Jan 13

Monday Memories: A Student Stretches at Battambang Circus School

A student takes a stretch class at Phare Circus, Battambang, Cambodia.

In the latest edition of my reflections on photography series Monday Memories, a young student stretches at Battambang circus school in northwest Cambodia. Ouch.

Over the last few months I’ve spent some time behind the scenes taking photographs of performers under the big top at Phare Cambodian Circus in Siem Reap, as well as at Phare Ponleu Selpak, the performing arts school in Battambang which is home to the circus school.

While watching a rehearsal for a show in Siem Reap, I witnessed a young woman performer practicing landing into the arms of a couple of male performers. I could barely watch let alone take a photograph as she grimaced in pain from landing in the splits position – over and over again.

That night as I watched the circus show I saw her perform the same act but this time she smiled as if she was actually enjoying it and it was me in the audience grimacing for her. I still wince whenever I scroll through the photos and see the shots I took of her that day.

On a recent trip to Battambang we had the opportunity to go behind the scenes as part of the Phare Circus Experience offered by Asia-based tour company Backyard Travel, which includes a briefing on the history of the school (it was started by eight former refugees who met at a camp on the Thai border during the Khmer Rouge era), a tour of the facilities, and a chance to see classes – which is how I got to see the training of the young circus students firsthand.

While it was fun to watch the cute kids getting into their warm-up class (they start so young!), it was the students practicing doing the splits as part of their stretching exercises that caught my eye. While many of the young boys screwed up their faces as they took their turns to stretch, this little lady appeared to actually enjoy her stretches enough to give me a smile.

I like the symmetry of the photo and the way she is perfectly positioned on the lower third of the frame horizontally, but is also centered vertically. I love the look on the face of the girl frame right, whose turn it is next to do her stretching exercise. And I love the way the light falls off further in the back of the room, creating a natural vignette that gives the subject more prominence.

As you can see by the torn matting on the floor, the Battambang school doesn’t have a huge budget to work with, making the results they achieve there, in all areas, not just the circus school (they also teach music, art, design, animation, and film), all the more impressive.

Phare Ponleu Selpak do great work and the Phare Cambodian Cirus shows are life-affirming events where you can really see the joy that these young people get out of performing, even if getting there involves more than a little pain.

Details: Nikon D600, 85mm f/1.4D Nikkor @ F2.5 @ 1/1250th second @ ISO1600.

You can see more of my photos of the performers in Lara’s story Under the Big Top at Cambodia’s Edgy Phare Circus on CNN Travel.

Phare Cambodian Circus, Siem Reap
www.pharecambodiancircus.org

Phare Ponleu Selpak, Battambang
www.phareps.org

Backyard Travel
www.backyardtravel.com

Jan 10

Making Thai Red Curry Paste and How To Use a Mortar and Pestle

Thai Red Curry Paste, made with a mortar and pestle.

This is the first proper post in our new food series A Year of Asian Cookbooks. You can find my introduction to the project here. Is there a better way to start our year-long stint exploring Asian cookbooks than with making Thai red curry paste with a mortar and pestle?

A Thai curry paste made in a mortar and pestle is a pure expression of what we’re trying to achieve this year. No shortcuts. No food processors. No preservatives. Hopefully, just an authentic recipe that is the basis for a delicious dish.

Curries will be a key theme this year, as we’ll be exploring the connections between the different types of curries and curry pastes through Asia.

So why should you make a curry paste from scratch when there are sections of supermarket shelves full of pastes? Well, why make ragu bolognese when it comes in a can? If you actually think that’s okay, I’ll trust you as much as I’ll trust someone who says they cook Asian food yet they don’t own a mortar and pestle.

The only reason to buy a pre-made paste is if you just cannot get all the ingredients and just have to have a Thai curry. Don’t feel bad, they can taste okay, and we certainly know that feeling.

If you have the ingredients, then why not just stick them in a food processor? Because food processors rip things apart, whereas a mortar and pestle pounds a paste until it comes together. The texture is different and the taste is different.

The Thais are generally polite people. Most of them like to make people happy, which is why in most tourist restaurants they’ll make you an anodyne Thai curry light on the chili and heavy on the coconut cream because they think that’s what you want. They’ll also tell you in cookbooks and cooking classes that you can use a food processor to make a curry. They’re just being polite.

Chef Ian Kittichai is Thai and is very polite, as well as very modest, despite running a very successful restaurant empire and producing cooking shows. His flagship Thai restaurant Issaya Siamese Club, located in a wonderful old Bangkok residence, serves up classic Thai dishes based on those his mother used to make, as well as some more innovative fare that keeps the chef’s creative juices flowing.

Chef Kittichai’s classic curries are the real deal, with flavours running rich and deep, and the Matsaman (also called Massaman) curry at his restaurant is phenomenal.

Did I mention that Chef Kittichai is polite? I’m guessing that’s why he’s giving readers the option of using a food processor for his Nam Phrik Kaeng Daeng (Red Curry Paste) recipe in his Issaya Siamese Club cookbook. He does dedicate a full page of this huge glossy cookbook to a visual guide to making the red curry paste in a mortar and pestle, so you can take that as a subtle hint as to what he prefers.

In the cookbook Chef Kittichai has recipes for several classic basic curry pastes, including Matsaman, red and green, but as his red curry paste gets used for several different dishes in the book, I chose this one to start with.

But before we get to Ian’s recipe, I want to consider what other recipes are out there. The results of a quick Google search for ‘thai red curry paste recipes’ revealed a list of crimes against Thai cuisine that ran a few dozen pages long.

Some of the lowlights include using tomato paste (!), substituting ginger for galangal (they may look similar, but they do not taste similar), anchovies from a can (no, that’s not shrimp paste), paprika and “chilli powder from the spice aisle” (really?), and substituting any other kind of lime for Kaffir limes (Kaffir limes and their leaves have a unique aroma).

I also noted that there are many recipes that are reasonably authentic, but add some fresh prik kii nu (bird’s-eye chillies) as well as the dried chillies. It’s actually green curry paste that has fresh green bird’s-eye chillies instead of the dried red finger chillies.

Don’t do it. Particularly if you’re new to the heat level of those little chillies that Chef David Thompson of Nahm Bangkok affectionally calls “scuds”, after the scud missile. It’s way better to use the recipe as is and add the chillies during the cooking process.

Chef Kittichai’s version of the paste is a classic one, very close to David Thompson’s, although Chef Thompson adds a little nutmeg. Having watched David make some curry dishes, I know he also has a few tricks up his sleeve that really jack up the flavour (and the heat level!) before serving.

A couple of quick notes on using a mortar and pestle. The mortar and pestle should be stone – preferably granite. A medium sized one with an inner diameter of around 14cm will be big enough to make a batch of around 250 grams, which is what this recipe is meant to make.

The rule is to always add the dried spices to the mortar first and then the ‘wet’ ingredients. Save the shallots until last as they will be very watery and make it hard to form a good paste. While this recipe does add dry then wet ingredients, it’s not explicitly explained why.

The correct action in using the pestle is not pounding straight down, but angling the pestle and contacting the side of the mortar, dragging the ingredients down into the centre, where you give a little twist and lift to start again.

To keep the mortar stable, I put a damp tea towel down, then a wooden cutting board on top, another damp tea towel and then the mortar.

The paste will take a while to come together. You’re meant to grind until you can’t recognise individual ingredients, such as the Kaffir lime leaves, but I usually fall a little shy of that (as you can see in the photo).

Many home-cooks say they use a shop-bought curry paste because they’re time-poor, yet it really only takes me about 15-20 minutes to make a paste in a mortar and pestle. And I have to say the process is actually therapeutic. I like the sound and the rhythm and the aromas that emanate from the mortar.

The resulting paste blows away any store-bought pastes and once you’ve made this, the process to make a finished red curry is quite simple – as you’ll see in the next post of the series.

Nam Phrik Kaeng Daeng (Red Curry Paste)

Recipe by Ian Kittichai from the Issaya Siamese Club Cookbook used here with permission.

Makes 250 grams*

Ingredients
6 g coriander seeds
6 g cumin seeds
12 g coarse sea salt
2 g white peppercorns
15 g dried red finger chilli peppers (soak in water for one hour and then squeeze the water out)
80 g lemongrass, finely sliced
20 g shallots, finely chopped
15 g garlic cloves
10 g galangal, finely sliced
2 g lime zest, grated**
1 g Kaffir lime leaves, veins removed and finely chopped
20 g Thai shrimp paste
1 section banana leaf (substitution: aluminium foil)

Directions

  1. In a dry pan, combine coriander seeds, cumin seeds, coarse sea salt and white peppercorns and cook over moderate heat for 2 to 3 minutes. Place the spices in a mortar and finely grind or use a food processor and blend until smooth. Add dried finger chilli peppers, lemongrass, shallots, garlic cloves, galangal, lime zest and kaffir lime leaves and finely grind.
  2. Wrap shrimp paste in a section of banana leaf and roast the parcel in a frying pan for one minute on each side. Remove shrimp paste from the parcel and set aside. Aluminium foil can be used instead of a section of banana leaf.
  3. Add shrimp paste (to the curry paste) and finely grind until smooth.
  4. Curry (paste) can be stood in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 5 days.

* I made this curry paste twice this week and only achieved a batch of around 180 grams. I’m going to blame my cheap digital scales purchased in Siem Reap.

** Clearly chef Kittichai implies Kaffir lime zest here.

Issaya Siamese Club
Chuea Phloeng Rd
Sathon, Bangkok, Thailand
+66 2 672 9040
www.issaya.com

Next up: Making a Traditional Thai Phanaeng Nua Beef Panang Curry Recipe.

Jan 09

Pavlova in the Summertime and Other Childhood Food Memories

Pavlova with passionfruit and mango, a classic Australian (or New Zealand) dessert.

I successfully persuaded Terence to make pavlova over Christmas. It was partly because I love pavlova – meringue, cream and fresh fruit, it’s hard to go wrong with that – and partly for reasons of nostalgia. I have so many fond memories of my Nanna making pavlova in the summertime in Sydney, especially over the Christmas holidays, that I wanted to relive that a little bit.

Those childhood memories are so strong that just one look at that crunchy mountain of sugar and egg whites, smothered in freshly whipped cream, with strawberries and kiwi fruit piled on top, and passion-fruit dripping over the edge, brings back an impressionistic flood of faded images, distant sounds, and vivid emotions.

I see Nanna in her compact 1960s kitchen in my grandparents’ fibro and brick home in Sydney’s western suburbs. She wears a floral cotton apron wrapped around her waist, and beneath it a light dress she calls her ‘frock’. Her back is to me as she beats the eggs in a big lemon-coloured ceramic bowl with an old-fashioned, manual hand-mixer. The sunshine is streaming through the window in front of her and it’s warm in that kitchen.

A sheep bleats outside in a vacant yard behind the neighbour’s house. I’m little, maybe eight or nine, and I’m wearing a white sundress with blue and yellow flowers with shoestring straps. I’d have to go outside and climb onto the paling fence, standing on the timber join on my tippy-toes to see the sheep. I also know there is a goat in there but on this particular day when I look out that window all I see is the deep, beautiful blue Sydney sky, and that blinding sun that fills the kitchen with light.

When Nanna’s done, she turns to face me and leans back against the kitchen sink, looking down at me with her sparkling hazel eyes, eyes that were almost always shining with happiness. I note a look of pride on her face as she shows me the stiff peaks before setting the bowl down to hand over the sticky meringue-covered beater to lick clean. My treat.

She lifts her apron up to her face to wipe the beads of perspiration from her brows. Perhaps it’s just the heat. It’s a scorching hot summer, although we always felt the heat more in the ’burbs. (I didn’t mind, because it meant I could play under the sprinkler). But I sense that Nanna is also a little exhausted by her effort. Perhaps it’s also her asthma – or maybe the heart condition that will later become apparent.

My Pop comes into the kitchen from where he’s been working in the vegetable garden in the backyard. He pulls his work-boots off first and leaves them outside beside the doormat. He was on the rotary hoe earlier in the morning, so he’s covered in dirt, as well as sweat, which I see dripping down his forehead, temples, back, and arms. My Pop is a huge man. He’s big and tall, but not really fat. He wears khaki King Gee khaki and a white Bonds singlet. And at that moment he enters that kitchen he also wears a giant smile and glints in his eyes.

My grandfather bends down to kiss my Nanna on the cheek and as he does he dips his finger into the bowl of meringue. “Ken!” she exclaims, reprimanding him, but her feigned anger is part of a game, and he kisses her on the cheek again before stooping down to collect me and pick me up in his arms. Even though I squirm and pretend I’m too big to be picked up, I love the affection. I’m at Nanna’s height now and she hands me a spoon to lick clean. Before I do, I thrust the thing in my pop’s face to give him a go.

Later in the evening, after we finish our roast chicken and potato salad dinner in the dining room and I help my grandmother with the dishes, Nanna will slice colossal pieces of pavlova for each of us, pour herself a small brandy, and we’ll take the plates into the living room, where we’ll tuck into those sweet, crunchy, hills of heaven while we watch a British comedy on the TV.

My childhood summers in Sydney are full of such sweet simple memories, most of them involving food. There was a lot of time spent in the vegetable gardens at both grandparents’ houses, helping to water the plants, pick tomatoes and cucumbers, and eat grapes from the vines.

There was even more time spent in the kitchen, helping my grandmothers or mother to cook, whether it was peeling veggies for my Nan, helping Baboushka shape pilemeni and vareniki dumplings, or stuffing snail shells, crumbing schnitzels, rolling sushi, stirring stir-fries, and generally helping out my more culinary-adventurous Mum with any number of exotic, trendy ‘ethnic’ dishes she experimented with in the 1970s and early ’80s.

And then of course there was the joy of sharing family meals with loved-ones. There were the Christmas roast lunches with Mum, Dad, my aunt and uncle, and handful of cousins at Nan and Pop’s in Northmead, with whichever great-aunts and uncles dropped in on any particular year. We’d join the kitchen table to the dining table, and pull dusty chairs out of the garage, and the big spacious dining room would all of a sudden feel crowded and small, with everyone jammed in together, elbows knocking each-other’s as we ate.

Then there were many years of family gatherings, generally on Sundays for a late lunch, at my Russian grandparents house in Blacktown that always extended well into the evening. We never quite knew who would call in, but it didn’t matter, there’d always be a plate of food and shot of vodka for them. It could be the Russian Orthodox priest or elderly immigrant neighbours my grandparents had befriended on their way to Australia post-World War II or after they arrived when they spent time in DP (‘displaced person’) camps.

Or perhaps my young uncles’ latest girlfriends and university mates would drop by, and, much later, when I also went to uni, it would be Terence and one of our friends who we’d drag along for the Russian food, liquor, music, laughter, and – late into the night – always the melancholic tears of my grandparents who never stopped missing their homeland and relatives they left there.

My parents were also responsible for creating some very memorable meals, from sophisticated fondue nights when I got to dress up and my folks’ friends would arrive in floor-length maxi-dresses (the women, of course) and flared trousers and paisley shirts (the men), to the crazy barbecues in the back yard involving lots of beer, burnt sausages, big bowls of salad, and beautifully bloody steaks. They didn’t give me beer, I swear. I was sipping raspberry cordial.

It wasn’t only about the food of course. There was always music, stories, and lots of laughs. Although it was the food that enabled and provided so many scrumptious recollections, whether it was the time we spent together shopping for it and prepping it to cooking it and eating it, the food was always fantastic. It was the stuff that inspired my passion for eating and drinking, for cooking with my husband, for exploring the cuisines of different countries, and understanding cultures and their peoples through their food.

It was the food and the act of cooking and eating that was an excuse for socialising. It was the food that always brought us together as family and friends. Whether it was the occasional forced gatherings for specific occasions like Russian Easter or Christmas that always ended up being deliciously memorable despite any feelings that it was something that had to be done.

It was the food, always the food that was responsible. It was never: should we spend some time together on Sunday catching up and reminiscing and laughing or crying? No, it was always: come over for Sunday lunch or let’s have a barbecue.

And it wasn’t only the meals at home that were memorable, the ones on holiday were even more so, whether it was buying fresh seafood at a local co-op in a northern New South Wales coast holiday town or, even better, catching our own fish from the beach or boat that we’d then barbecue for dinner in a caravan park or camping area, always by the water.

But some of my most treasured memories involve collecting bucket after bucket of oysters with my Dad from the sandy floor of the lake near where my parents lived, and then preparing them in different ways – oysters Kilpatrick, oysters Mornay, or fresh with lemon and vinegar. It was the Eighties, okay?

I’ll never forget one of the editors of a guidebook publisher we worked with telling me that their research results revealed that eating and drinking were the most important activities for travellers – for their readers anyway. (So, no, it was not Lonely Planet). We already took our restaurant and bar research seriously, so we didn’t need to be told that, but I was pleased that someone had confirmed for me how important food is to people, especially when they’re travelling.

Because food not only satisfies basic needs for calories and strange cravings, it actively takes part in the formation and shaping of food memories, from childhood memories of dishes associated with the summertime, like my own, to recollections of gatherings and celebrations around ancestral dining tables that we’ll cherish forever, long after those loved-ones are gone.

Later, when we’re far away from those we love, whether it’s a distance due to geography or time, we can use food as a trigger, as I did over Christmas, to remind us of times past and treasured memories that might be lost if it wasn’t for a grilled cheese oyster, a shot of vodka to wash down a dumpling, or a piece of pavlova.

P.S. I don’t have my Nanna’s pavlova recipe, so we made a variation of Neil Perry’s Passionfruit Pavlova instead, and added fresh local mangoes.

Jan 07

The Best Road Trips in Australia

Uluru, Northern Territory, Australia.

Following our recent post on tips for road trips in Australia, readers asked us to recommend some of our favourite road trips in Australia. As far as we’re concerned, Australia is home to the world’s best road trips and in our many years of travelling, whether it was summer caravanning holidays as kids, my five year-long epic road trip around Australia with my family, and the road trips Terence and I have done together researching guidebooks, we have done most of them.

Australia is a colossal country to drive, making a road trip as exhausting as it is extraordinary. There’s a whopping 18,000 kilometres (11,180 miles) of coastline skirted by the world’s most beautiful sandy beaches and some of its wildest surf, punctuated by majestic cliffs, sheltered harbours, serene estuaries, unassuming inlets to mighty rivers, colourful coral reefs, and crocodile-infested marshes.

Then there’s the vast interior of the country, which offers infinite variety when it comes to landscapes – gently undulating emerald-green hills, golden pancake-flat wheat plains, copper-coloured sanddunes, and eucalyptus-scented bushland – along with our famous fauna and flora, impressive ancient Aboriginal sites, and friendly, laidback people. Not to mention great food and even finer wine.

These are the best road trips in Australia out of our long list of favourites:

1. Alice Springs to Uluru via Glen Helen Gorge and Kings Canyon
This is the drive we mentioned in our recent post on road trip tips and it’s one of the country’s most rewarding. You could do it in a few very hurried days or you could take a week or ten days including time in Alice and Uluru. We recommend you start out in quirky Alice Springs, then drive through the arid outback landscapes of the East MacDonnell Ranges, then backtrack to explore the West MacDonnell Ranges, before driving south-west to Kings Canyon and end ending the trip at the colossal rock of Uluru and enchanting Kata Tjuta. Australia’s remote ‘Red Centre’, as it’s called, is the country’s geographical and spiritual heartland and so it deserves some solid time exploring. Its rugged beauty will continually take your breath away. The landscapes are distinguished by dramatic gorges sliced through mountain ranges that go on forever. There are monumental canyons formed by meteorites and, surprisingly to a lot of travellers, verdant valleys filled with palms, along with serene swimming holes.

2. From Darwin to Kakadu and Litchfield National Parks
If you know us it’s not surprising that we’d include two Northern Territory drives, as we are absolutely smitten with the Northern Territory and we’ll probably end up living there one day. The ‘Top End’ as Aussies call it – yes, we love giving everything another name, don’t we? – is characterised by tropical mangroves teeming with wildlife, sticky monsoon forests, and stupendous stone escarpments. It’s remote and rugged, and – if that weren’t enough – it’s home to many of Australia’s incredible indigenous peoples who have lived here for 40,000 years and have hundreds of different languages and laws, so this is a spiritually rich place bursting with magical stories of the Dreamtime that you’ll see told in ancient paintings on red rock walls. You begin this drive in multicultural, tropical Darwin, from where you make a beeline for Kakadu National Park and its abundant Aboriginal art, birdlife, wildlife, and wetlands, before doing a loop and making your way north again to explore Litchfield National Park for its wonderful waterfalls, serene swimming holes, and fantastic fields of magnetic termite mounds.

3. Red Centre, from Katherine to Alice Springs
This is another favourite journey of ours, distinguished by the magnificent sandstone escarpments and golden gorges near Katherine, the steaming natural spa pools of Mataranka and Elsey National Park that are set within sub-tropical palm forest, and a remote highway that transports you through the arid centre of Australia to Alice Springs. If you have time, this is a trip that can connect the two above to create one very long road trip, but you need to be prepared to spend a lot of time in the seats of your vehicle. You can punctuate it scenic river cruises in Katherine, along with bush walks to see the aboriginal rock art in Nitmiluk National Park, and perhaps take in some of the pioneering heritage and World War II history around Katherine and Mataranka. You need to prepare yourself to meet some eccentric characters along the way at the outback pubs that dot the Stuart Highway, but for many this is a highlight of the trip – along with the spooky rock formations that are the Devil’s Marbles.

4. Perth to Exmouth along the West Coast
You could do this trip comfortably in a week, though it’s worth taking longer to explore this truly stunning coast, Australia’s most spectacular, in our minds. Splendid white-sand beaches extend right along the coast, punctuated by sleepy holiday towns and fishing villages, and really special sights that deserve a day or two, like the strange Pinnacles. What makes this stretch of coast so magical is its isolation. Unlike the east coast, from Melbourne to Cairns, that is urbanized, this part of Australia is sparsely inhabited. The landscapes are empty and pristine. Every night you will see skies exploding with stars, making you want to camp out or simply lie down and gave at the heavens. On the downside, that means the driving distances are long and challenging, and the terrain is difficult, requiring a lot of planning if you want to go off-road, but the rewards are massive. We recommend you begin in Perth, Western Australia’s laidback capital, then make stops of 1-2 nights at the Pinnacles (one night), Geraldton (one), Carnarvon (1-2 nights), Kalbarri (at least 2 nights if you want to go bushwalking), and spectacular Shark Bay and Ningaloo (could easily spend 2-3 nights at each if you want to swim, snorkel, bush-walk, and go off-road).

5. Perth to Augusta along the Southwest Coast
This drive isn’t as demanding as the one above but it’s still rewarding as it offers more variety in many ways. You could do it in five days if you had to, but it’s much more enjoyable over a week to ten days. You’d begin in Perth then drive along the coastline for most of the route to Augusta, stopping in holiday towns along the way like charming Bunbury and Busselton, the stunning surfing beaches of Geographe Bay, dramatic Cape Naturaliste and Cape Leewin, and the famous surfing spots in between of Yallingup, Prevelly Park and Margaret River, the fabulous Margaret River wine region, one of Australia’s finest, and the beautiful little laidback town of Augusta, where you can do some whale-watching at the right time of year. You’ll take in scenic vineyards where you can sip impressive wines, swim in crystal-clear water in pretty white-sand coves, do easy walks through gently undulating bushland, and, if you’re up for it, more challenging hikes along wild, windswept coastal paths watched over by lonely lighthouses. Magic.

More road trip tips

  • You can do most of these drives in 2WD or (preferably) AWD vehicles. We’ve used almost every car rental company in Australia but we like Budget best. Cars can be booked on www.budget.com.au and you can arrange to drop off at a different location to where you picked up.
  • The route you need a 4WD for on this list is the Alice Springs to Uluru one and while you can also rent a sturdy vehicle from the main rental companies, you might want to consider a fully equipped 4WD campervan from a company such as Britz or Maui if you’re planning on going off-road and camping out.
  • Most major car rental companies also loan out Global Positioning Sensor (GPS) units with their vehicles. It’s worth renting one.
  • Don’t be spontaneous. These are trips that you really need to plan out, calculating how many kilometres you’ll need to drive each day, deciding in advance what you’re willing to do, figuring out how much fuel you’ll need (always have a full spare jerry can of fuel), and booking accommodation in advance.
  • Be aware that it’s not uncommon to have to drive up to 700 kms a day on these sorts of trips. Australians are used to driving long distances but Europeans and Asians from smaller countries are not and will need to plan well.
  • Always start out at sunrise, take a thermos of coffee, plenty of water, lots of snacks and sandwiches, interesting music or podcasts to keep you engaged and alert, and make lots of stops to stretch your legs and nap if you need to.
  • Driving before sunrise and after sunset is dangerous in the outback, so plan your day so that you have stopped driving by the time the sun goes down.
  • If you’re going off the main roads, be aware that driving on corrugated dirt roads, tracks with loose bull dust, and sandy trails will slow you down considerably, as you won’t want to be doing much more than 60 kilometres an hour, so you’ll need to take that into account when planning your driving days.
  • If you break down, stay with the vehicle, as it offers the best protection from the elements, especially the scorching heat. Deaths generally occur when people wander off and get lost. Phone the National Roadside Assistance, the Australia-wide breakdown service: 131 111
  • In the Northern Territory and Western Australia many roads are subject to flooding and closure during the wet season so always check conditions ahead at the tourist office or police station. In the NT check www.ntlis.nt.gov.au/roadreport/
  • Note that in small towns cafés, takeaway joints, and shops might only open Monday to Friday from 9am-5pm, although bakeries will open earlier, and on Saturday until noon only.
  • Wineries will often shut by 5pm or earlier and their restaurants are generally only open for lunch, which is why you’ll need a couple of nights in wine regions so you’re not drinking and driving.
  • People eat dinner early in small towns, often around 6.30-7pm and it’s not unusual to find that last orders must be in by 9pm.
  • The best maps are Hema Maps www.hemamaps.com.au You’ll also need a road atlas and 4WD guide. We like Gregory’s Australian Road Atlas, Explore Australia’s The Complete 4WD Guide, Discover Australia by 4WD by Ron Moon, and Around Australia Guide from Steve Parish Publishing.

Jan 07

Price Check: a Siem Reap Shopping List

Angkor Beer in Siem Reap, Cambodia.

Having settled into Siem Reap where we’ve established a home, we’ve become familiar with what things cost in Cambodia and thought it was time to share a Siem Reap shopping list for our Price Check series with you. Just in case you’re planning to stay a while when you venture here.

In short: shopping here is inexpensive – but with a caveat. More on that later.

MARKETS
With two main local markets and a few smaller neighbourhood markets brimming with fresh, fragrant, local produce, it’s a cook’s dream.

Psar Chas
Smack bang in the centre of town, Psar Chas or Old Market is where most travellers go to to buy their souvenirs. It’s also a very good market for fresh produce, particularly fruit and vegetables, free range chickens, and seafood, which travels overnight from the southern coast as well as coming from the Tonle Sap lake and local rivers. The best chefs in Siem Reap shop here, some daily.

Psar Leu
The biggest local market in Siem Reap is on National Route No 6 and it is massive. It is a great place to shop for cookware, as well as fresh ingredients. The pork, chicken and seafood here are all outstanding, although I’m not so keen on the beef. There is no refrigeration at the local markets, so some visitors find them a shock to the olfactory system, especially Psar Leu.

As we’ve shopped Siem Reap’s various markets with a handful of local chefs, we know which stallholders to use for what produce and have begun to build a relationship with them – which is very important for getting good produce at the right price here. We suggest you do the same.

SUPERMARKETS
Surprisingly, for a city with a sizable expat population, supermarket shopping can be more frustrating than approaching market stallholders, even with little Khmer language skills. Sure the items have prices on them (well, most of the time), but we find ourselves having to go to our three favourite supermarkets to fill one shopping list.

Lucky Supermarket
On Sivutha Boulevard in Lucky Mall, this is the largest supermarket, with a good range of products, fair prices, and the widest aisles. Aisle size is important, as Siem Reap’s supermarkets seem to attract as many sightseers as Angkor Wat, along with big tour groups stocking up on snacks and edible souvenirs. Still, it always frustrates us. Prices can be slightly higher than the other supermarkets for some products.

Angkor Market
Also on Sivutha Boulevard and just a short walk from Lucky, this is the best supermarket in Siem Reap. Although it’s smaller than Lucky it has the widest range and best quality of stock (the meat is good here), as well as lots of condiments from around Asia, foreign specialties, and a good liquor selection. The upstairs section also has cookware and appliances. The downside: it’s the most popular supermarket with expats and independent travellers, so the aisles are always crowded, especially in the early evening. Prices are the most reasonable here.

Chao Sang Hok
This supermarket on National Route No 6 is about half way between the riverside and Psar Leu. It also has a great range of products, as well as a good kitchenware section to rival Angkor Market’s upstairs. It usually ends up having what we can’t find elsewhere. They have great sections for Japanese, Korean and Thai ingredients in particular.

In any one day, it’s not unusual for us to go to Psar Chaa market in the morning for our fresh seafood, herbs, fruit and veg, and then have to call into at least two supermarkets for other ingredients. For some reason, it’s impossible to find everything you need in one place.

As usual, with our price check shopping lists, we’re pricing the same products where available that we’ve priced all around the world, to provide some consistency. So, no, we don’t buy Nescafe, it’s just a good yardstick for foreigners coming here. (The local coffee we buy which we love is from Three Corner Coffee Roasters in Phnom Penh. More on that soon.)

These are supermarket prices, which we always used for Price Check, as many visitors get intimidated shopping in markets. To get around this, we always suggest doing a market tour with a local first and many cooking courses offer them before the cooking class. You’ll certainly find some things cheaper at the markets, such as fruit and vegetables.

There are a few things that skew things on the Siem Reap shopping list, when compared to other lists. For instance, we usually only include local wine, which we did for our Bangkok shopping list, because Thai wines are perfectly quaffable, although significantly more expensive for a decent bottle than Australian or Chilean wines. Cambodian wine is also a lot more expensive than foreign wine (double the price), however, it’s not drinkable, and we’ll be bringing you a story on that at a later date.

There are also items on the list that make Siem Reap seem more expensive than it probably is, such as olive oil, which we’ve used as an item for our shopping list series all around the world, but which you probably wouldn’t buy if you were on holidays, unless you had serious cravings for an Italian salad. If we’d used palm oil (or rice bran oil, as we did for the Bangkok list, which we did to balance out the cost of the wine) it would have made the list a dollar or so cheaper.

Quality butter is another product which you might not use unless you’re living here, but, remember, when we created Price Check we also had families in mind, who probably want to make kids toast for breakfast or sandwiches for lunch. And even adults get cravings, right?

And that big caveat to shopping in Siem Reap is that Western food cravings can be expensive and frustrating to satisfy. We have found a supplier for excellent, premium quality Australian lamb and beef, but at a real premium price, while fresh thyme and rosemary (for the lamb and beef) are almost impossible to find. All the more reason to be doing our Year of Asian Cookbooks project – so we won’t have time for Western cravings!

By the way, the condiment we priced below, that changes with every destination, is prahok. We’ll be posting more about that Cambodian specialty soon too.

Interestingly, our Siem Reap shopping list isn’t the lowest in our Price Check series. If you take a look at our survey on What Things Cost Around the World, those prizes go to Krakow and Mexico City, respectively, although admittedly we priced those in 2010. If we take inflation into account it may well be that Siem Reap is one of the world’s cheapest destinations to settle in for a while.

 

1.5 litre water KHR2,404 €0.44 US$0.60
1 litre milk KHR8,817 €1.62 US$2.20
Bottle of wine (not local!) KHR32,000 €5.89 US$8.00
330ml beer KHR2,605 €0.48 US$0.65
100g Nescafe KHR10,420 €1.91 US$2.60
250g local coffee beans KHR9,018 €1.66 US$2.25
50 tea bags KHR16,833 €3.09 US$4.20
1 kg sugar KHR3,608 €0.66 US$0.90
Jar of jam (260gr) KHR14,028 €2.58 US$3.50
1 loaf of bread KHR2,404 €0.44 US$0.60
250g quality butter KHR11,222 €2.06 US$2.80
200g cheese KHR9,623 €1.77 US$2.40
500ml Olive Oil KHR12,831 €2.36 US$3.20
1 doz organic eggs KHR5,212 €0.96 US$1.30
1 kilo tomatoes KHR8,019 €1.47 US$2.00
1 kilo onions KHR5,212 €0.96 US$1.30
1 kilo oranges KHR4,410 €0.81 US$1.10
250gr cashews KHR13,032 €2.39 US$3.25
1 bottle local condiment (400gr) KHR12,029 €2.20 US$3.00
Total: KHR183,727 €33.75 US$45.85

* Price Check is a series of posts from every destination we visit where we settle in for a while, that could serve as a shopping list for you to stock the kitchen at the start of your stay, as well as a cost of living index, giving you an idea as to what things cost in that place. We include some basic items to get you started, plus a local specialty or two from the place.

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