new Things I Ate in Cambodia: Szechuan Restaurant

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Szechuan Restaurant

Szechuan Restaurant
Street 136
Right off Monivong, on the way to the Central Market.

There is a row of Chinese restaurants very near to Phnom Penh's Central Market. There are probably six or seven of them - I have not performed a full count - and they are all pretty popular with the city's Sino-Khmer population, and with Chinese business travelers. They all look about the same but you can tell the good ones by the number of patrons inside of them. The patrons will be drinking Chinese whiskey and shouting at one another regardless of the time of day, in the standard fashion of Chinese lunches, and they will probably be smoking, which I feel I should warn you about.

I seem to rotate my business between three establishments: Shan Dong, Tian Fu, and the Szechuan. I work nearby to the Central Market. And Chinese restaurants remind me of home. I am from Northern California, and it is a curious fact that inexpensive Chinese restaurants the world over look pretty much the same, down to interior decor, patrons, and menu choices. I step inside these places and instantly feel as if I am out for lunch with my father somewhere where we are the only white people and will get stared at. (I remain the only white person in these places, usually, but the getting-stared-at has lost all of its surprise for me whatsoever). I think the Shan Dong is the best of these, for somewhat sentimental reasons, but more on that later.

I will start with the Szechuan because I feel like it.

There was an elderly and fat Austrian man with white hair sitting at the round table with me. This was normal because Chinese restaurants have no qualms about seating strangers with one another. This is in the interest of commerce and not sociability, I think, but it is there all the same. I spent a moment or two trying to prevent eye contact since I was feeling antisocial but soon gave up. We began talking.

"I am on my holiday," he said, 'but I don't live here. My girlfriend - she is Vietnamese, and she lives here."

The menu was text-book size and there were two of them, some with old and over-exposed photographs of the food and some with a list. I felt pressured into ordering quickly and got rather nervous. I ordered some Chinese greens and a soup that I could not immediately identify the nature of, except that I felt a bit ill and decided I wanted soup. He chose Szechuan beef on a hot plate and some other kind of soup. We were both offered a small dish of very spicy cabbage - this was Szechuan food, after all, the spiciest of the Chinese cuisines - and some peanuts, as are offered at all the restaurants on this strip.

I supposed I had to speak with him.

He ordered a pitcher of beer, which was not all full, and he sent this back and got huffy, which was, I suppose, something an Austrian would do. The girl came back to rectify our order, confused and insolent about her confusion, but brought back the right amount of beer in the end. "I have been coming here for 15 years," the man said, vaguely, "to Cambodia. And always, it is getting worse. Perhaps the people are a little stupid, but before - they were genuine. And now they are just stupid."

I tried to imagine Cambodia 15 years ago. I thought of a New York Times article I had recently read about Phnom Penh not too long after the bad old times, with bones bleaching away in people's side-yards and a central market where no one could even get any soup, and livestock in the streets and a curious aura of deathly silence everywhere, as if half the people had left the room and decided they wouldn't come back any longer (but of course it was more horrible then that).

Probably it had been better 15 years ago, but still, it had been closer to the Thing, the Thing I often tried to think about when I walked around town holding a Diet Coke and looking for something to eat.

"Maybe they aren't stupid," I offered, "but only more comfortable."

"That may be so," he said. "All these tourists." (We who live in a country or visit it very often derive great pleasure from moaning about tourists. It is our shared and greatest pleasure).

"And how about the Chinese New Year?" I said, because it was that weekend.

"Everything is shut," he said, "and my girlfriend is with her mother. It is very dreary."

"Has she been to Austria?" I said.

"She has been," he said. The food had arrived.

"And did she like it?" I asked. The soup turned out to be a seaweed and tomato and egg concoction. It did not look very appealing, but I had ordered it and I would eat it. I found that it had a lovely, delicately briney flavor and was just the thing for someone working on a cold without much of an appetite, which I was. I fell to.

"Did she like it!" he said, as if this was a silly question. "Why, she loved it."

"But it was during the warm months," I said, my mouth full of seaweed. It was the kelpy kind without a lot of chew to it, the kind I really loved. The egg was egg, but not objectionable, and so were the tomatoes.

"Yes, we do not like the cold weather," he said. A royal "we."

The Szechuan beef he had ordered was an enormous serve in the cow-shaped metal dishes the Khmers fancy: it was very good. It was made of sliced beef with a lot of different kinds of peppers in it, including red ones, red bell peppers, and a green and not superlatively spicy one that reminded me of Spain's little pimientos de padron. There were also shitake mushrooms and onions and some other things, and the whole combination was a nice one. The Austrian man shared his food with me: he was friendly, in his way.

He was fairly deaf and could not really understand anything I told him too well, so I mostly listened. Mostly he told me about how Cambodia had degenerated and how his girlfriend was lovely. The food of Vietnam was better then it was here, and the people were kinder as well, but it was cheaper here, and this was his girlfriends home - so what could he do?

The peppers were making him sweat. The girl waitresses talked on their cellphones and remained insolent looking. (Having been to a lot of Chinese restaurants to the room, I should add I hold them to a different service standard then most. If no one slaps me in the face or blows smoke in my eyes when I am in the middle of my meal, then I am fairly content with Chinese restaurant service. But that is just me).

I began feeling sicker, almost a bit nauseous. At least the soup and the greens had helped. "I had better go to work," I said. He looked surprised. I had told him I worked here but I do not think he had heard me. "Yes, I'd better leave," I said. "Ket loy." (Change).

We split the bill without making eye contact - I did not want to pressure him - and I went out the door. I laid down on the couch at the office but felt all right again within an hour or so. I thought of his girlfriend, and being Vietnamese in Phnom Penh, and the small green peppers.

I would go back to the Szechuan Restaurant but I hoped I wouldn't have to talk to anyone next time, all the same.


Anonymous said...

The restaurant really offers lovely and healthy dishes. I would love to try it.
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