Faine Opines

Southeast Asia, liberation technology, drones, and pontification

Month: December 2014

“Last Christmas” or Cambodia’s Inexplicable Favorite Christmas Song

It’s the holidays, and I want to talk to you about a very, very annoying Christmas song, one that nevertheless has a special, perverse place in my heart thanks to my time in Cambodia.

It’s called “Last Christmas,” and was created by those British songster scamps “Wham,” who you’ve probably never heard of outside of the context of awkward oldies stations if you’re under 30. Watch the hilariously dated video, which features people with big hair and even bigger beaver-fur bonnets (I guess that’s what they are) cavorting in the snow. There is infidelity and lots of glaring and confusingly rosy tans. It is a poem to 1985, which is, admittedly, a year I didn’t even exist in.

If you’ve spent any time in Cambodia, you probably have a slightly uncomfortable memory linked to Wham’s “Last Christmas.” The song may be a slightly embarrassing relic of the Time of Neon-Colored Windbreakers in the US, but in Cambodia, it remains a beloved holiday favorite. And you remember hearing it, at some moment when you didn’t expect it. Probably a moment that caused you  bit of retroactive shame.

open 24 hours girl

That’s because  “Last Christmas” is everywhere, and it’s essentially impossible to escape during Christmas – especially if you spend a lot of time hanging out at bars. (Which, if you’re an expat, you almost certainly do). You’re ordering your fourth drink or so on the holiday, you maybe didn’t call everyone you should have called, your life choices are shown to you in stark relief – were these the right tones? And then on comes “Last Christmas.” End scene.

From one festive year.

From one festive year.

I cannot adequately explain why “Last Christmas” has permeated so deeply into the Khmer consciousness, and I’ve never heard an entirely adequate explanation from a Cambodian person. There are even Khmer covers, with impressively high production values and videos that feature great bales of probably dangerously chemical fake snow. I have been told the sickness has permeated into Vietnam.

It doesn’t matter if it’s not actually Christmas, I should add. If you’re in Cambodia, “Last Christmas” will make its inevitable, ambiguous appearance regardless of the season, or in fact, even the time of day. It’s kind of like the gentle to-and-fro of the tide. Accept it, or go mad.

I’ve noticed the closer it gets to 3:00 AM, the more likely people are to dance very badly to “Last Christmas.” It’s a regular fixture on the essentially immobile playlist at Howie’s Bar on Street 51 in Phnom Penh. If it goes on the playlist, I will probably have to go home and cry.

Since, I am a bit sentimental about “Last Christmas,” as objectively terrible and dated as it is, despite the number of times I’m heard it in the middle of August. I’m back in the states this Christmas, and whenever the song comes back on, I’m filled with nostalgia for the Cambodia version of the holiday season. The elaborate displays at the Nagaworld Casino, with Vietnamese and Chinese tourists in business suits snapping appreciative photos.

tiny santa suits

Slightly sloppy but endlessly good natured holiday parties. Cambodian parents buying tiny-sized Santa suits to torment their children with. The occasional burst of fake snow emanating from a friendly-minded bank.

Fake trees on the back of tuk-tuks. Being wished “Happy Merry Christmas” all the time, said as a single phrase. Delightfully warm weather on Christmas Day, and maybe a trip to the beach. And of course, finding yourself at a particularly disreputable hostess bar at 4:00 AM, filled with some combination of affection for humanity and mild, nagging self-questioning. But you’re pretty happy anyway.

If anything fosters an entirely appropriate sense of affinity for your fellow man despite it all, it’s an expat Christmas.

Suck on, “Last Christmas.” Suck on.

Happy Merry Christmas.

PS: here’s a link to my Christmas in Cambodia photoblog from back in 2010. 

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Mango Chicken Curry For Wintertime Existential Despair

mango curry done 2

I’ve spent many years as a sworn enemy of fruit in curries. Too often, adding fruit to a perfectly adequate, flavorful Asian or South Asian dish renders it a sickly-sweet abomination geared towards the kind of people who think garlic powder is exotic.

However, I made an exception for this South Indian-ish chicken mango curry,  and I’m very glad I did. It’s delicious, easy to make, and produces superb leftovers. The combination of coconut milk, toasted Indian spices, and chili with fresh mango chunks produces complex, tropical flavors that are a pleasantly aromatic antidote to the pure existential misery of winter.

It is eminently adjustable to different palates and spice-tolerances, which makes this dish a good choice for both your flavor-phobic in-laws from Nebraska, and your chili-obsessed expat friend visiting from Southeast Asia who has thoroughly seared all their tastebuds off. (That would be me).

Due to either the boon or horrible imposition of globalization, depending on your political affinities, you can get a decent fresh mango most anywhere in the winter months. I guess you could use frozen mango if you were desperate.

Dark meat chicken is heavily suggested. The curry leaves are a brilliant addition if you can find them. The frozen ones work, too. It would be pretty good with shrimp if you were so inclined.

mango chunks detail 2

Chicken Mango Curry
Serves 6 (with leftovers)

3 pounds of dark-meat chicken, skinned and cut into chunks
1 ripe fresh mango, peeled and cut into chunks.
1 can of full-fat coconut milk (low fat is for weenies)
1 serrano or Thai green chili – add more if you like super-spicy.
Tablespoon of sambal chili paste.  Sriracha is a fine substitute. Omit if you come from the Delicate Stomach tribe.
2 large yellow onions
Tablespoon of fresh ginger
2 to 3 garlic cloves, according to taste
Vegetable oil – olive oil works fine.

1 tablespoon mustard seeds
1 tsp cumin
1 tsp of turmeric
1 tsp curry powder
1 cinnamon stick
4 or 5 cardamom pods, broken open. 1/2 tsp of cardamom powder works fine as a substitute.
Curry leaves (if you can find them)

Chicken

If you have the time, marinade the chicken overnight in yogurt, combined with a tablespoon of curry powder. No one will die if you do not have the time to do this, so don’t sweat it.

Curry paste

1. Finely chop – using a knife or a food processor, I’m not judging – and then combine the whole Serrano chili, ginger, onion, and garlic. Set aside.

The Main Event

2. In a large, deep pan or skillet, heat the oil until shimmering. Throw in the mustard seeds, cinnamon stick, cardamom pods, and curry leaves, and cook for roughly a minute, until the mustard seeds begin to pop. If the oil is too hot, the mustard seeds will ricochet into your face, which is exceedingly startling.

3. Add the curry paste. Add the turmeric, curry powder, and cumin. Add the cardamom powder if you weren’t able to find the pods. Cook until the vegetables are aromatic and soft.

Chicken added. Electric skillets are rad.

Chicken added. Electric skillets are rad.

4. Add the chicken, and stir until it’s reasonably browned – roughly 3 to 4 minutes.

5. Add the can of coconut milk and stir to combine. Taste, and adjust the spices if needed. Add more chili paste if needed. Add salt and pepper as you see fit. Cook for 15 minutes covered at low heat.

6. After 15 minutes elapse, add the chopped mango. Cook for 5 more minutes at low heat.

Should look like this. No, I have no idea how to photograph curry attractively.

Should look like this halfway through. No, I have no idea how to photograph curry attractively.

7. Taste again, and adjust as needed. Uncover, turn the heat up to high, and reduce for about 5 to 10 minutes until thick and slightly caramelized looking. Keep stirring it to avoid burning.

8. Eat it. I like to serve this with a raita made with plain Greek yogurt, diced cucumber, olive oil, and lemon. Good with basmati rice as well.

This makes beautiful left-overs, so I suggest making more then you can eat in one go, and keeping it aside for the next day. It also freezes very well.

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Buffalo Racing in Cambodia: So Very Majestic

 

man on a buffalo

You know it’s a damn good holiday when there’s a chance you might get run over by frightened livestock.

At least, that’s how it is in Vihear Sour Cheung village in Ksach Kandal district in the Cambodian countryside. Falling in either late September or fall on the Western calender, Pchum Ben is Cambodia’s Day of the Dead equivalent, when the gates of Hell open and the spirits of one’s relatives wander the earth.

Beyond the expected Buddhist ceremonies at Cambodia’s many wats (temples), people in the countryside celebrate with exceedingly rowdy buffalo and horse races. Myself and some photographer friends pooled together some cash and got a car to take us out of Phnom Penh and into the pancake-flat, electrically green Cambodian countryside to watch the action in Kandal Province. The races, we were told, began at 6:00 AM. Probably.

I made this video. I think I chose the right music.

We arrived and saw hundreds of excited people of all possible ages lined up along what seems to be a dangerously narrow corridor near the town’s main Buddhist temple. We had got there late (thanks to the usually vague Khmer-style time estimation) and managed to wedge ourselves into the eager, nervous-looking crowd. The animals, both horses and buffalo, were raced in laps along this corridor. A man with a whistle would blow on it a few seconds before the animals came into view, giving people a bit of lead time on leaping out of the way, or at least jostling their way into the crowd for a few millimeters of safety.

Double suspension.

Double suspension.

We got ourselves into position with our cameras, and soon the whistle blew: frantic gallumphing sounds heralded the arrival of the horses, slim chestnut and tan creatures being whipped into a frothing gallop by young men who looked somewhere between elated and absolutely mind-bendingly frightened. The crowd would emit excited sounds as the horses came by, low and then high and low again.

The buffalo came more slowly – a pace better described as sedate, really, with their large whitish-grey heads up in the air. The buffalo were decorated with jingling golden bells and muti-colored beads and fringe. Their jockeys (notably, rather more senior and tubby than the guys on the horses) whapped them animatedly on the butts with switches to keep them moving. Everybody cheered when the buffalo shuffled by. I have no idea how water buffalo perceive their sense of personal dignity but I feel this kind of thing might be corrosive to it.

A terrified looking horse on the way back from one of the heats pulled up and backed into the crowd, which made everybody scream, whether they were in any actual danger or not. It is always very fun to scream in a crowd situation, as anyone who has been eight knows.

man on a buffalo bw

None of my journalist friends managed to be run over by a horse or a buffalo, although I suspect some of us were taking private mental bets on who would incur some sort of embarrassing injury. Maybe a close call or two. “There was a hoof print on her BACK!” I overheard one of our party say about someone else.

With poor judgement, I crouched on the red-dust track with a camera on a tripod and shot the animals from below, trusting that I’d hear the whistling and the gallumphing before a very small and very anxious horse trampled my head. I declined to fly my drone over the affair, cool as the video might be. I didn’t want a water buffalo to startle.

Having a Wonderful Time

Having a Wonderful Time

The races may not last much longer, or that’s what I heard. Horses have limited utility in a Cambodia where even poor people can usually manage to afford a motorbike – mirroring what happened in the US as cars pushed out horses in the 1940s and 1950s. The buffalo, meanwhile, have greater value as slightly gamy steaks and as rice-growing helpmates than they do as racing mounts to country dwellers.

I certainly hope that this rowdy and highly amusing tradition continues in some form in Cambodia. Perhaps someone should create a Buffalo Jockey for a day tourist program, or something like that – the total immersion Livestock Wrangling Experience. Everyone gets a certificate and lots of selfie opportunities.  There will only be a few tramplings.

It works for Pamplona.

gunning the horse

 

 

 

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