Cooking Korean by a Cooking Newbie

Despite the large population of Koreans living in Phnom Penh, finding good Korean comfort food has been difficult. The hunt all started with a typical night of partying in Phnom Penh and the inevitable hangover the next morning. I slowly dragged myself out of bed towards my refrigerator in search for anything that would make the sick feeling go away. To my dismay, the only items I found in my refrigerator were a nearly empty bottle of water, some eggs, and a box of arm and hammer baking soda. Staring blankly into my refrigerator, I started to reminisce about partying with friends back home in San Francisco and the Korean establishments that would be open until the wee hours of the night that served up some much needed hangover food. At that moment I wished more than ever that a bowl of soondubu (Korean soft tofu soup) would magically appear before me – soondobu is hangover’s best friend.

First attempt at making soondubu

I have yet to find a late night Korean restaurant in Phnom Penh to satisfy my hangover cravings. Sure, there are plentiful Korean restaurants in town, and at the hour I was partying until – often dancing to hip hop music until the sun came out – I could easily patronize a restaurant during lunch hours before passing out back at the apartment. However, slumping around in my high heels with half my makeup removed from all the sweat and heat from the night was not how I wanted to be seen in public. I decided to take whatever dignity I had left and go home instead.

One day, while shopping for groceries to fill my pitiful refrigerator, my friend gave me the perfect solution to my problem. “It’s simple, just get this brand of chili powder, some soft tofu, zucchini, and pork ribs and make your own.” Not only would it cure me of my hangover, but by making it myself in the comfort of my own home, I wouldn’t be subjected to the post-partying walk of shame in Phnom Penh. Genius.

Homemade kimchi

I consider myself pretty passionate about eating. I once travelled to Penang, Malaysia with a food trail map and a huge appetite. Visiting one hawker stall to the next were the only items on my itinerary. But, despite my love of food, I can’t cook. For the greater majority of my life, cooking meant sandwiching stuff between two slices of bread, to say the least.

I did a quick Google search for authentic soondubu recipes to use as a guideline. Like a mad scientist, I started concocting this seemingly intricate soondubu recipe. Attempting this soondubu was outside of my comfort zone. When I was young my mom would kick me out of her kitchen, claiming that my presence would only slow her down, further perpetuating my illusion of the complexities of cooking. My apprehension included not using the right ingredients (the recipes I found in my Google search were all different), measuring exact proportions of chili powder to fish sauce, or not chopping my vegetables small enough. After slaving over a hot stove I’d say my first attempt was successful. Although the pork came out a bit dry and the zucchini overcooked, I was proud to have produced something edible.

Dwenjang jjigae in the making

I’ve made soondubu countless times now, and my familiarity with cooking it has given me the confidence to modify the recipe to my preference – such as adding a tablespoon of miso paste or some enoki mushrooms for a fuller flavor. Slowly but surely, I am adding new recipes to my cooking repertoire of Korean foods. Just this week I made my own kimchi and dwenjang jjigae and invited my Korean friend over for lunch. He picked up a piece of kimchi with his fingers and bent it in half to check the texture. Then he proceeded to taste the soup accompanied by a bowl of steamed rice. The verdict: “Delicious, but next time try cooking something that’s not Korean” in his best attempt to let me down easy. I’m not ready to give up cooking Korean foods just yet, but I do hope to expand my cooking knowledge to other cuisine types, one recipe at a time.

Hoi An: Vietnam’s Treasure Trove

For most people who are unfamiliarwith Vietnam’s geography, Vietnam is an S-shaped country with a vertical distance spanning 1,650 kilometers and a width comprising 50 kilometers at its narrowest point.  The two most populated and developed cities, Hanoi and Saigon, rest at the top and bottom, respectively, of the country. I traveled for nearly two weeks in Vietnam, from Saigon to Hanoi and of the cities I visited, the ancient town of Hoi An is my favorite.

Tucked away in the middle of Vietnam, Hoi An is a little gem worth taking a detour to visit.

Funny how things work out in the end; during an initial planning of this Vietnam trip, my friend and I were considering cutting this part of our trip out and allocating the days spent here to lengthier stays in Saigon and Hanoi – I am glad we didn’t.

Hoi An’s narrow streets, adorned with Chinese lanterns, are filled with small restaurants, bars and boutique shops selling various merchandise from pointy straw hats to silk sleeping bags.  The “must-buy” item, however, is customized clothing from one of Hoi An’s many specialty tailors.  A friend of mine purchased a nice new suit for only USD$80!

We wandered the streets of Hoi An by foot and bicycle (rental was complementary at the guesthouse we stayed at). Everything we needed was located within walking distance and highly accessible. The next day we walked pass a motorbike rental shop and decided to cruise along the outskirts of town on a scooter.  The only “map” we carried consisted of selective streets drawn on the back of our hotel’s business card. We drove off-map, east bound, and stumbled across a nice quite beach, called Cua Dai.

In the evening, we visited the local bars in town. We were immediately drawn to the friendly hosts, greeting us warmly as we walked by. Once we were seated, they stuck around to chat with us despite obvious language barriers. Leaving this town for our next destination proved to be emotionally difficult – Our visit to Hoi An was a relaxing break from the hustle and bustle of Saigon and Hanoi.

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Angkor What!?


The next morning we set off with two new friends for a full day of temple visits. The four of us hired a tuk tuk driver to take us around from sunrise to sunset. Our itinerary consisted of visiting temples further out that had less tourist traffic. It was still pitch dark when our tuk tuk driver picked us up from the guest house. The cool wind swept my hair as we sped along the dirt road to see our first sunrise. We saw a variety of temples that day – each place had an ambiance different from the next. To highlight a few: we saw intricate carvings on the temple walls of Banteay Srei, built in honor of female deities; we hiked through a forest to see the waterfall that awaited us at the top of Kbal Spean; and we played a game of hide-and-seek at Banteay Samre, a smaller remote temple that we had all to ourselves.
When Melinda and I had purchased a one-way bus ride from Phnom Penh to Angkor Wat, we anticipated staying for only one full day – plans changed, of course. There was so much to see that we decided to go “templing” for two full days. We saved the more touristy temples, including Angkor Wat, Bayon, and Ta Prohm (where Tomb Raider was filmed), for the second day. Our visit to the Angkor Wat was well timed. The clouds were minimal, unlike the sunrise and sunset on the previous day, and the sky was a perfect canvas for the viewing of the sunrise over Angkor Wat.

At the end of the day, Melinda and I booked a red-eye bus ride back to Phnom Penh, in order to make our flight to Thailand (from Phnom Penh Airport).

The photographs do not do justice to our unique experience. I am looking forward to my return visit to the temples in a couple weeks. This marks just the first of my many anticipated trips to Angkor Wat. I hope you enjoy the slide show.

Siem Reap or bust!

On our last day in Phnom Penh, we decided to hit some of the other tourist spots we missed on the first day – we went to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, Sisowath Quay and the Russian Market.
The next morning, we embarked on a 6 hour bus ride from Phnom Penh to see Angkor Wat. The bus ride was long and it made frequent stops to pick up locals on the way. Surprisingly, the bus driver took in more people than there were seats on the bus. He placed tiny plastic stools in the aisle for the extra people to sit on. On top of that, our bus driver and his friends must have been gangsters. While we were trying to speed past a tuk tuk on the road, the tuk tuk didn’t budge. In retaliation, one of our bus driver’s friends went to the back of the bus and grabbed a crow bar, opened up the front bus door (while the bus was still in full motion) and threatened the tuk tuk driver. I got to see the entire episode since I had front row seats on the bus.
Another interesting visual from the bus ride includes seeing a motorbike drive past us on the road with an entire pig lying face-up on the back seat of the motorbike. More shockingly, a couple seconds later I see the pig blink – poor Babe was hog tied to the back of a motorbike while still alive! (My friend says the motorbike driver must have kidnapped the pig from his farm to set him free – I like this version of the story better)
Melinda and I had no plans when we arrived to Siem Reap. Tuk tuk drivers swarmed in to offer us rides to our guest house, but we had no idea where we were going. Luckily, we met another traveler who told us about Popular guesthouse in Siem Reap. Accommodations were cheap – you could rent a room for as little as $3 per night, but Melinda and I decided to “splurge” a bit and got ours for $14 (which included A/C and hot showers). We dropped off our backpacks and went to catch our first sunset. At night we dined outdoors, got our feet nibbled on by fish, tasted tarantulas, and bargained our way through Siem Reap’s night market for goodies.

More to come on my trip to Siem Reap!

Sisowath Quay


Boat running along the Tonle Sap River

Russian Market in Phnom Penh


Carpick - My favorite dish so far


On our way to Siem Reap


On a tuk tuk to see our first sunset

Elephant ride to Bakheng Hill


View from Bakheng Hill, Angkor Wat


Our first sunset from Bakheng Hill


Siem Reap Night Market


Paintings for sale from the Night Market


Fishy feet


Deep fried tarantulas

Touchdown, Cambodia!

After 19 hours of air time on China Airlines, I arrived in Phnom Penh with my friend Melinda. Despite being jet-lagged, we planned out an ambitious itinerary for our first day. Here are some of the highlights of our trip: Central Market , Sorya Mall, Wat Phnom, Royal Palace, and the Independence Monument.

Driving around Phnom Penh

Elephant outside of Wat Phnom

Independence Monument

Central Market

Sus’day Kampuchea!

That translates to “Hello, Cambodia!”

Well, while technically, I’m still in San Francisco and won’t be leaving for another several hours (which gives me some time for last minute packing and this new blog entry), I can’t contain my excitement!

I will be in Phnom Penh for the next few months to do some non-profit work with a microfinance organization called Kiva. If you want to follow my progress with this fellowship, please check me out on the Kiva Fellows blog.

This blog, however, will mainly serve as my personal journal of my travels around the world. I’ve never actually been much of a “blogger” but I figure Cambodia is just as good as any place to start my travel chronicling.

Angkor Mikroheranhvatho Kampuchea