fire off several shots surreptitiously before a waitress saw what I was up to, bolted over from across the hall in a fury, and demanded that I stop. For the rest of the meal, she maintained a constant line of sight and patrolled within a hop-skip-jump of our table.
And so, Cambodia becomes the 6th country and Phnom Penh becomes the 17th city outside of Korea where I’ve had Korean food.
For dinner, I walked out of the hotel and wandered around until I discovered an open air mall packed with restaurants/pubs/bars.
I settled on Moka Cafe Glacier for no particular reason.
Undeterred by yesterday’s frog fiasco, perhaps even emboldened by it, I ordered ants for dinner. If not amphibia, then maybe insecta. Well, based on this experience, not insecta either. It was the most unpalatable food that I’ve ever tried to eat. In high school, while I was running in the hills behind campus during gym class, a huge bug flew into my mouth, and I bit down on it in surprise, and it tasted and felt on the tongue like battery acid. This was like that, only worse, because the spices seemed to amplify the sensation. I’d ordered the dish on a whim, never having heard of it, seeing it on the menu described as “unique of Cambodia,” assuming that the ants would break up into unidentifiable pieces during the cooking process and pop like little seeds in the mouth, but without much flavor, more about texture than taste, which is what eating crickets is supposedly like. But these weren’t picnic variety ants – they were huge, more like bees, around 1 centimeter in length, fully intact, complete with wings and legs and antennae. In an extreme exercise of willpower, I placed a tiny spoonful in my mouth and took a single chew. I could sense the abdomens bursting open, followed immediately by a rush of bitterly rancid juice, making the gag reflex kick in. With all due respect to those who are into this kind of thing, I had to spit it out. I would later be informed that ants are considered so intense even by local standards that they’re rarely eaten on their own and typically paired with some other main ingredient; in fact, I’d pointed to “Fried Beef with Red Ants” on the menu, but the plate brought to me contained just the ants, but I couldn’t that imagine anything on this earth could make a difference for the better, so I didn’t request a redo. I would also learn later that red ants are one of those items that the more daring tourists in Cambodia use to test their gastronomic/gastrointestinal mettle. Another culinary adventure gone wrong.
This is GMTD’s 1000th post. While the blog isn’t about adventurous eating, just an on-going record of what I happen to eat on any given day, I suppose that the randomness of red ants as the 1000th item is appropriate.
Now hungrier than ever, I continued my exploration of the neighborhood and discovered one of the quirkiest restaurant concepts that I’ve ever encountered: Chuck Norris Dim Sum. When I asked the girl behind the counter, pointing to Chuck’s drawn picture on the wall, “Owner?,” she shook her head and replied, “No boss.” Ownership aside, I don’t think that Mr. Norris would appreciate not being the boss of anything.
In writing this momentous post, I was very sorely tempted to go with a Chuck Norris dumpling as the featured dish, but the red ants won out for being more interesting as a food item per se.
(See also MUL NAENG MYEON)
(See also GLOBAL FOOD GLOSSARY)
(See also RESTAURANTS IN CAMBODIA)
(see also KOREAN RESTAURANTS ABROAD)