Monday, November 29, 2010

What to cook for a monk and your dead ancestors?

Last month I woke up bright and early one Saturday morning to head to a pagoda with my colleagues for Pchum Ben, a Cambodian religious festival that is all about monks and dead relatives, two things that Cambodians take very seriously.

One of the cute things about my colleagues is that they seem to forget that I am not Cambodian as well, and as such, don't tell me crucial bits of information about events like these. I know about their propensity to leave out important details, so had done a bit of research before the big day (ie. I read the Wikipedia page about Pchum Ben) so I knew that I had to bring some food with me. (What I didn't find out was that I was supposed to wear a fancy skirt and a white top, but there are only so many battles you win at this sort of thing.)

Although I love to cook, I do not enjoy the pressure of cooking for a critical audience. Most of my colleagues have never tried foreign food and are uninterested in not-Khmer foods. Even more nearby-but-foreign cuisines like Indian or Malaysian food are unheard of in a typical Khmer household. And the way food is eaten--everyone gets their own bowl of rice and shares the other dishes--isn't conducive to western-style pastas or salads. So when I've cooked for my co-workers in the past, I've played it safe and made Thai dishes, which have gone over very well.

Because of the Cambodian habit of saying whatever comes to mind, I know that I will be sure to hear exactly what they think, "You're fat, this tastes bad." But for the holiday I decided that I finally make something extremely foreign. My plan had originally been to make Shrimp Saganaki, a recipe I made when I was in London and have been craving since, and it seemed like it could go with rice. But after wandering around a filthy market unsuccessfully looking for decent shrimp I revised my plan.

Everyone brought at least two bowls of food--one (or more, depending on how wealthy or religious one is) for the monks to eat and one for us to share as a group after the prayers. One of the managers brought a bucket (seriously, she had lined it with plastic) of a very fancy red curry made with coconut milk, chicken, chicken feet and blood. It was clearly special occasion food--around the office we almost never have coconut milk in anything. She put out a half dozen bowls for the monks and bowls and bowls of bread to sop it up with.

Every monk at the pagoda takes at least one bite from every bowl that is presented to them. My colleagues explained that the food the monks eat is transferred directly to our ancestors, so in essence, we're feeding our dead relatives.

Knowing this, I decided to make something my Irish-Italian grandfather would have loved. Can you guess which dish is mine?

I have to admit that I took great pleasure in the monks' quizzical looks as they inspected my pasta with porky tomato sauce, heavy on the tomato paste just the way my grandfather, Red, would have liked it. "You're going to make me eat this?" they must have thought.

The pagoda we went to was deep in Kandal province, near no tourist attractions and clearly unused to having foreign visitors. Despite my inappropriate dress and non-Buddhistness I was shepherded through the place and the prayers, had incense thrown into my hands and got to watch with delight as the monks chanted over my penne. I'm not one for religion, but that this was the sort of event I could get behind. What better way to remember the dead than to make their favorite foods?

So I know that your first question will be, did they like it? And the answer is not really. All of my colleagues tried a few bites and thought it was hilarious and very interesting, but no one loved it as much as I did (or Red would have).

The exception was one of my co-workers who made my day by eating as much as the twenty others combined. So I said a prayer for his dead ancestors too, because they obviously did something right.


  1. Came upon this blog just by chance, a wonderfully entertaining read!

  2. "So I sad a prayer for his dead ancestors too, because they obviously did something right." GOLD. My Thai compatriots like to not tell me what I am doing wrong until waaaaaay after the fact.

    Friend: "Remember that time a month ago you wai'd a child by accident?"
    Me: "Yes, vaguely."
    F: "Remember how horrified his mother was?"
    M: "Not at all."
    F: "Well, that means that you wish the child death."
    M: Horrified silence.
    F: "Did you have a nice day off yesterday?"

  3. Love it. (And I can't believe they didn't.)

  4. Wow, random! This looks like the same pagoda Caterina and I went to in Kandal province!
    Nice job on the pasta =)

  5. Brock: Very funny! At least they tell you eventually.

    Frances: You would like it here. I've become a locavore because there are no other options. They'll kill the chicken right in front of me if I want! (I don't)

  6. Shirley: I'm guessing it's not, most of them look pretty similar.

  7. Laura: Thanks, glad you like it!

  8. Great post. And do come on the food tour if you're ever in London :)

  9. Thanks, Jessie. I definitely will. When I lived there I explored the markets in Chinatown but not much else. Looks like a good tour.

  10. Lina, could i borrow one of your images and give you credit? they are BEAUTIFUL. want to make a flyer for an art piece with one of them