Friday, November 18, 2011
I bought a huge, grapefruit-like fruit the other day that had thick seeds the size of pumpkin seeds, and thick, leathery skin. It was a pomelo – a fruit that tastes slightly less bitter than the smaller, common grapefruit (which is actually a cross between a pomelo and a sweet orange) but gives up its pearls much more easily.
And it made me think of the stage I did at the Fat Duck a few years ago, and all those pointless hours of slavery, prepping endless grapefruit pearls to garnish the salmon poached in liquorice gel dish (pic below). Even the chefs at the Hinds Head, Heston Blumenthal’s pub next door, knew about the grapefruits. The chore summed up the fastidiousness and downright ludicrousness of three-star Michelin cooking.
You had to carefully peel each fruit, without bruising or cutting the flesh. Then even more carefully, you’d take the white pithy globe and tease it into segments. Then with a paring knife, you’d pick out any pips and carefully peel away the white, and lay the pink flesh on towelling paper to soak up the juice.
Then the real work began. You picked each segment, flicking off tiny, juice-filled pearls on to another piece of towelling. The work was fiddly in the extreme. Even the slightest pressure would burst them. Once we had covered one piece of towelling with grapefruit pearls, we’d begin on another...
But there was none of that as I sat there on the riverbank in Phnom Penh, easily separating the pomelo into segments, and seeing the pearls fall unbroken into the bag, without the need of towelling to soften their fall. I realised that all that torture could have been saved if they’d only used pomelos instead of pink grapefruits from the Waitrose store up the road in Maidenhead.
Even with my rusty shovels, the pearls were falling away into such bundles that it would have caused envy in even the most skilled, starry-eyed Fat Duck chef. One cook could have done a whole day’s worth in an hour, saving his colleagues from hours of unspeakable drudgery.
I began to think about why Blumenthal, in his exploratory, pre-Fat Duck days, hadn’t widened his trawl of world foods, rather than spending every holiday in France eating at Michelin-starred restaurants.
But then, maybe he had. Maybe he knew all about the pomelo and had long discounted any possible alchemy that might come from it. We often used to joke during the long hours cutting thousands of pistachio nuts in half, whether the celebrity chef lay in bed at night devising ever more devilish recipes for his slaves to cook.
I was still experimenting with how easily the unbruised pearls fell away from the casing, and hadn’t really eaten any of the pomelo, when a man in a wheelchair, pushed by an older man, approached me for the second time that morning.
I’d given them some money just 20 minutes earlier, but they obviously didn’t recognise me. I mumbled a few words, patting my pocket, and pointing at them, but the man in the wheelchair just pointed at my pomelo and then his mouth. I handed the fruit over, and they smiled, then slowly headed northwards along the river in search of the next barang.
I wandered over to the plush tourist information centre, which had a plaque outside saying the toilet facilities had been donated by someone called Mr Toilet, whose mission in life had been to improve toilet sanitation across the world, starting with Cambodia presumably, which was probably as good a place to start as any.
The plush lavatories – donated by the late Mr Toilet’s South Korean-based World Toilet Association - certainly were a shiny affair, looking more like something you’d get in an upmarket casino rather than a tourist office. Not that I’d seen toilets in a tourist office before.
Compared with some of the more basic powder rooms I’d come across on my travels through Cambodia, it was certainly a welcome change. But it did seem an odd choice of mission, making sure visiting South Koreans have decent toilets to perch on, given the widespread, grinding poverty in Cambodia, where many villagers struggle to get by on $2 a day. What did they expect travelling to a third world country?
It seemed as absurd as the noticeboard outside the North Korean embassy, adorned with pictures of their Elvis-loving leader Kim Jong II. In one, he was standing in a factory wearing sunglasses, pointing at an egg with a confused look on his face. The caption underneath said: “The leader Kim Jong II provides on-the-spot guidance at the 927 Chicken Farm.”
I wandered back north and soon caught up with the man in the wheelchair, who was sitting in the shade eating my pomelo. I smiled at him but he didn’t recognise me. Buddhists were queuing outside a small shrine near the Royal Palace to receive a blessing from a white-clad monk. Three well-heeled pensioners emerged with small cups of sacred water and headed towards a group of women holding cages full of tiny birds.
They said a few words as they sprinkled the birds with water. The birds clearly thought it was raining, and huddled down on their perches. Then the worshippers opened the cages and let them free in batches, saying a prayer to Buddha as they did so.
One of the pensioners then stood on the riverside and gazed down into the green water. For a moment I thought he might topple. Overcome with emotion, he said another prayer and wiped his brow with the last of the water. Then they handed bundles of riel to the women holding the empty cages and wandered off with their police escort.
I sat there for a while, as the birds slowly returned to their cages ready for the next customers to release, and thought again about the stagiers locked away day after day in that prep room in Bray.
Thursday, November 17, 2011
I’ve written a lot about how important soup is to Cambodian cooking. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever come across a food that is so dependent on broths and liquors. There must be hundreds of varieties across the country. And just when I think I’ve tasted all the soups worth trying, along comes another one I’ve never seen before – and not just a cannibalisation of a previous one, but a dish in its own right.
The other day, I was cycling down near the port in Sihanoukville, when I stopped at a fish restaurant where most of the local senior police officers seemed to be lunching. There were a couple of US Navy ships in, so there was more security presence than normal. But whatever the occasion, seeing police officers at a restaurant is always a good sign in Cambodia.
They seem to have more time and money to spend lounging around in cafes and restaurants than the rest of the work force, so given the amount of research they put in, it’s worth following them to their favourite whiskying holes, as it’s often a good indication of the food served there.
The soup they were slurping was gloriously different to any I’d tried before – sadly, I didn’t have my camera with me, but it was quite a sight. The bowl was packed full of tiny sea shrimps, no more than a couple of millimetres wide and a centimetre long - not much bigger than the freshwater shrimps you find in watercress beds in colder climes.
They’d been cooked whole in a pinky broth, flavoured with tamarind and dried shrimp paste, with thick slices of onion, a few fresh anchovies from the shoals you can catch here with a fine-gauged fishing net within feet of the shore, and holy basil leaves in at the end.
The liquor smacked of fresh, briny goodness, made even better by the sharpness from the tamarind, and a clove-like spiciness from the hot basil leaves. I sat there crunching through the prawn heads, feelers and shells, and microscopic pieces of meat, thickening the broth from time to time with a spoon from the always present rice bowl.
Then there was the fish and water spinach soup I had at the weekend at Sophie’s restaurant, where I’ve been learning a few Cambodian dishes, and teaching her a few Western dishes in return. I saw the family were about to sit down to eat their Sunday lunch, and asked if I could have the same. It was so different from the fatty roasts you get in Britain, and the expat restaurants over here determined to give people a taste from home.
“Is it in here?” I said, flicking through the menu and looking for the name.
“No, it’s Khmer food...” Sophie’s daughter laughed, almost apologetically.
There were a number of Khmer dishes on the menu, of course. But what she meant was proper Cambodian food – the magical, prahok-flavoured stuff the locals eat, but are afraid to give to the tourists.
She looked surprised and anxious when I ordered it. The Khmers are for some reason highly embarrassed about their beloved fermented fish paste and its ferocious smell, but I can’t get enough of it. It wasn’t the same as the stuff I’d seen them make on the banks of the Stung Sangker river in Battambang. The freshwater fish had been soaked in brine until fermented (above), but it hadn’t been pressed in barrels like it usually is to get the thickish, grey, cheesey paste (prahok means ‘cheese’ in Khmer). But the flavour and smell were as reassuringly strong as ever.
I finished the dish, eating it the Cambodian way by pouring spoonfuls of soup on to my rice. I have to admit that as a Sunday lunch, it didn’t quite measure up to the finest roast salt marsh lamb with samphire, or a bloody slice of bone-in rib with a freshly-grated horseradish sauce, but I felt a lot lighter than I usually do after eating Yorkshire pudding with all the trimmings.
Normally after a roast, cheese, and a few ports, I can barely manage a few turns in the garden, but after that clear, simple fish soup I felt ready to run a marathon – or at least get on my bike and surreptitiously cycle up the road in search of egg and chips.
After I’d finished, Sophie proudly explained how she’d made the dish (above). She’d put a saucepan of water on to boil, and then taken one of the small prahok fish she’d bought from the market, and soaked it for a minute in hot water. She’d mashed the fish, removing the bones, and poured the liquid, skin and flesh into the boiling water. She’d soaked some tamarind in hot water, removed the seeds, and added the pulp and liquid to the pot. Then she’d added small rectangles of barracuda steak and a handful of water spinach, cooked it for a couple of minutes or so, and then added salt and sugar to taste.
And that was that delightful Khmer family’s Sunday lunch, and they looked just as grateful and pleased to be served it as if it was roast turkey stuffed with prunes, duck flamed in cherry brandy, or spit-roast suckling pig with apple sauce. And after I’d got my shameful egg and chips craving out of my head, and allowed myself to bathe in the simplicity of that wonderful lunch served in the traditional Cambodian manner of making a small bit of protein go a long way, so did I.
As I was slowly getting round to saying, soup seems to be the most important meal in Cambodia. Look at a lot of Khmer literature, and if there’s mention of food, it will often be soup – whether it’s the preserved lemon soup eaten at weddings, or just a humble vegetable soup at a family gathering.
But I had no idea how much until I read one of Cambodia’s most famous folk tales, involving a curious character called Judge Rabbit – intelligent animals often appear in Khmer myths and legends, and this particular wise, old rabbit crops up in a few.
The translation from Khmer into English was pretty brief, and read more like a news bulletin, but I loved the story so much, I decided to write it out for my niece, elaborating it in places, and filling in the gaps where it probably wasn’t necessary. Well, here it is anyway, if you’ve run out of bedtime stories, or are stuck on a train somewhere with time to kill...
THE SOUP AND THE TRIAL
There once was a goatherd boy called Noy, who would wander over the hills and streams every day with his herd. He knew every rock and every river crossing and every colour in the landscape. If it was raining, as it would for half the year in the Kingdom of Cambodia, he would shelter at the foot of a gnarled, old jackfruit tree, or in a ruined temple filled with statues. The rich and beautiful land was dotted with temples around Angkor Wat and the sleepy town of Siem Reap.
His friend Judge Rabbit said they were from a time when magic ruled the earth and every king had his counsel of wizards and astrologers to help him rule the kingdom, and make the best decisions for the people. The ancient, fabled city used to be the mightiest in the world, he said, and had a market so huge and exotic that travelling merchants would ride there with their caravans from the four corners of the Earth.
But now there were just stones and forgotten memories where the city once stood. The huge moats they stocked with fish were still there, but they had slowly leaked over time and only the western one would remain full during the rainy season. The boy often spent the night curled up in one of the ruins, sheltering from the monsoon with his goats.
He thought of the strange people that had once lived there, and how busy and noisy and exciting it must have been. The only sounds he could hear were the happy chirping of crickets and the occasional crackle of a twig in the fire. It was so warm at night, he rarely needed a fire, but he liked to warm some water to wash his face before he went to bed.
Then in the morning, when the first light of day was breaking over the far off hills and forests, he would put on his clothes, pick up his crook, and stir the goats that were still sleeping. It was always the same ones, he noticed.
He led them down the hill to a small valley with fresh water for the goats to drink, and plenty of dewy herbs for them to munch. It was one of his favourite places because there were hot springs where he could bathe, and a waterfall which served as a shower. He loved standing in the hot midday heat with the cold water splashing down on him.
But only for a moment longer would it be the thing he loved most in the world. The boy had just sat down for lunch, and was busy peeling a huge, sweet mango in the shade of a tamarind tree, when he heard a noise. He could hear a young girl’s laughter. It was silvery and light. A few of the goats had heard it too, and were staring towards the waterfall, in the direction of the sun.
Suddenly a girl with raven hair and green eyes danced from the trees. She was running and laughing, and looking down at a little pug dog racing along beside her. She skipped down the path towards the boy. Noy couldn’t take his eyes off her. She was the most beautiful thing he’d seen. Was she a faerie from the hills – an Apsara nymph who lived in the waterfall? Judge Rabbit said there were many nymphs and nature spirits who lived in the waterfalls and sacred woods and the forgotten places people used to worship.
The girl smiled at him and Noy blushed when she said she’d been bathing in the hot springs. They chatted for hours about stories they’d heard and the villages he’d passed through in the countryside and the happy, peaceful people who lived there. And the boy hoped that the sunset would never come. He had never felt the warmth of flames so true in his life, and promised himself that one day Saray would be his wife. One day he would save enough money to build them a farmhouse near this magical waterfall, on the spot that they had met. And one day their sons would lead the goats across the fields in search of food and water, and they would grow green oranges – the finest in the land.
The boy spent years with his herd, strolling endlessly across the hills from sunrise to dusk. Sometimes in the rain, he would see a rainbow in the sky, and it would remind him of Saray and her yellow dress. And in the sunsets, when the sky was lit like a huge fire of reds and purples, he would think of the ruby that he would buy her for her wedding ring. His mother had always told him that ruby was the colour of love.
Then one day, when he decided he’d saved enough of the copper coins the merchants gave him for his wool, he left his goats in a neighbour’s pen and walked to the girl’s house. He knocked at the iron gates, and a maid appeared.
“Our knives are sharp, and we don’t need no pegs,” she said, wrinkling her nose at the boy’s dirty clothes.
The boy laughed – out of surprise.
“It’s me – Noy! I’ve come to ask for Saray’s hand in marriage,” he said.
“Have you indeed,” said Papa, appearing from the doorway, his face the colour of cherry wine. “And why would I let my beautiful daughter marry a poor peasant boy like you?”
“I’ve saved money all these years, sir - just like I said...enough to build a home in the valley. And I’ve still got my goats...”
“A shack in the woods! My daughter deserves better than that. Now begone with you! At once!”
“But I love her,” pleaded the boy.
He looked up at a window, and saw Saray staring back at him. The tears were welling in her eyes.
“I’d do anything to be with her!”
“Anything?” said Papa. “Well, if you really do love her, there is one way to test you.”
He went inside and talked to his wife, and they told the boy to follow them down to the lake. His legs would be bound, and he would have to stand neck-deep in water for three days and three nights without moving a muscle to warm himself. If he could stand there perfectly still without moving, only then could he have their daughter’s hand in marriage.
“I’ll do anything in my power to show you I love her,” said the boy.
“We shall see,” said Papa. “Now bind his legs.”
An old giant the family used to chase crocodiles from the grounds began tying the boy’s legs.
“Nice and snug,” said the giant, burping fishy belches as he pulled on the straps for the third time.
He helped the boy to his feet, and then dragged him into the lake, until he was neck-deep in water.
“Remember,” said Papa. “However cold you get, you cannot move to warm yourself. If you survive this trial of courage, then yes, you can wed our beloved Saray. But if you fail, you must take your goats to a distant land and forget all about this place.”
The boy stood in the lake for two days and two nights without moving a finger. He was tired and very cold, and had long lost all feeling in his arms and legs, but he knew losing Saray would break his heart. He would do anything to be with her. Anything.
He shivered again, but refused to move his arms for warmth. At dawn, he spotted a fire burning on a distant hillside. It was near the old temple of Phnom Bakheng. He thought he could hear the far off crackle of wood, and soon he thought he could smell the wood smoke, and it reminded him of his camps there, snuggled around a few burning logs with his goats.
Without thinking, he put his hands out to the distant flames, and rubbed them together, just like he did when he was sat near a fire. But just then Mama and Papa appeared, following the giant’s lumbering shadow.
“Haha, caught you!” said the giant. “There’ll be no wedding cake for you!”
“I told you he didn’t have the stomach,” said Papa. “Lucky we found out now Mama. You saw him warm his pinkies! Untie him. The boy has failed.”
Noy slouched back in his wet clothes under the clear November sky. But this time, rather than wondering in awe at the huge aura around the moon, and the twinkling diamonds on that black canvas, his head was bent to the ground. He had lost everything, and the one thing he truly cared about, apart from his goats, all because he moved his hands for a second to feel a fire he could not feel. He kicked a stone, thrashed his arms around, and then shouted up at the sky. It wasn’t fair. True love should never be parted, he wept.
Then he got bored of crying and decided on something, and turned back towards the village. The next day he went to see the village magistrate, an elderly man who hadn’t cut his toenails since he was a boy, and whose judgements were said to be as long and meandering. The magistrate was eating a chunk of crab, carefully dipped in salt and pepper, and looked annoyed to be disturbed in the middle of his meal.
The boy explained about his love for Saray, and her love for him, and how it wasn’t fair that they couldn’t marry just because he’d moved his hands to feel a fire he couldn’t feel. The magistrate said he would talk to her parents, and if they agreed, the trial would be heard at midday on the first Monday of the next month.
On the day of the trial, the boy walked up to the courthouse, and left his goats in the public pen. He was an hour early, but Mama and Papa were already there. He saw the gifts they had left for the magistrate – five barrels of salted fish, two pigs, and a buffalo. The boy had nothing to give, except his goats, and sat at a bench on the far side of the room. The magistrate listened to Papa’s evidence, smiling and nodding his head whenever appropriate, and then frowned at the boy.
“Saray’s loyal father is right to deny you. He set you a challenge to test your courage – and you failed in his honour and your own. You have lost your trial, and as a payment towards the ever rising costs of this court, you are to provide us with a delicious banquet no later than the next waning moon.”
The boy was furious and kicked more stones on the way home. He could feel the doom descending with every step. He looked up and saw Judge Rabbit hopping across the bridge towards him. The old, wise rabbit was whistling away and swinging his walking stick, and it wasn’t until the boy was in hearing range that he held a monocle close to one eye, sniffed the air, and bent towards him.
“Why are you looking so miserable young master Noy?”
“I’ve just lost my trial, which means my heart is broken and I’ll never marry Saray - the girl I love.”
The rabbit listened to the boy’s tale and told him to invite him to the banquet.
“I can’t promise anything, but I may be able to help you,” he said. “But just one thing – when you make the soup, and I do hope you’re making a soup, after all you can’t have a wedding without a soup, remember not to add any salt. Just pour the salt you would have used into a saucer and put it on the table.”
The boy had to sell his goats to pay for the feast. He bought pots of crabs and three whole cows to spit-roast, and then he made a huge cauldron of chicken and rice soup, but remembered not to put any salt in. He tried it several times. It was difficult to say whether it had any flavour at all.
He laid out all the pots and roasted meats on an oxen cart and then headed off towards the village to pick up Judge Rabbit, and they carried on along the slow, bumpy track towards the courthouse. Mama and Papa and the magistrate had invited all their friends round, and in the court gardens stood a rose marquee with vast, empty tables awaiting the food.
The magistrate lurched out of his hammock when he saw the pair coming.
“Brother Rabbit, what brings you here?”
“I have come to help you with this trial,” said Judge Rabbit, pulling a carrot from his pocket.
“Ah,” said the magistrate. “Then why not stop and have a feast with us.”
The boy unloaded the cart, and prepared the food. He heated the soup over glowing charcoal and then served it to the many tables. The magistrate was the first to tuck in. He took a spoonful of broth, and then another one, and then bellowed at the boy.
“Why is this soup not salted?"
The boy stammered for a moment, and was about to answer, when Judge Rabbit pointed at the saucer of salt in front of the magistrate.
"Forgive me brother, but I am curious to know one thing,” he said.
“What is it Brother Rabbit?” asked the magistrate.
“Well, I am curious to know how the fire burning on top of that far hill was supposed to warm the boy - and yet the salt for the soup, so not very far from the soup, does not flavour the soup?"
Ripples burst through the court, and then there was laughter and applause. The magistrate looked embarrassed and fell silent. He agreed that the boy hadn’t broken the rules of the ordeal, and they could marry at once.
Saray ran over to Noy and kissed him, and the feast turned into a wedding, and the salt went into the soup. The boy built a farm near the waterfall, and they lived there happily for the rest of their lives at that spot they shared with the faeries and nymphs in the jackfruit trees.
Wednesday, November 16, 2011
Guest post by Dom Bailey
They're out. Sprouting in the dark and damp places. Mysterious things. Here one minute, then they’re not. The essence of the woods, with colours and delicate gills like forest anemones. But is it a mushroom? Is it a toadstool? Is it edible? Is it deadable?
In the mushroom game, identification is key - but a Russian roulette for the uninitiated. The edibles all seem to have evil twins. For every field mushroom, there's a Yellow Stainer, for every St George's mushroom, there's a Deadly Fibrecap - always with a "beware of" or "not to be confused with" warning.
There are, of course, those other potent mushrooms. I once had a friend who would scamper up Cornish tors in autumn looking for the tell-tale, little nipple-shaped caps. But recipes weren't really on his mind – just tea or scrambled egg - and very soon he was away with the Kernow pixies.
I would love to be able to wander through the beech woods, plucking basketfuls of the meaty floor flora, but have never really plucked up the courage to pluck up the...well, you get my drift. I've got the guidebooks. But even the guidebooks tell you to get more guidebooks - to cross check to be sure, to be safe and to sue the other guidebooks if things go wrong.
And they do.
Last year, there were 316 cases of poisoning in the UK linked to eating mushrooms, according to the National Poisons Information Service. They said numbers were high because the weather in late summer/early autumn led to a bumper crop of wild mushrooms. This year, a cooler summer meant mushrooms hadn't grown quite so well - but by September, the service still had 129 cases.
So if you haven't got time for a guided walk through the woods with some Bear-Fearnley-Mears type or a library of identikits, there's an introductory mushroom for novice gatherers. Relatively easy to identify, edible, and with a frisson of toxicity at the same time - just to make you feel alive. The Shaggy Inkcap (aka Lawyer's Wig or Shaggy Mane). Great name, and exactly what it says on the tin - shaggy white cones at first, then black-rimmed parasols that bleed black ink to the touch.
The aim is to pick them young - when at their most shaggy, and least inky. Having spotted a few at the side of the road (pic above), I consulted my mushroom guidebook. (River Cottage Handbook Number 1 by John Wright.) There was the Shaggy Inkcap in the edible pages and, hold on, also in the poisonous pages.
The poisonous entry was the Common Inkcap: less shaggy, and also edible - unless you drink alcohol. That's usually a sign to turn the page and look for another mushroom. Apparently, they used to use them to treat alcoholics as drinking after eating makes you sick.
"Sensitivity to alcohol can last for 72 hours," notes Wright, apologising for the lack of detail about its flavour and texture. "As for what it tastes like I am afraid that during the last 30 years or so my blood-alcohol ratio has not afforded me one single opportunity to find out."
Sounds like a fungi (sorry, had to get that in somewhere.) But in the interests of blog material, I thought I'd give them a go. I'd forgo the drinking just in case my specimens were of the common variety as I'm not sure work would appreciate the excuse of a mushroom/alcohol-related absence.
The Shaggies like well-managed verges, roundabouts and, as I discovered, the manicured slopes around rowing lakes. The smaller ones were very like the shaggy photos - the bigger ones in the group less so. But I was pretty sure these weren't the dodgy ones. The smaller ones were firm and less inky. As they get bigger, they get more fragile. I'm told they don't keep in the fridge either, so it’s a question of a pick and fix lunch.
The other guidebook (Richard Mabey's Food For Free) had a few suggestions: a quick fry with butter or oil, deep fried, baked with egg, or pressed into a ketchup.
Condiments aside, for full experimental effect, the fried ones (stalks removed) were, I'd suggest, at the slimy end of the mushroom scale - like oyster mushrooms, but with less body. They were lightly mushroomy, though, and the less cooked parts had a bit of a zing to them. Definitely not "boiled polystyrene" as I had seen them described.
Cut into a starfish shape and placed on a beaten egg (pic above) and baked for 10 minutes, there was a bit more to them. Okay, I forgot to oil the pan in my eager anticipation so did end up with a bit of eggy crust - for texture, of course.
A deeper mushroom flavour was eked out by cooking some in the oven pressed together, with a scattering of salt, lid on, until the ink steamed out into a black liquor. Strained and with a dash of pepper (Mabey says an ounce per quart, whatever that means) and a scrape of nutmeg and you have a decent sauce base.
After this tasting session of nature's Jekyll and Hyde shroom, I had no hotness, reddening, tingling limbs, headache, sweating, or shortness of breath, so think I got it right. Then again, I've had similar symptoms from drinking, without having had mushrooms. I'd survived a foray with fungi, and am tempted to get down to some proper identification. Preferably with a mushroom that lets you drink.
:: Dom Bailey is a writer and musician. His songs are here at domssongs.blogspot.com.
Wednesday, November 02, 2011
George Orwell said pepper was good at getting rid of bed bugs, pointing out that it was worth putting up with the sneezing just to rid himself of the terrible, itching bites. But it didn’t work for me, despite living near the Kampot region in Cambodia, with wheelbarrows of the best pepper in the world at $9 a kilo.
I’d moved into a very cheap room, even by Cambodian standards, so you could say I’d asked for it. But Buddha did I pay. I suppose the moment I put my head down, I was aware from the smell of the mattress and pillow, and general state of the room, that I probably wasn’t sleeping alone.
There were tell-tale piles, as I know now having researched the subject at length on the internet, of pepper-like dust (not just from the grindings I’d put down) that are said to be the blood-sucking bugs’ droppings. The sheets were scattered with them. But there were two much larger, darker piles under the bed frame.
At first I thought something had burrowed upwards through the tiles. They looked like the sort of mounds ants make, and the guesthouse was filled with ants. You only had to leave a piece of fruit out, or a half-drunk can of Pepsi, to find thousands of aggressive fire ants marching across the walls.
But after sweeping up the mounds, there were no holes in the tiles, no cavern entrances to what would become a hellish ordeal of mandibles and eternal, fiery itching. I checked the bed frame and a chunk of rotten wood came away in my hand, leaving a few maggot-like creatures squirming on the floor.
They didn’t look like the pictures I’d found on the many bed bug forums devoted to these tiny barbaric vampires, which I quickly learnt can produce 10,000 babies in three months, and drink three times their own body weight of blood in a single troughing.
But I couldn’t help wondering what else was in there, hidden away in the wooden tunnels, waiting for the long hours before dawn when they’re said to strike. But whatever they were - and you can only wonder at the horribleness of the creatures that had left such huge, itching, red welts across my arms and back – they almost ate me alive.
Bed bugs strike in threes, apparently. Three bites in a line - breakfast, lunch and dinner, according to the feverish accounts on the bed bug sites. But they’d clearly run out of space, and had just bitten wherever was in reach. There were bites upon bites, and always a horrible yellow, itching crust. My forearms took the worst of it. Even now as I write this, it feels like I’ve been hog-tied with poison ivy. The burning only gets worse if you finally cave in and scratch – and then there is the risk of infection, especially in a country as hot as this.
But then I still wasn’t sure whether it was bed bugs, or whatever had been eating the bed frame, or whether the mattress was just a big red herring. After a friend found a small cobra wriggling across his lounge carpet, I was beginning to think anything was possible in Cambodia, even armies of tiny, but extremely vicious, hawk-headed death scorpions.
I’d been finding a few striped, territorial, and much larger than normal, mosquitoes in the room of late and wondered whether it was them. But the bites were much more savage and had developed into a welter of full-blown hives. Always with a red hole in the middle - much wider than a mosquito straw. It was more the sort of bite from something that could gnaw through heavily-varnished teak.
I had a disturbing thought as I switched off the lights, and waited for the interminable itching and soft scurry, or would it be squirm, and gentle parting of hair, then bite, that they might have tunnelled inside me, and found a new lair. But I put the thought out of my mind as best I could, remembering how psychological trauma was listed as a common affliction on the BB forums.
The next morning, I complained to the French owner, a strange, stocky man with uncertain eyes, who’d recently bought the guesthouse and over weeks of early morning hammering, drilling and tile cutting had slowly been turning it into a restaurant. He didn’t seem too bothered when I told him.
The guestrooms were the last place that would get attention - he was far too busy painting the concrete floor outside the restaurant. Perhaps bed bugs were more common in France? But eventually he agreed to swap my bed for the one in the empty room next door, exposing a large, grey rectangle of dust, hair, condom wrappers and lofty peaks of drilled wood.
There were far more of them than I’d feared. Some of the holes in the wood were the width of a small pencil. I stood there itching at the sight. But the bed was soon gone, and the floor half-heartedly mopped. The new bed looked in far better shape. There were a few holes here and there, but the frame looked far less crumbly. And although the mattress still had a grimy look, it certainly smelt a lot fresher.
I got the woman down the road to wash all the bed sheets and pillow cases to get rid of any lasting traces of the burrowing beasts, and settled down for a good night’s sleep. But there were more belters in the morning. It couldn’t have been the mosquitoes because whatever it was had broken through my liberally-sprayed shield of “F-Off!” insect repellent.
There was so much deet and toxic chemicals, it burned your eyes if you’d forgotten to turn off the fan. I’d long given up chasing mosquitoes around the room, and instead just napalmed the general area I’d last seen them in, and they’d quickly be writhing on the floor waiting to give up their last squirts of my blood as I splattered them.
But deet clearly didn’t trouble these hardened parasites. Curse them! It tied in with the apocalyptic warnings on the forums about how they were forever evolving into more monstrous creations as they developed unique resistance to insecticides like deltamethrin and beta-cyfluthrin, until pesticides and other powerful chemicals normally used outdoors no longer had any effect on them – and beware therefore! They’d soon be a pestilence on every hotel around the world. Aum. Ha.
“I am telling you these bugs don’t care what your income, race or habits are,” said a woman from Connecticut who’d burned all her furniture and was now sleeping in the shed on a trampoline. “They want blood and carbon dioxide. I have made my home hostile to them until I can afford fumigation.”
For a while, the accepted wisdom was to douse an infested mattress with turps – something that would obviously greatly increase the dangers of smoking in bed – or coat the bed legs with lethal radioactive waste to stop the evil little creatures climbing upwards.
But evolution and fiendish arthropodic intelligence struck once again, and they somehow communicated with each other that it would be a good idea if they emerged from their cracks and crannies at a synchronised time as normal, but this time, rather than taking the usual short cut up the bed legs, they could scurry in lines across the tiles, up the wall, and then back on themselves over the ceiling, and then drop somewhere near the sleeping prey.
There was also a lot of talk about how bed bugs were good hitchhikers, most efficiently it seems in hotel luggage, and once they were inside, would quickly emigrate like conquering tribes into different territories of the property, so I had no way of knowing whether the bites were from creatures connected with the old bed or the new one.
I talked to an old Parisian called Maurice in the bar that evening, and he just shrugged and told me to lay the mattress in the sun, and turn it over from time to time. He said he got the guard to do his every six months.
“You have to,” he said. “This...is Cambodia.”
The affected pause, shrugging, and way he strangled the vowels in Cambodia made it sound like it was a philosophical point about asceticism, an experience that should be embraced as much as any other. I felt better, and chided myself for worrying too much and being a product of a system that had distanced itself so much from nature, but still the burning itches continued.
It hadn’t helped that I was reading Into The Wild, a book about incredible human endurance and suffering, and being eaten alive by mosquitoes in Alaska. What were a few bed bugs, if that’s what they were – and I’d still failed to get conclusive proof - next to starvation and a lonely, painful death?
We clinked pastis glasses and I itched my arms again. I climbed off my bar stool and suddenly felt faint. It wasn’t just the drink, the flu I’d had for the past two weeks seemed to be getting stronger, and was turning again into another sore throat. I had no idea at the time that it might have been something to do with those bites. All I knew was the last person I’d chatted to, who’d had similar symptoms, had been diagnosed with dengue fever.
The next day, after more bites, I told the owner about Maurice’s mattress trick. I could see he was losing patience, but continued to wear his stretched smile. It was the same cartoon grin he’d used when I rang the bell repeatedly at 3am, thinking it wasn’t working.
The mattress lay there all day in the blazing sun, flipped over whenever the guard remembered to rouse himself from the hammock. When I got back, the owner had obviously had a change of heart. Had he been itching too?
He’d painted over the holes in the bed frame with white paint, and pointed at the label. It had a picture of a badly-drawn, furry, green worm with a red cross through it. He’d even bought a couple of new pillows. But he said he couldn’t buy a new mattress because he’d only had the guesthouse for two months. I also noticed he hadn’t bothered to paint the underside of the bed.
I slept tight and tried not to let the bed bugs bite, but woke at first light with more lesions. A couple of evil-looking black creatures were writhing about on the floor. They’d either just flipped on their backs or had more likely been winkled out of their holes by the paint. There were bites this time on my legs, and my fever seemed to be getting worse. I told the owner I could stand no more, and was moving out, even if I had paid for the next month upfront.
“No-one else is complaining about the small animals,” he sniffed.
I moved in to the new hotel up the street – it was a hundred times cleaner, and ten times more expensive. But I needed to get some proper sleep in a clean bed without the thought of marauding insects. I filled the sink with water and washed the black vest and shorts I was wearing – the last things that hadn’t been through the laundry.
I let the vest sink back into the water, and then my stomach turned and I felt that crawling itch as three red bugs scurried towards the side of the sink. I had proof at last. They were definitely the bed bugs I’d seen on the forums. They were so fast and confident, it was no wonder I hadn’t spotted them.
The nausea, cough and fever I’d been suffering fitted in with some of the more extreme symptoms other victims had complained about. I didn’t have dengue fever – it was some sort of allergic reaction to the bites. I staggered down to the Khmer restaurant, where I ate most mornings, and almost collapsed as I walked in. None of the pills the pharmacist had given me had worked, but then his English was as bad as my Khmer.
I was desperate and threw myself on the mercy of that happy, peaceful family. I told Sophie, the cook-owner who I'd been learning some traditional Cambodian dishes from, about my symptoms and bites, and she said she was pretty sure it wasn’t malaria because I wasn’t getting cold shivers.
She told me I should drink fresh coconut juice and get some sleep. I drank three that day, two the next, and the following day felt stronger. There was no sign I’d transported any more bugs from the room, and it was the first time in days I’d woken without fresh bites. But the fever was still there, as was the cough and itching.
I lurched back down the hill to the restaurant to thank Sophie. I was getting my appetite back and ordered her delicious ngam nguv soup, remembering how good chicken broth is for flu and restoring the spirits. We got chatting about food, and I offered to show her how to make beef stroganoff for the Russian barangs who stay at her guesthouse. She said she wanted to learn something called “key-kerr salad”.
Was it Russian? Maybe a Moldovian peasant dish traditionally eaten at the autumn equinox when the day is divided into exactly 12 hours of light and dark? Or maybe a Lithuanian speciality, no doubt comprising of potatoes? I cursed myself for not knowing. I’d never been much good on Slavic cuisine. Let alone Baltic. Or any wok-based curry dishes for that matter.
But as an old Singaporean cook had told me the other day as he served hokkien mee – thick noodles with pork, prawns, and squid in a thick, soy gravy made from pig hock that he began cooking in the morning - it was impossible to know everything about food; it was far too big a subject. She’d definitely said key-kerr.
“Oh, Caesar salad!” I said eventually.
She asked me to show her the next day, and I stumbled back up the unmade road, wondering how she was going to make any money on a Caesar salad given the price of anchovies, let alone parmesan, and the ridiculously low prices she was forced to charge in that stretch of identical Khmer restaurants. There was only one possible substitute you could use in Cambodia that would be that cheap.