Delightful Cambodian Girl Friend 9 – At the Noodle Restaurant
For breakfast, we try the rather new noodle soup boutique on road 178 near FCC on the riverside. The stuff comes in delightful bowls and arrangements, the porcelain chopstick holder forms a female body (upon request, they can't produce a male chopstick holder).
"This is nice, but nice for westerners", says Norah, my local Khmer lover, after trying. Even I can see that the soup is a tad oily and from Boeng Keng Kang Market to Tuol Tom Pong Market to Central Market I've never seen Norah slurping a visibly oily soup. Worse even, the initial supply of chillies doesn't stretch until breakfast's end, so a second chili supply has to be ordered. The coffee in this tourist-oriented noodle soup boutique doesn't convince me either.
"You know, we just discovered another noodle soup restaurant – oh, very delicious", Norah suddenly says with a beam.
"So let's go there next morning", I suggest.
She hesitates. "That's a Khmer style place – you can?"
"Sure, why not. At least for field research. Where is it?"
"Near Wat Phnom."
Next morning, I leave our rowhouse apartment first and ask a motorcycle taxi driver for his price to Wat Phnom for two people.
"1 Dollar, sir!"
"Haha", I laugh.
"75 cents, sir."
"Haha", I laugh.
Let me say that he has a very old, inconvenient Daelim motorcycle and speaks no English at all, our talk is in Khmer. (I happily pay more for good motos and ditto English. I am still interested in him because I've seen him being polite and not gropy. The distance is about a mile.)
"50 cents", I say, "that's enough already."
"Ok, 50 cents," he laughs. They always laugh it off when they lose a haggle.
Now Norah arrives from the apartment and I point to the motorbike I've arranged. We hop aboard, and she instructs the driver. At our destination she wants to pay.
"Which price did you agree upon", she asks the driver. She knows I always talk shop first.
"50 cents he wanted to pay", laughs the driver.
"But that's not enough, dear", Norah shakes her head and gives him 60 cents.
Let me say that Norah is the most merciless haggler I've seen on the planet. On the markets she drives sales people nuts (whether we shop on my or her wallet). She lets them cut mangos open, and if the inside doesn't look like promised, she walks away, fuming. So I don't understand why now she pays more than the favourable moto price I had proudly – but politely – negotiated for us.
I say: "You saw, his moto was old and inconvenient, especially for two paying customers."
"That's not our thinking, dear. Gasoline is so expensive now, we don't consider the quality of the moto. And 50 cents for two passengers was too cheap!"
Look around: This noodle shop is not at all next to Wat Phnom, as Norah had promised. Instead, it exactly faces the massive, impressive main post office building. Wat Phnom is some hundred meters away. But they'd never describe a location as "opposite the post office", because they never use a post office anyway. The Khmers call the post office "some government building". Wat Phnom is not next door, but it is still the reference when to describe the area.
The noodle shop offers an air-conditioned room and an outdoor area on the pavement with overhead fans. A tight row of flower pots keeps the street beggars, but not the noise out.
I order "noodle soup with crab meat" from the Khmer-English menu.
"You want it with soup", asks the waitress?
"Yes, sure, 'noodle soup with crab meat'", I say and show the menu to her.
Then she and Norah ask me something like "You want soup with soup or without soup"? After some confusing back and forth I believe to understand: You can get your noodles and crab meat also without the broth.
I ask: "So I can get the noodle soup also without soup water, more like spaghetti-style?"?
"Yes, you can have it spaghetti-style too!"
"But then, it's no longer a soup", I wonder?
"Sure it's a soup, just a soup without soup!"
In good old Asian style – which all the tourist joints except for some very upmarket ones have forgotten – our food comes with free water and tea. The slick, uniformed waitresses don't touch your tea bowls, they serve them with pliers. Each table has a tiny waste paper basket, and the sign on the wall reads "Please keep the floor clean".
I am the only westerner, but it's no problem getting fork and spoon instead of chopsticks. Middleclass Khmer people come here for breakfast, those who can afford two USD instead of 1.25 USD for a possibly equally hearty soup at a hot, crowded, beggar-ridden market stall. The male customers wear the usual well-pressed trousers, long sleeved shirt, rectangular black leather shoes and fixed to the belt a brown leather case for the mobile phone. Their wives wear about the same, only slightly more colorful and sit there pressing their handbags onto their laps. People like them you rarely see on the riverside or in tourist bars.
And it's not only people watching here. Observe *monkeys* crossing the roads – by leisurely walking over the power lines dangling everywhere.
My crab meat soup (with broth) is nice, but wouldn't make me rave like Norah. So I ask her: "Now what's so special here?"
She proudly points to the spices tray: "See? The soup comes with *six* different spices, more than at the riverside noodle boutique!" At least half of those spices seem freshly prepared.
She points at the glass with marinated chilies. "They have the very best chillies in sour sauce in all of Phnom Penh! See, they are small and green, and that's how it should be. And the marinade is just perfect!"
I won't try this recommendation. But my Khmer lady smiles elatedly. And instead of watching the next monkey crossing road 13 by balancing over a dangling power line, she shovels another heap of spicy hot green small killer chillies into her soup.
Oh, they think nothing about travelling half way across town for their favourite dish.