A Cambodian Bug Encounter

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I’d known of this Cambodian place for a while but just never got round to trying it out until now. We started with a fairly standard pomelo salad that I thought tasted a bit too weird for my liking. While it had almost Thai flavours of fishy smoked fish, some sweet, some sour, and some chilli, it was fairly toned down in terms of the four standard flavours. There was a herb in it that I didn’t appreciate – it was a bit too earthy and bitter-smelling (though not actually tasting bitter at all), a bit like off garlic.

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The other starter was much better: steamed minced pork paste with preserved fish roe. It was very unusual, like a cross between a warm pate and meatloaf. I scooped spoonfuls of the smokey, fishy meat mixture onto the raw veggies and enjoyed the almost salted egg-like flavour. I never knew that eggplant could be eaten raw and I happily walloped the spongey vegetable with the meat. It went surprisingly well.

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DC saw the writeup on crickets and tarantulas on the wall and immediately wanted to try them. I told him I could probably stomach a cricket or two rather than a hairy spider leg so he ordered this off-menu. My heart sank when the deep-fried crickets arrived. The fellas were fried to a dark crisp – so much so that their carapaces were almost black, making them look like skinny cockroaches. Ewwww. Feeling slightly queasy, I attempted a few times to spear one with my fork but failed as the little buggers (literally!) were fried so hard and crisp they were impossible to spear. DC and I picked out one that looked least like cockroach and I gingerly ate its thorax and abdomen. Honestly, it didn’t taste like much aside from deep-fried. There was a very slightly sour aftertaste but not much. So there was half a cricket in my stomach and the other half – black and winged – still sitting on my plate. I hid it in my rice and hastily chewed it up, and swallowed. Then I looked up and saw DC calmly, and with great enjoyment, crunching up the rest of the plate of crickets. This is the reason why I’m a wuss and I’m with this very brave man with the appetite for adventure. If he can put up with bug-eating, who knows what other crap he can put up with!

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OK so enough with the wussing out – the last dish was their signature dish of fish amok. I’d tried it in Cambodia before and was expecting something thick yet still fluid, somewhat like Thai green curry. This version was like a non-spicy otak. The flavours were very similar and the fish was moulded in a slightly runny coconut custard. DC and I both liked the delicate flavours and the soft-firm texture of the fish. Thumbs up!

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We didn’t manage to get dessert as the banana sago dish I wanted wasn’t available. Service here is generally very sincere and warm, though slightly dopey and haphazard. Be patient with them and you’ll have a good experience.

Khmer Delight
922 East Coast Road
Tel: 6449 1529

November in China: Tangshan Hotsprings

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No pictures this post. You’ll figure out why in a bit.

After Nanjing, we headed to the hotsprings at nearby Tangshan (literally: soup mountain; I think tang could also be an old-fashioned term for hot water). When Nanjing was a capital, Tangshan was highly regarded for a place to take the waters. Apparently one of the Soong sisters, most likely Ching-ling, liked going there so much she commissioned a special road to lead there from Nanjing.

The town itself was the usual dusty nondescript so typical of minor Chinese townships. The only difference was the numerous spa resorts dotting the area. Ours was the Yishang Spring Resort, consisting of a hotel complex complete with restaurant and spa park.

At the reception, we were issued with a bead bracelet that also had an electronic locker tag. Then we were ushered to the spa park entrance that had turnstiles quite like those at amusement parks! Here was where Mum and I said bye to Dad and we separated into male and female locker rooms. We were issued with ugly mass-produced rubber slippers and tacky Hawaiian-motif happy coats. A friendly attendant grabbed us firmly by the elbow in case we slipped on the wet floor and walked us into the massive (this is China, remember?) locker room to locate our lockers.  She instructed us to change into our bathing suits and then proceed to the shower rooms for a rinse before entering the park proper.

Before entering the showers, we had to run the gauntlet of more attendants who checked if patrons were going in or out and made sure that each person was sufficient hosed down before getting a towel to proceed inside! Coming out of the park was worse, they wouldn’t give out towels till after the shower! Mum was aghast when she saw naked locals coming out from the shower dripping so that one of the attendants would wrap them in a fresh towel. She made sure to ask for a towel before going in to shower and spoke in English when they threatened to be uncooperative.

There were lots of different pools in the spa park. Most of them were hot pools. On the periphery were pools of spa water of varying temperatures, as stated on little wooden boards above. You could start from 32ºC all the way up to 45ºC. Another area had some roman-style dry baths where people could sit on the heated marble floor between a series of partitions along a marble wall. With such cold weather, I couldn’t understand why anyone would want to sit on heated marble out in the semi-open.

There was also a heated swimming pool, though no one swam in it and also an area for getting buried in hot sand. Extra was charged for the privilege of being buried alive. Mum and I went past all these and quickly jumped into one of the 32ºC pools before we froze to death from exposure. I wanted to go straight into a 45ºC one but Mum stopped me. You have to start cooler lest you overheat!

Preliminary soak over, we proceeded inside to explore further. There was so much more! One of the highlights was a heated pool filled with lots of little nibbling fish. The trick is to find a spot to sit comfortably and where you’re covered to the chin and stay absolutely still. The fish would then come over and nibble on toes, knees and elbows . The first nip was startling and we could immediately spot the newbies from their tickled yelps and screeches. Soon I got used to it and was trying to figure out how to get more fish to turn up and also how to get them to nibble  on my fingers. None did no matter how hard I tried.

This place was pretty upmarket, with lots of little services. Waiters would serve soft drinks in plastic cups directly to people soaking in the pools. It got pretty gross when the kids would then proceed on to use the cups to catch fish. Whenever someone hacked and showed the slightest hint of spitting, we’d immediately exit and move on.

Other pools in the area had lots of exotic brews. There were pools of red wine, chrysanthemum, rose,lemon, lemongrass and pomelo-flavoured soaks. Of course there were also lots more flavours I hadn’t even seen before. It was great to pick one, lie in there for a while, feel too cool, pick a warmer one and then get too hot. After soaking for about half an hour, Mum and I would then go to an indoor area for complimentary flower tea. We’d towel off and sit for a while, watching incredulously as groups of men would sit around playing cards and smoking cigarettes (again provided free). Cigarette in mouth, they’d grab another one from the box and stick it behind their ears for later. Odd, but part of the spa experience.

If we were tired from the repeated raisin treatment, we could go inside to the clubhouse. Here there was an area full of rows and rows of soft sofas, all (surprise, surprise!) facing a TV playing the latest Chinese soaps. If not for the TV, it would be a quiet rest room. Once coming in, you could have a nap, get a foot massage or pedicure  (extra charges) or just read a book and have some refreshments. This is how people spend days there!

The best part of the spa was going there after dark. I remember lazing in one of the faux-rock pools looking up at the dark sky. I felt warm from the water, yet my face was cool from the early winter air. I was on holiday. It was the best feeling in the world.