PHNOM PENH ASIDES
By Kevin Britten
AS A FOREIGNER arriving in Phnom Penh for the first time, you often notice the rich variety in the abundance of restaurants, cafes and eateries dotting the streets.
After a while, you realise they only exist because shopping for groceries and cooking at home is such an ordeal. Without all these restaurants, we would surely all starve to death.
Squeezing along the narrow stinking alleyways of the open-air markets, with all the attendant heat, pushing and bantering while wriggling fish are hacked up is an experience you probably won't want to repeat.
Outsourcing your daily shopping is arguably one way of retaining your sanity. However, your housekeeper needs to be proficient at reading English, Chinese, Thai and Vietnamese in order to distinguish between floor cleaner and fabric conditioner, or bug-spray and furniture polish.
Learning the function of products by the shape, size and colour of their containers is also a lost cause, as the brands will doubtless be packaged differently by your housekeeper's next visit to the supermarket.
daily shopping is arguably one way of retaining your
This perhaps explains why so many foreigners have their clothes laundered with ant poison.
As for sending the housekeeper on errands to a supermarket?
Western food is a mystery to most locals. The idea of a frozen, boneless chicken breast is understandably confusing if you were raised on chicken that is 90 percent bone and 10 percent tight, dark muscle.
Packets and cans are also a conundrum if you believe that you must be able to see, smell and poke goods to check their quality prior to purchase.
The way supply and distribution works here means that often the only available foods are snack-foods.
The positive side of that is that you can still construct a four-course meal, with each course represented.
A prawn cocktail, say, followed by beef broth, then a pork and vegetable dish with tropical fruit for dessert.
There's even a chocolate-flavoured snack to accompany the coffee.
As long as you don't mind living on foodstuffs whose main ingredients are additives, colourings, preservatives, and other, mysterious forms of starch, then you are in hog heaven.
Likewise, if your shopping list often reads like a duty-free wish list, regularly featuring items like perfume, cigarettes and booze, then Phnom Penh has supermarkets that cater to you.
Even better, if you like shopping with half the lights switched off and the air-con on super-low.
Sweating through the aisles of whitening toiletries, mysterious brands of beer and the more obscure products of the Chinese pickle industry is one way of passing a Saturday afternoon.
Then there's the ordeal of the cashiers.
When the system goes down, cashiers are reduced to writing the barcodes on a piece of paper plucked from the waste bin and then grappling with a calculator the size of a mobile-phone to add it all up.
When the system is up and running, they must find the barcode, zap it, read what comes up on the screen in two languages, and examine the packet to see if it matches before going to ask for more change for your $20 bill at another register.
Thankfully, this all plays out in front of a small crowd of staff who are merely curious about what the foreigner has found in the store that might be worth spending such huge amounts of money on.
My hardiest friends take the whole thing extremely seriously, driving a route of five different stores to complete their shopping list.
They learn what each supermarket specialises in, exchange information of what is in and out of stock, and call each other to exchange gossip on who has just unloaded a truckload of Korean baby bath or who has just taken delivery of a tonne of assorted Spanish cheeses. They plan the whole shebang with military precision.
Those of us without the time, resources or stamina for all this, however, are bound to spend more time reading menus than recipes.
In the time this saves, I often find myself wondering how everyone else is spending their Saturday afternoons.