Saturday, November 14, 2009
Cambodia - The Killing Fields
The Killing Fields was one of my mother’s favorite movies. Every Christmas Eve we would gather the family together and my mother would insist we watch this movie. I don’t know what started this tradition but I can’t watch The Killing Fields now without thinking of my mother and Christmas.
The Killing Fields is a heart wrenching and dramatic true story about friendship and the horrors of war. I think my mother loved the movie because she secretly envied the job of Sydney Schanberg, a New York Times reporter who uncovered the secret US bombing campaign in Cambodia. What drives this movie is the friendship between Schanberg and his Cambodian assistant, Dith Pran. The two men are separated when Pran is forced to remain in Cambodia while Schanberg and other Westerners evacuate the country during the fall of Phnom Penh in 1975.
Trapped in Cambodia, Pran is captured by the communist Khmer Rouge and is forced to endure the atrocities of the Pol Pot regime during what is known as “Year Zero” that killed 3 million Cambodians. He struggles to stay alive and escapes a labor camp and walks through the “killing fields,” the skeletal remains and dead bodies of the brutal massacres, to his freedom in Thailand.
The film ends with the reunion of Schanberg and Pran with the John Lennon’s song Imagine playing in the background. I have watched this movie many times and I always cry at the end over the sheer joy that these two friends have found each other again. Just writing about this scene makes me tear up!
Cambodia is in South East Asia and borders with Vietnam, Laos and Thailand. The cuisine is similar to Thai but not as spicy, and Vietnamese. It also has Chinese, Indian and French influences, a culinary blend that is unique, delicious and healthy. The dishes include many fresh fruits and vegetables, as well as fish and rice.
For our Cambodian meal I cooked a coconut fish curry called Amok Trei. The fish is cooked in thick coconut milk, wrapped in banana leaves and steamed. I found the banana leaves at a local Latin grocery store that I frequent and where I have become a familiar face. I often run into the owner at Starbucks and we exchanges pleasantries.
The curry dish was not difficult, other than trying to make parcels out of banana leaves for the fish to steam in. One needs to be a master at origami to actually get the dang things to fold and tuck neatly. But I did my best and threw the parcels into the pot to be steamed. When I was done I served the fish over rice. It made for a delicious and interesting meal. The banana leaves had a distinct smell and I was certain that the point of steaming the fish in the leaves was to flavor the fish. However, the coconut was so overpowering that we did not taste the banana leaves.
Upon doing my research on Cambodian cuisine I discovered that the Khmer people (Cambodians prefer to be called Khmer) love to eat spiders – palm sized tarantulas to be exact. They are deep fried and served piping hot. They’re good for virility, apparently. This delicacy was discovered during the Khmer Rouge years when many Cambodians were starving and found sustenance in eating bugs, including tarantulas.
After our Cambodian meal I couldn’t stop thinking about the movie The Killing Fields. I wondered if I should dig it out of my collection of DVDs and watch it again.
I could hear the words to Imagine in my mind:
Imagine there's no countries,
It isn't hard to do,
Nothing to kill or die for,
No religion too,
Imagine all the people
living life in peace...
No, I decided I’d wait to watch the movie. It brings up too many memories of my mother and our travels through East Asia. Perhaps we’ll watch it on Christmas Eve.
Amok Trei (Coconut Fish Curry)
1 garlic clove, chopped
1 red onion, chopped
2 inches root galangal or 1/2 tsp ground galangal
2 TBSP chopped lemon grass or 2 tsp ground lemon grass
1/2 tsp ground turmeric
1 tsp paprika
2 TBSP fish sauce
1 TBSP sugar
1/2 tsp salt
14 oz. Can coconut milk
1 lb white fish
Package of banana leaves
Place the garlic, onion, galangal, lemon grass, turmeric, paprika, fish sauce and sugar in a blender and process until well blended. Add the coconut milk and process again. Transfer the coconut mixture to a medium saucepan and bring to a simmer, stirring. Continue to cook gently for 10 minutes until thickened. Meanwhile, cut banana leaves into 8 inch squares. Place fish in bowl, season with salt then pour on half the coconut mixture and mix well. Set remaining sauce aside. Place some of the fish in the center of each leaf and fold edges over to form secure parcels, and make sure you tuck the edges under. Steam the parcels for 1 hour. 5 minutes before the hour ends, reheat remaining sauce. To serve, make a small opening down the center of each parcel and spoon the remaining coconut sauce in the opening. Serve with rice.