Soup for Breakfast: Cambodia

Scott Alves Barton
University of Notre Dame

The city was humid by midmorning. We were sweaty. The streets fragrant, alternately perfumed with lemongrass, turmeric, galangal or ginger. Often there is no evidence of an eating establishment. Or even a vendor in sight.  

And traffic as anarchy…ceaseless bumper to bumper. Meanwhile, I’m listening to love songs with my tuk-tuk cabbie Bum Kom. We muddle through it together in-between the other tuk-tuks, mopeds, pedestrians, bicycles, the few old men on bike rickshaws, motorcycles and cars. All attempting to whizz by at any time from any lane…And an occasional passel of goats crossing major boulevards stops everything…

Monk’s Feast, photo ©Scott Alves Barton, 2015

In 2015, before I completed my doctoral degree, I was invited to co-teach an M.A. intensive study aboard course in Hong Kong on Food and Media, over the J-term with a friend and mentor, Professor Casey Man-Kong Lum. I had taken the course as a grad student in my first years at NYU. What luck! An opportunity to return to HK and Asia. The hope of resuming some of the research I had begun there, as well as conducting some comparative analytics for my dissertation made it perfectly easy to accept. I remembered the long intercontinental flight across the international dateline to get to China. I decided once again to add some extra travel, after the course, this time. It would be part-and-part: pleasure and research. In art school, as an undergrad I had reveled in Asian and South Asian art history, under Nelson “No-Sun” Wu and Gary Tartikoff, respectively. They seeded my desire to see Angkor, long before Apocalypse Now appeared. This was the time.

I couldn’t get a visa in the U.S. since Cambodia was a “non-aligned country” according to our State Department. I applied through a worn Cambodian tourist bureau office two flights up in a random commercial district in HK. I was told to just book a flight. And get a short-term travel visa in Phnom Penh’s airport. This seemed risky. “Rejection/deportation is rare”, they assured me.   

The claustrophobic airport was appointed with soldiers in camo-fatigues brandishing antiquated machine guns and pistols. Two flanked me while I waited for my turn by the customs desk. I got in. Found a cabdriver, with a late model Camry, who spoke pidgin English, and obliquely shared that he understood (and spoke) French but since Pol Pot (1925-1998), targeted foreign sympathizers, he refused to speak it. Old habits die hard. Photographer, Kathy, my oldest friend, had made a similar trip five years earlier, and recommended a clean budget hotel, Dara Rang Seay-40 minutes’ away. I arrived after dark.

Soup and noodles. Photo: Scott Alves Barton.

The desk clerk directed me to the adjoining restaurant that served guests and the public. He arranged for a tuk-tuk and driver, Bum Kom who had English skills for the following day. These automated rickshaws had opened covered seating for 2-4 people attached to a motorcycle. That night I had fried spring rolls, and a choice Samlar Kari, (chicken curry) or, Num Banhchok, a fermented rice noodle soup with squid and shrimp, and I chose soup. For breakfast there was a variation on that noodle soup, or, less popular a western style breakfast with eggs and a croissant, soggy from the heat and humidity. At dinner my table setting was a fork, knife and soup spoon. I requested chopsticks. By the second breakfast, once the staff knew me, my table was set with chopsticks and a soup spoon, since soup was always an option.

Child survivors of S21. Photo: Scott Alves Barton.

That day I met and discovered much of Phnom Penh with the help of Bum, my translator/driver; a 30ish married man with two children. The two of us hit it off immediately. I arranged with Bum to visit one of the legacies of Pol Pot’s internal terrorism across town.  After going to S21-Tuol Seng, a former school for a few hours, where 14,000-17,000 prisoners had been detained and tortured by the Khmer Rouge before being assassinated in the Killing Fields, at Cheoung Ek, I needed a break.

Bum and his son. Photo: Scott Alves Barton.

Bum suggested lunch near the Central Market, since I wanted to purchase some silk Ikat, or Sampot textiles. As he looked for parking at the market, popular with tourists, I witnessed several families negotiating drop-off lunch breaks and marking future pickup spots afterwards. Before Ly could suggest otherwise, I offered to eat together. I was a solo traveler. I preferred sharing table with someone else, and we had established a collegial ease with one another. He chose a locals spot, busy with drivers and neighborhood workers on break. He translated the chalkboard menu as the waitress brought our set-ups, chopsticks, napkin, and a soup spoon. Not a mention or question about western implements. If I was with a local, I ate like a local.

Before I left Phnom Penh for Siem Reap, and all of the temples around Angkor Wat, Bum invited me to eat lunch with his family. I would be up north for 10 days. We negotiated a rendezvous for my final city jaunts and a meal before I left for NY.

In Siem Reap, my tuk-tuk introduction was arranged for me through the more ornate sister hotel of the Dara Rang Seay. My new partner in local travel was, Ly Cheong. Like Bum, I took my lunch breaks with Ly. I guess I engendered a more personal relationship with both men, by extending myself and seeing them as peers and teachers. Both middle aged men, like me, were making their way, supporting their families, and not underlings to cater to me.

Fried fish and pancakes. Photo: Scott Alves Barton.

In fact, one day Ly, whose local knowledge was phenomenal and his English, nearly non-existent, suggested a surprise. “I think you; you will like…” Ly said as we drove up to the Landmine Museum. It was a gross misfortune of war, and yes, fascinating, nonetheless. He also arranged a longer one day excursion to the Thai border to see remote temples. I owe Ly everything for sharing Siem Reap.

At first Ly was hesitant to ask me. Ask me what; I did not know. Haltingly, he began, over our shared lunch of Amok fish, the iconic Cambodian creamy coconut curried river fish dish steamed in banana leaves. The vegetal flavors imparted from the leaves add to the heady mix of chilies, curry paste, lemongrass, garlic, fermented fish paste, and shallots mortar-and-pestle pounded to a thick paste and slathered over the fish before its wrapped, steamed and garnished with rondelles of red chili pepper, and filaments of black lime leaves. Ly wanted to invite me to meet his wife and children.

“Would I be interested to come for dinner on my last evening?” – I was elated.

He picked me up three days later, on Friday, having dropped me off to shower and change after that day’s outing. He lived in a small enclave of narrow streets close to a central square away from the tourists and temples. All the wooden houses had tin roofs, and bright fabric drapery in the windows. After we took off our shoes and entered the central room of his house, his family was sitting and standing there waiting to meet me, while his wife fussed at the charcoal fueled brazier-electric hotplate. Someone pulled out a large gingham cloth, reminiscent of the krama headwraps everyone wore, and spread it in the center of the floor.

Ty Cheong and Ly Cheong. Photo: Scott Alves Barton.

Ly brought a large white enameled metal bowl with blue trim and a pink floral border, and set it on the center of the cloth. His wife brought a matching pitcher. His brother, sister-in-law and the kids began bringing food to put on the cloth. We all gathered around the food, sitting cross-legged at the edges of the fabric. Ly demonstrated with his son, instructing his son to hold his hands over the bowl, while he poured warm water over his waiting hands, and his wife proffered a towel. We witnessed everyone wash their hands thereby announcing dinnertime.  Gingham napkins appeared. Now we freely picked and chose bits of each dish as circling hawks do in search of prey.

According to Ayurveda, the nerve endings of the fingertips are believed to boost digestion. In fact, you become more aware of the textures, taste and aromas as you eat using your hands and engaging the fingertips. And portion control shifts when you do not have a large plate or utensils to amass your edible booty. This protocol was repeated early on Sunday at Bom’s house across town from my hotel in Phnom Penh.

Several years ago, Arun Venugopal, host of the NPR program and podcast, Micropolis, aired a live-audience segment on eating with one hands, featuring, food writer/actress, Madhur Jaffrey.  Jaffrey spoke of an Indian tradition whereby a grandmother visits a newborn grandchild and dips her index finger into a jar of honey. With her finger, she writes OM on the baby’s tongue. She gives her grandchild the first sensual taste, as well as a taste of herself, giving all of herself to this newborn. Her love and sensualness goes into the child, giving them a visceral sense of home and belonging.

Etiquette for eating with your hands from Conde Nast Traveler:

“Some foodstuffs, or prepared dishes are personal; too personal to use anything but your hands” Srijith Gopinathan, executive chef at San Francisco’s Michelin-starred Campton Place Restaurant. “Every culture has created fascinatingly complex tools for eating, but some foods are personal.”

L.A. chef-owner Genet Agonafer, of the Ethiopian restaurant, Meals by Genet, a perennial on that city’s top 100 list, grew up eating with her hands:

“Growing up, we’d all eat together as a family. You’d tear off a piece of injera using all five fingers, and roll it up nicely and neatly. There shouldn’t be any sauce dripping off of it. Then you’d feed the person next to you. This is: gursha.” It’s an act of intimacy that harnesses the power of touch and food—and cutlery doesn’t, uh, cut it. It’s acceptable to use just your first three fingers when eating: your thumb and your first two fingers. The left hand is a no-no, like in India.  

Streetfood vendor, Phnom Penh. Photo: Scott Alves Barton.

“It’s more like eating with a tortilla,” according to Bricia Lopez co-owner of L.A.’s James Beard Award-winning Oaxacan restaurant, Guelaguetza. “I actually don’t think about it as eating with my hands “When you’re done with your food, you use it to scoop everything out. People ask me all the time, what are the rules? There are no rules,” Through practice and observation I saw how my perceived position and agency as subject was altered by the inclusion or exclusion of utensils. As a stranger in a strange land, western implements were offered; as a courtesy. Integrated into the local scene, and distanced from the invisible tourist safety zone, the implements shifted. If I needed the comfort of a fork and knife, they were gone. Finally, full immersion in a private home meant navigating a meal on their terms: intimately. Those utensils endemic to western dining keep our foods at distance. We can stab a morsel and eat with our eyes before chewing it. Our shirtsleeves may stay a bit cleaner. But the calculus is cool. We are separated from the sensuous joy that a delicious meal engenders for me. 


 A few years ago, my fellow Brazilian researcher/ colleague, Jonathan DeVore, asked me if I was familiar with eating with one’s hands. I responded: “Yes!” The elder women in my circle of Afro-Brazilian respondents, ‘captained their food’ by gathering three fingers together and only sullying the first digit of each, carefully selecting morsels from an individual or common plate. Typically, any stew-like dish was first thickened with farofa, toasted and seasoned cassava meal. He extended the conversation to the Latin American Studies Association Listserv and created a simple survey,

In a moment it went viral, in an unforeseen way. Many people, senior scholars, who were not familiar with these commensal norms decried it as a savage, uncouth and slovenly eating practice. A knock-down drag out e-fight ensued online. Several noteworthy anthropologists stepped in to duke it out from both sides of the equation. Jonathan and I and our allies were incredulous. I guess ethnocentrism still has currency for some. I will always be culturally relativistic, and learn by doing with others as they see fit. You can see the simple survey questions that caused a firestorm, by clicking this link.

Arun Venugopal. 2016. “The Tastiest Way to Eat (You’ve Probably Never Tried),” WNYC-Micropolis, New York.

Gowri Chandra. 2018. “A Guide to Eating with Your Hands Around the World: Let’s Dig In,” Conde Nast Traveler, March 5. NY. NY.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s