Dirty dishes, Siem Reap roadside rain
Some days, I just don’t care very much about food. I go through moods and, at times, all I want to do is feed the machine so it keeps on churning. And sometimes, as in this week past, I suffer a gut bug and I take drugs (not very often) and I have little appetite for anything. It’s hot. I’m tired. We’ve been spending a lot of hours doing interviews in the sun, and even more hours driving across the worst of Cambodia’s roads, which leave your nose parched and your teeth gritty with dust.
There is little choice in food on these excursions. Lunch is inevitably a fly-ridden (trust me: there is indeed a Fly Season in Southeast Asia) plate of rice with a few unappetizing fried bits of unclear origin. And while we can do our best to stay our cleanest, there’s no escaping the grime when it’s all around and everywhere in between. This is the reality many of the people I interview face every day of their lives; my entry into their scene lasts but a few minutes or hours. And I don’t mean to mislead. Often people have absolutely no control over the sanitation in their neighborhoods. One former soldier I recently interviewed in a suburban slum looked toward a group of cows eating through a huge corner of garbage. He scrunched his nose and said, “A truck used to come once a week and pick up the garbage. Now it doesn’t come anymore. We have no garbage service.” He had no idea why, nor what could be done to remedy the situation.
On some occasions, filth and flavor converge. One day last week, I found a pleasant lady serving an enormous and tasty bowl of num banh chok at a highway stall swarming in flies. The foods were covered, but the flies pestered so that I had to use one hand for eating and the other for swatting. I finished the bowl, I loved it, and not long afterward I was sick in the gut. It’s impossible to tell the origins of such ailments, but a few days later, out interviewing again, my cramping stomach had no appetite for the exceptionally tasty but cheap fried, fermented fish I found in a shantytown. The woman in charge kept her quarters as clean as could be, and she struggled to make a living selling small lunches for about 60 cents apiece.
It’s the heat, the dust, the noise, the grunge combined. But even more, it’s the people’s stories of late that make me–at times–far less interested in exploring the pleasures of food than simply eating what’s necessary and getting on with things. This phase shall pass. It always does. But on many of my trips, I am never far from people for whom survival is the foremost thought, and food is a fuel. It is through luck or fate or good karma that I am able to indulge my many food moods. I hope I never forget that.