Dead, featherless chickens hang in rows at the edge of the supermarket table

posted by Satyam Kaswala

Dead, featherless chickens hang in rows at the edge of the supermarket table, piled next to each other like the bodies left to decay in black-and-white photos of World War One trenches. Slimy fish with bulging eyes flail in buckets on the next table, some sawed in half, blood smeared across the wooden surface like soap. I squeeze my face tight and curl my upper lip over my nostrils. The stench is unbearable. The faceless voices that swirl around me sound less like eager shoppers and more like mournful funeral trumpets, as I’m not in a supermarket. I’m in a graveyard. But animals are central to the region’s food culture, and such scenes are common in Cambodia.

While most come to Cambodia excited to experience the “authentic” Khmer food, I was happy just to find vegetarian dishes to eat. There was no guarantee. Several friends warned me. If no options were available, they’d say, I would have to temporary lapse into some meat eating. Though a torturous prospect, it was potentially a necessary one.

How does such rampant meat consumption square with the country’s Buddhist philosophy? Non-violence, especially towards animals, is central to Buddhism. The gap between the spiritual ideal and the reality of quotidian living is spelled out in the letters of all the names of meat dishes on the Siem Reap restaurant menus. In this sense, are these dishes even authentic? Several of the Cambodians I spoke with did not even consider vegetarianism an option. Perhaps it is a first-world luxury. But one thing was clear: the “authentic” was something I would probably not experience through food.

Tired of eating noodles and fried rice, a fellow classmate Peter and I stumbled through Siem Reap on a cloudy Saturday afternoon in search of good, and more importantly, safe, food. As we teetered through the sidewalk, the woozy, orchestral flourishes of Bollywood music wafted into the Cambodian city street from a small windowless restaurant named “India Gate” nearly tucked away from view. It was a moment that broke down all of the ambiguous and invisible barriers that divide the world- nation, culture, geography- all melded together. My taste buds salivated with giddy anticipation, leaking that certain unnamable chemical only unleashed when one is reminded of his mother’s cooking. Despite my willingness to abandon all things familiar while in Cambodia, the similarity of the Indian food to the cooking I was used to at home was irresistible. Peter and I sat down on a small table barely covered by the roof, a flimsy fan rattling above us. He scanned the menu with unrelenting curiosity and picked a curry-based butter paneer dish.

The bubbling, bright orange butter paneer arrived in a shiny bowl, chunks of paneer (cheese) scattered on the creamy surface like stepping stones. Peter anxiously grabbed a slice of naan smattered with garlic butter, delved it into the butter paneer, and tore into his drippy creation. He repeated this process with equal precision and finesse until the inside of the bowl was no longer orange and only burnt crumbs of naan remained on the plate. He broke out a satisfied and accomplished smile, the kind he knew he had to earn.

A few days later on a moist Tuesday evening, I sat with another friend Megan at the Blue Pumpkin, a hip downtown café and restaurant frequented mostly by young Western tourists.

“Should I get pizza or spaghetti?”

A soft, sanguine neon light filtered through the window, giving her face a warm soft-focus look and matching the color of the sauce the spaghetti noodles swam in. Before they had time to swarm around, she stabbed the spaghetti with a menacing metallic fork. The noodles curled around the fork’s swirling fingers and she dove into the action. The strands of noodle slivered into her mouth, one by one, until she got tired of the hunt.

“You should write your blog about this.”

Spaghetti, pizza, butter paneer. These meals were the most memorable I witnessed this week. But they were hardly authentic Cambodian dishes. I was worried about sacrificing Khmer authenticity for my vegetarian lifestyle. Yet with some of our group’s attempts at eating local Kmher food ending in sickness or discomfort, non-Cambodian meals like Peter’s or Megan’s became common. Despite my reservations, I was not alone in finding food an elusive means towards Khmer authenticity. For seeking what is authentic in another culture as an outsider, without being qualified in our bodies and systems as well as mindsets, proved a difficult endeavor. There is an alluring thrill in that quest, but also great danger. However, food culture entails more than just food alone. The fact that Western or Indian eateries coexist with Khmer barbeques and kitchens within the city in itself highlights a truth about Cambodian character- perhaps one is no less authentic than the other. If traveling is about exploration, menus are often maps. And despite the singular nation they may rest in, these menus are still maps of the world.

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