We left Siem Reap on a day-trip to interview villagers in the countryside. Ten minutes out of town, a mango rain (the term for early spring dry-season showers) drenched the road and everything turned swampy. Definitely atypical in the typically dry month of March. It poured until nearly lunchâ€”which means we didnâ€™t accomplish much before the meal.
In Cambodia, hunger dictates work. Khmer stomachs operate like clockwork. With the exception of wildlife biologists (who sometimes care more about finding their monkeys than eating their rice), most Khmers I know eat like my diabetic dad: on time and routinely. For many (those fortunate to have so much food), the daily menu might include an early-morning breakfast (5 or 6), a morning snack (9 or 10), lunch (11:30 or noon at the latest, followed by a sufficient nap), an afternoon nosh (3 or 4), and dinner (6). Something like that. Any deviation from the regular feeding of the bodily machine is cause for deep concern. Iâ€™ve learned over the years that when Iâ€™m out reporting a story and Iâ€™ve hired a guide or translator, I must oblige the gut. Fair enough. I certainly work best when sated, too.
And so it was that we stopped for a generous bowl of num banh chok before heading off into clearing skies. We stopped at a little highway stall where a woman filled our bowls with rice vermicelli, chopped cucumbers, long beans and shredded banana flower. She ladled her pea-green curry (key ingredients: fish, lemongrass, turmeric) over the bowls and offered an optional sweet sauce of fish and shredded coconutâ€”chocolate-brown with a smoky essence that traveled up the nose. Delicious. It added a dynamic element to the dish. And of course, lunch came with the usual pile of fresh herbs, wedges of fresh lime, chopped fresh chile, raw long beans and pinches of salt.
I recalled a bowl of num banh chok I had eaten in a Phnom Penh park years ago. That day, I sat with a couple of Khmers who wanted to converseâ€”but first they insisted we prioritize. â€œIn Cambodia, we say eat first, then talk,â€ one young man told me. â€œThis is our culture.â€ So we slurped our bowls in silence, then sat back to a chat.