Saturday, March 30, 2013


Normally, I do my shopping for the ingredients on Saturday and then I do my cooking on Sunday afternoons. Well, this weekend my normal cooking day got usurped by Easter. And I felt it would probably cause a rift in the family or at least risk me being called obsessed or even OCD if I kept to my schedule. So, I had to get up and buy the ingredients earlier today and cook when I got home. I made sure I chose recipes that didn’t have a million steps to them. I wanted something simple, wholesome, and something that sounds good. To me, at least.

They call it prickly pear for a reason. Probably because it comes off of a cactus. 
The main meal is a dish called zom. I laughed at the name, because it reminded me of gom. As in the gom sandwiches I used to eat as a child. (Most other people call it Sloppy Joes, but in areas of southern Indiana, and especially in and around Columbus, IN, where there was quite a large German population, the name gom was more prevalent. I wrote a linguistics paper about it when I was in college.) Anyway, zom with a Z is a stew made of slow-cooked beef and greens (I used collard greens, but I’m sure any greens would do. I almost went with dandelion greens or Swiss chard. The recipe called for spinach because for some reason they thought it would appeal to an American palate. Whoever wrote that must have never been to the South.) I also added onions, one can of diced tomatoes, a little bit of tomato paste, some pepper, and two tablespoons of peanut butter. (To me, peanut butter is the key ingredient in West African cooking.) It’s all simmered for another half an hour. I served it on a bed of couscous, but you could also use rice.

Zom, which actually means "I'm so full I can't move." Ok, I just made that up. 
My bread recipe was a little different this time. Normally, I make something that uses some kind of flour as a base, but this time I chose to make these corn muffins since I thought it would go better with the zom. I was a little skeptical of the recipe: it called for corn, baking powder and salt. And I thought, “Well, you know, there are a lot of bread recipes using corn flour, and this is essentially the starting block for that, right?” Since fresh corn isn’t in season, I just bought a can of organic sweet corn. I used my mortar and pestle to smash it up a bit before mixing in the baking powder and the salt. Then I put this mixture in a muffin pan and baked it for 20-25 minutes. First of all, it didn’t really hold together much. Maybe I needed to save some of the juice, or add a bit of milk to the mixture. Second of all, I could’ve skipped on the salt, or at least not added as much as the recipe called for. The consensus was that it was just too salty. It helped by mixing it in with the zom stew. It almost makes me wish I went ahead and made the beignets. 

Super salty corn "muffins" that I wished were actually beignets. 
Finally, I was looking for a side dish, something with fruit in it. I found a recipe for a guava fruit salad. Well, I didn’t find guava where I normally shop, although I’ve seen it there in the past. But I did find prickly pears. I’ve never had prickly pears, and didn’t really know much about them. I did find out that they are mostly grown in Mexico, Central-South America, as well as other countries along the Mediterranean and elsewhere. So, no, it’s probably not something Cameroonians eat a lot of, but oh well. I did also buy a couple of mangos and mix the two fruits together. I drizzled a honey-water mixture over the fruits along with some lime juice. Then I mixed in the coconut flakes. I thought it was really good, except that the prickly pear is full of seeds that are edible, but its texture says otherwise. Overall, I liked it. But there is a reason why they call it prickly pear: either wear gloves or hold the outside with a towel -- there are tiny little barbs that embed themselves in your skin and feel like a splinter. As I found out the hard way. 

If you can get past the texture, the flavors are amazing.
Today, I took the kids shopping with me, and I although it usually takes much longer to get everything done than it would if I were by myself, I’ve found it’s a little easier to do if I’m engaging them in what I’m doing, rather than just dragging them behind me. They get bored, and that’s when they start acting up. We talked about the fruit and where it comes from, and in-season vs. out-of-season. And why you shouldn’t buy a package of meat if it’s leaking blood. And why this tiny box of really good cereal costs $5 and this gigantic box of crap cereal costs $2. And how there are labels on packages that tell what the ingredients are, and if most of the ingredients are scientific names, then you probably shouldn’t be eating it. And about the basic layout of a grocery store, how the dairy section is always in the back in order to make you walk through the store looking at other things to buy. Going grocery shopping with the kids can be a great learning experience for them if you make it that way. Although I sometimes regret it, I fully encourage them to ask questions and to question everything. My daughter (age 7) asks questions like “Are there seeds which you cannot eat? Do all fruits and vegetables have seeds?” and my son (age 4) asks questions like “What would happen if you threw a pickle in a lake? What would happen if you threw cheese in a volcano?”  I did say question everything, didn’t I? 

The summary of my Easter Saturday. So good, today should've been called Good Saturday. 

Up next: Canada


There are many ethnic groups in Cameroon, and subsequently many different styles of music that comes out of this area. One of the most well-known styles is makossa. (I first heard this term from the Brazilian singers Charlie Brown Jr and Marcelo D2 who did a song together called “Samba Makossa” – great song, by the way.) It’s more of an urban style that takes its influences from several other pan-Africa genres, such as soukous from Congo, jazz, Latin, ambasse bey (faster paced folk music from Cameroon), and the highlife style from Ghana. Probably the best known makossa performer is Manu Dibanga with his song “Soul Makossa” which rose to international fame back in 1972.

Different areas of Cameroon led to the development of different styles.  Pirogue sailors (those who use a type of traditional fishing boat) around the Douala area are famous for a type of singing called ngoso, which is now often accompanied by various percussion instruments. The Beti peoples around Youndé and points south are known for a style called bikutsi.  Bikutsi utilizes a quick 6/8 time signature and is a sister style to that of the makossa. It’s normally performed at get-togethers such as weddings and funerals. In the 1970s, a few singers added brass instruments to the mix, and it made its way to European audiences for the first time.  The 1980s brought more changes in instrumentation to bikutsi music, and the popularity of television shows and movies helped promote musicians and their music.

Today, there are a lot of grey areas between Congolese soukous, makossa, and bikutsi as the genres add different instruments and blend the styles. Some of the more popular musicians are Petit Pays, Henri Dikongué, and Pasto. The video below is a Henri Dikongué song called "C'est la Vie," and I really like it. 

Percussion instruments still reign as the basis for instrumental music. It stands not only as accompaniment but can also act as the melody as well. The balafon, a curved wooden percussion instrument similar to a marimba is used throughout West Africa. Another instrument you’ll find among Cameroonian traditional music is the mvet. It’s a type of double-sided harp which uses an amplifier made from a calabash (a type of gourd). The mvet is used in certain ceremonies by Beti storytellers and is considered such an important part of these ceremonies (and culture) that it’s thought the mvet was given by God as a means of educating the people. This idea of linking music to spirituality and a “higher level of consciousness” is one that touches almost all religions and spiritual paths throughout the world. (And still, some want to take away music education…)

I actually found several Cameroonian artists on Spotify.  I listened to the album “Traveler” by Vincent Nguini. It’s a great album if you like acoustic guitar with jazz and Latin jazz influences woven into traditional African style, instrumentation, and rhythms. Another album I listened to most of is “C’est la Vie” by Henri Dikongué. Again, it’s much of the same style as Vincent Nguini. I sampled a couple makossa albums from Petit Pays, Jean Pierre Essome, and Moni Bile, all of whom reminded me of various Caribbean music styles but with a definite African rhythm to it. (I almost felt like I needed some good rum. Or something.) I did find some songs by Uta Bella, whose music I really liked. Her music has more of a modern feel to her music, with some traditional and unexpected harmonies. Another female singer I came across is Anne Marie Nzié. Both remind me a little of the music of Angelique Kidjo from Benin. This video is of Paul Simon, whom Vincent Nguini has performed with for many years. 

Dance often takes the same name as the different music genres it accompanies. Cameroon has many different ethnic groups and over 200 different kinds of dances. These dances, for the most part, are often divided into categories based on a variety of demographic factors: age, occupation, social status, sex, among others. Many of these dancers perform for tourists and other social events and ceremonies these days still. When the early European Christians started moving into the area to colonize it, they were so offended by their dances, they not only discouraged it, but in some cases, outlawed it. As a result, several dances died out. After independence, the government did its best at trying to preserve their cultural dances.  Modern popular dance – dances that take place in bars and clubs and similar places – throw out the demographics.  It’s for everyone, mixed company and all. These styles of dances – like makossa, bikutsi, highlife, hip-hop – have also been used as a means of protest and socio-political statements. 

Up next: the food!

Thursday, March 28, 2013


Cameroonian art is identified by its tremendous expressionism in almost all aspects of their arts. The most popular of the traditional arts regions tend to come out of the Cameroonian Grasslands. Creating indigo-dyed clothes were an art form designated to the elite. These cloths were covered in various designs that carried certain meanings. They utilized local symbolism on masks and other everyday items as well. 

One art form that is prevalent in Cameroon is the tapestry crochet. This is a way of taking yarn or felt and weaving them into bags, hats, sweaters, blankets, etc. It’s actually becoming a popular art in the US; I know several people who crochet and knit (not me, I have too many hobbies as it is.)

Other art forms found in Cameroon would be woodworking, clay sculptures, and stone work. Most of these kinds of arts can be found as home wares (tables, chairs, etc), commercially sold art, and for religious purposes.

Of course, painting has also been important to the art scene, and many of the techniques were introduced and taught by the French. I came across the paintings of Angu Walters, an artist from the city of Bamenda.  I really like his artwork; it’s very striking with its bright colors and geometric shapes and quasi-symmetry. In fact, at first glance, even amateur art appreciation students like myself sees his work as an African Picasso.  My favorite by far is one called “The Drummer and the Flutist.”

I had mentioned in an earlier post that a Bamum sultan had created and developed their own alphabet toward the end of the 1800s that they used to write down local customs and laws. Soon afterwards, the Germans came into the country, and although German may not be spoken much today in Cameroon, they did leave their lasting impression on its literature. Many of the first books were written in German as well as local languages, although Jean-Louis Njemba Medou is often credited with writing the first novel in 1932.  The works that were written before this were based in politics and law.

After the country was divided between the French and the British, the national languages obvious changed with this as well.  The first works written in French started to come out in the 1920s and 1930s, most notably with a set of short stories written by Isaac Moumé Etia. And some writers like Louis Pouka Mbague had a very amorous relationship with its colonizing country, France.

There was a second generation that emerged, whose main focus centered mostly around the lack of socio-economic progress (especially right after independence) and condemning the war-ridden changes in power-hungry regimes that plague much of Africa. Among the leaders of this movement were Mongo Beti and Ferdinand Oyono and others. Many women made their name in Cameroonian literature as playwrights, novelists, and poets. Among the more familiar names are Thérèse Kuoh Moukouri, Rabiatou Njoya, Brigitte Tsobgny, Léonora Miano, and Calixthe Beyala.

Up next: music and dance

Monday, March 25, 2013


Cameroon is one of the countries that celebrate both Christian and Muslim holidays throughout the year.

New Year’s Day.  January 1. This marks the beginning of a new year, and for most people, this is spent with friends and family, eating large meals and celebrating with music and dance. Cities will decorate and get ready for city-wide celebrations, everyone making vows to make the coming year a better one than the previous one.

Independence Day.  January 1. Cameroon declared independence from France in 1960. (A year later, the British Southern Cameroons joined the rest of the country.)  It is usually a time for large celebrations, which include music and dance from different areas of the country.  Parades march through the streets and politicians, including President Paul Biya will make appearances and give a speech or two. Of course, it’s also on the same day as New Year’s Day, so there is certainly a lot to celebrate around this time of year.

Prophet’s Birthday.  Varies. Also called Mawlid, this celebrates the birth of the Prophet Muhammad. Because of the number of Muslim followers in Cameroon, the government declared Mawlid as a public holiday. It’s a day of large celebrations, parades, and huge feasts with special foods and drinks prepared. Family and friends gather for these festivities, and may also visit their mosque for special prayers as well.

Youth Day.  February 11. This holiday celebrates the youth of Cameroon and helps to promote activities that teach the skills necessary in adulthood. Different youth organizations in all fields – sports, technology, business, academia, the arts – come out and participate in parades and community festivals. A push towards social justice and non-violence is a common theme.

Good Friday.  Varies. This is the Christian holiday marking the day when they believe that Jesus Christ was hung upon a cross in a crucifixion where he died there. Many churches hold Good Friday services. Another tradition that is popular in Cameroon (as well as other countries) is to make hot cross buns on this day.

Easter.  Varies.  In Cameroon, Easter is a time where many children receive baptisms and many take their first communion.  It’s also a time where the commercialism of it thrives as well: people buying eggs, chocolates, new clothes, and foods for upcoming feasts with family and friends. For the many Christians in Cameroon, the days starts off with special services at church to celebrate their belief that this is the day when Jesus Christ rose from the dead, after having died from crucifixion just two days prior.

Labour Day.  May 1. This holiday created to celebrate works and strides in labor history is celebrated with a very large parade that marches through the streets of Youndé.

Ascension. Varies.  This Christian holiday follows the story that 40 days after Jesus Christ rose from the dead on Easter, he ascended into heaven. In Cameroon, many Christians (and especially Catholics) attend special church services held on this day, some starting as early as 6am!

National Day.  May 20. There are several dates of importance when it comes to Cameroon’s independence.  However, May 20 used here for National Day is when Cameroon’s first president Ahmadou Ahidjo, abolished the former government and created a new one for the unified country in 1972.   There is a large parade with music and dance marching down decorated streets and even the current president, Paul Biya, usually makes an appearance.

Eid al-Fitr.  Varies. This holiday celebrates the end of Ramadan, the month-long fast. People celebrate by having a great feast shared with family and friends, and everyone buys new clothes, and children receive gifts. It’s also a day filled with games, music, plays, and other amusements, and kids are allowed up stay up late to participate in the festivities.

Assumption.  August 15. Cameroon’s Catholics celebrate the day of Assumption, the day in which it is believed that Mary, the mother of Jesus, ascended into heaven. While technically it is listed as a public holiday, most government offices and schools remain open for the day.

Unification Day.  October 1. This is the day in which the British Southern Cameroons gained independence from Britain and subsequently joined Cameroon (which gained its independence a year earlier). A large parade kicks off the celebration, and then the rest of the time is spent surrounding various sports activities. There is a 40-km marathon (a little less than 25 miles) held every year, as well as canoe racing and wrestling – both of which are important to the Bakweri culture. And of course, you can’t forget soccer.

Eid al-Adha.  Varies. Celebrated at the end of the hajj, this three-day celebrated is shared by Muslims around the world. It’s also known as the Feast of the Sacrifice, with its basis from the story of Abraham willing to sacrifice his only son simply because God asked him to. Nowadays, no one asks you to sacrifice your children (or at least, no one SHOULD ask you that), but instead they substitute a cow or sheep and divide the meat between themselves, their family, and the needy.

Christmas Day.  December 25. Christmas is celebrated in a big fashion, and (probably) almost always includes really church sermons that include a lot of singing. Afterwards, people travel from home to home of friends and family, eating and drinking their way around. People wear their best clothes, decorate their homes, and exchange small gifts as well.  It is such a huge holiday that even non-Christians get caught up in the festivities as well.

Up next: art and literature

Sunday, March 24, 2013


The only thing I really knew about Cameroon before doing this was that its name came from the Portuguese’s term for the area, Rio dos Camarões, or River of Shrimp.  Although, it has always made me wonder. The word camarões, meaning shrimp (plural), is pronounced roughly /ka-ma-roe-esh/, yet the word for shrimp (singular), camarão, is pronounced /ka-ma-rown/. The singular word is by far closer to the name of the country than the word in plural. Well, anyway, I’ve pondered this for the past seven or eight years. (Yes, sadly, it’s true. These are the sorts of things I think about on my 45-minute commute to and from work.)

Camaroon is located on the Atlantic side of the African continent right in the bend (where I always think where South America broke off of). It’s surrounded by the countries of Nigeria, Chad, Central African Republic, Congo, Gabon, and Equatorial Guinea and lies on the Bight of Bonny and Bay of Guinea. The capital city is Yaoundé, which lies inland a bit and has about 1.4 million people. However, the largest city is the coastal city of Douala with about 2 million people.

The original peoples were Baka (Pygmies), and then the Bantu migration spread into this area as well.  The Bamum people actually developed their own writing system, a feat not often found with many peoples. There are a myriad of indigenous languages in Africa, and many of these are spoken-only languages, so what the Bamum people did was unique in my opinion. I certainly don’t know if they were the first, but I certainly doubt they’re the only ones. The Bamum script from an amateur point of view appears to be a mix of Greek, Arabic, and Runes.

In the 1880s, the German Empire took control of the area and created the colony called Kamerun, but after WWI, it was divided between the British (called British Cameroons) and the French (called French Cameroun). The British kept control of their colony from neighboring Nigeria, and when conflicts started to arise because of this, they were faced with the decision of whether to join French Cameroun or unite them with Nigeria. In 1960, French Cameroun broke away from France and declared its independence. A year later, British colony of Southern Cameroons joined them.

Cameroon has been described as “Africa in miniature” for representing all of Africa’s climates and landscapes in one country. It has a coastal region with rainforests, savannas and deserts, all the way up to mountainous regions. Some of the coastal forests are considered some of the wettest places on earth. The southern areas lie on a set of plateaus and include some of the country’s most fertile soil. Cameroon does have its own active volcano, Mount Cameroon (the highest mountain in West Africa), which has left the area surrounding it scarred with crater lakes. Lake Nyos is one of these lakes which spewed a deadly amount of carbon dioxide enough to kill 1700-2000 people during the summer of 1986. There are two other lakes like this: Lake Monoun about 60 miles away from this one and Lake Kiva in Democratic Republic of the Congo. It’s caused when the gasses from the magma and lava floes rise up and violently mix with the groundwater of the lake. Scientists have been working on ways to control the release of these gasses so that it doesn't cause another disaster like this one, although other violent releases have taken place, just not to the scale of the 1986 incident.

Because Cameroon was controlled by both the British and the French, there are a large number of followers of Christianity; however, like many other African countries, these same followers also still practice their indigenous animist beliefs as well. There is also a smaller but sizable number of Muslims as well.

The official languages of Cameroon are French and English with French being the dominant language. German is no longer used, and there are many local languages and dialects that are also spoken as well, creating the need for a Cameroonian Pidgin English as a lingua franca amongst the peoples (as well as Camfranglais, another pidgin language combining French and English and Pidgin that was popular in the 1970s).

Cameroon, like many other African countries in this region struggles with health and educational aid.  The lack of basic sanitation and clean water in all areas is one factor that leads to a high contract rate of major infectious diseases such as bacterial and protozoal diarrhea, hepatitis A and E, typhoid fever, malaria, yellow fever, meningitis, and rabies. AIDS is also a problem in Cameroon as well, disproportionately skewing the numbers when it comes to death statistics. Over 16% of kids under five years old are reported as underweight, and there are many women who still die during childbirth.  And there aren’t enough doctors or hospital beds to go around; the village medicine man is still more popular in the rural areas. Only a little over 2/3 of the total population are literate, far more males than females which is a problem given that the overall unemployment rate in the country sits near 30% and almost half of the country (48%) live below the poverty line.

But besides all of that, they are also famous for producing some of my favorite things: coffee, cocoa, cotton, bananas, and oilseeds. Cameroon’s soccer teams are some of the best and many good players have come from Cameroon. The Waza National Park is one of the largest tourist destinations in Cameroon, home to many endangered and protected species such as giraffes, elephants, antelopes and others. Despite some of the dire troubles that plague this area of Africa, they rely on their arts, music and dance to bridge the gap and make life not only bearable but meaningful. And I can already tell from the recipes I found that this will once again leave me speechless (which is bad for a blogger, so I better find some words now…).

Up next: holidays and celebrations

Sunday, March 17, 2013


It’s St. Patrick’s Day today, and as usual in Indiana we barely stepped across the above-freezing line. Last year, however, it was 79 degrees.  I miss last year.  Especially since my sinuses can’t keep up with the yo-yo temperatures of spring in the Midwest. So, this meal was the perfect comfort food for such a bleh day.
This is my St. Patrick's Day knife. So that way I won't get pinched while I'm cooking. Now, accidentally slicing my thumb is a completely different story. 
 I basically cooked two entrees. The first entrée is called loc lac.  It starts out with marinating beef (I used stew beef) in oil, black pepper, minced garlic, sugar and salt. I let it marinate for about 45 minutes. Then it’s cooked down in a skillet (or wok) with oil, sugar, garlic, and pepper and soy sauce. It actually called for mushroom soy sauce, but I couldn’t find it. I sautéed it until the meat was well-done. The recipe called for it to still be medium rare to medium, but I’m sorry, I have to have my meat cooked through. It’s served on a bed of lettuce leaves (I cheated – I used a bag salad mix). There’s a lime dipping sauce that goes with it: a peppery concoction of salt, sugar, lime juice, water, black pepper and minced garlic. This was so good; it was good without the dipping sauce, and better with it.

The beef was good by itself. I was tempted to add it to the soup as well. You know, combining all my favorites in one bowl. 
 The second part of the meal was kuyteav, a noodle soup that I thought reminded me of Vietnamese pho soup. I amended this recipe here and there and left some things out, like the chilies; for instance, I didn’t make my own broth. I used a store-bought chicken broth, and put in some sugar and salt, and although the recipe didn’t call for it, I boiled some lemongrass in with the broth. Lemongrass is really good for cough, colds, and sore throats (which I need!) as well as many other health benefits.  It’s native to Southeast Asia and is used in a lot of their cooking. It wasn’t overpowering and added a nice mild flavor to the broth.  The soup itself is made by putting noodles in the bowl (I found these ready-made Thai noodles which worked quite nicely), then I added about a tablespoon of kraut (my substitution for “preserved cabbage”), some bean sprouts, some pork (it called for both ground pork and pork loin; I just used boiled pork loin cut into thin strips), and sautéed shrimp and garlic. I then topped it with sprigs of fresh cilantro and chopped scallions. It was so good – it was like the perfect comfort food.

I'm hoping the doctor will order more of this for me. 
 I found a recipe for a type of fried breadstick called chaquay.  I think I read that this recipe actually was from the Chinese. For the first time, I had a bread that really didn’t turn out well. It called for wheat flour and included some baking soda, salt, a little yeast, some water and sugar and mix it up to form a dough. It was really sticky and elastic-y, and even after letting it sit for 30 minutes, I still had to add a ton of flour to it to make it anywhere close to being able to work with it. I tried rolling it out, but it still wouldn’t stop being so sticky. In my effort to have some sort of bread with my meal, I decided to just cut out strips and fry them anyway. Because it was so sticky, they were as far from a uniformed looking breadstick as it could get. My chaquay turned out looking more like severely arthritic fingers. But they tasted good dipped in the soup, which is what they were recommended to go with.

Arthritic fingers. Oh, wait, no sorry, that's my bread. 
 I actually made a dessert this time. But only because the recipe seemed simple. I took a can of coconut milk and add some sugar and let it boil until it starts to become thicker. Then I added four bananas that were broken up into bite-size pieces into the coconut milk. I let it cook down for about another five minutes or so until the coconut milk was creamy. (Of course, I added a little bit more sugar as well.) It’s best eaten when completely chilled, as we found out.

Exactly what I needed for the end of the day. 
 I think this meal was about healing and getting better. And I started thinking again about the healing power that food has. Not only on a medicinal level, using food for its restoring and regenerative properties instead of medicine. This idea is utilized as part of the basic principles behind Ayurvedic medicine. But it also means the idea of comfort food, something my husband and I have had many discussions about. Everyone has a certain list of foods they want to have when they want to feel better when they’re sick or feel better when they’re feeling down. Soups are always at the top of my list as comfort foods. And anything with rich, thick sauces. And cheese. And chocolate.  Just not necessarily altogether.  So, this meal, in essence, was perfect for today. My husband gave the meal two thumbs up, and told me we HAD to do this one again. If the weather continues as it does, I’m sure I will.

The final product... It's a winner! 

Up next: Cameroon

Saturday, March 16, 2013


Like the beginnings of traditional literature in Cambodia, music also took inspiration from India as well, heavily relying on various Hindu forms. Their music is highly integrated with dancing, most of the time, it’s difficult to make a distinction between the musical form and the dance that accompanies it.

The main instruments that are used in traditional music are the ching (a type of cymbal), gong, roneat (a xylophone made from bamboo), pai au (flute), sralai (oboe, because everyone needs someone to blame – sorry, that was the horn player in me speaking), tro (fiddle), and the chapey (a bass banjo – I had no idea there was such a thing). There are also several types of drums utilized as well.

Pop music comes in two forms: a moderately slow circle dance called romvong and danced by both men and women. The other form is called romkbach, which has been described as being closer to Thai music, music with a slower, more emotional melody line. Kantrum is a type of quick dance music played by the Khmer who live on the border with Thailand. Linguistically, it stands apart because it’s sung in both Khmer and Thai and switches between the two, even in the middle of a song. 

Dance in Cambodia mainly falls under three different types: classical dance, folk dance, and social dance. Classical dance pretty much stemmed from the court dances where the dancers are dressed in intricate costumes. They’re performed many times for holidays and for tourists. Folk dancing is centered more about the people, where the dancers are dressed like farmers and peasants. Many of the themes of these dances are centered around love and folktales using animals and different scenes. Social dances are obviously danced in social situations, namely banquet parties. These different dances are accompanied by different kinds of orchestras consisting of various instrumentations.

Some of the most popular singers who came out of the traditional music genres are Sinn Sisamouth (probably THE most famous one), along with Ros Sereysothea and Pan Ron both of whom performed with Sisamouth. I found some of their music on Spotify, and it’s kind of a cross between the old crooners from the 1950s (a la Frank Sinatra) and 1960s psychedelic and garage band sound.  I actually really liked it. Now as far as music of today goes, I discovered one of my new favorite bands: Dengue Fever.  They’re actually from Los Angeles, California but combine Khmer music with psychedelic rock sounds. I absolutely love it! I had first picked up the album Escape from Dragon House and was completely enthralled with it. So much so that I went back to the library and picked up the album Cannibal Courtship. I also discovered a group called the Cambodian Space Project. It’s kind of the same genre of music; I wish my library had a copy though. It’s pretty cool stuff. I did find the album Not Easy Rock and Roll (which I’ve been listening to on Spotify) on iTunes for $9.99.

Up next: the food!

Thursday, March 14, 2013


Art in Cambodia goes back centuries to the Angkor days. Several styles of traditional art were once the very heart of day-to-day living and functionality, whether you made it, used it, wore it, or merely admired it. The Khmer Rouge took away all of the arts practices – artists, musicians, and writers were killed for their craft.  However, after they left power, the arts slowly started to make a comeback. Different schools for learning the traditional arts were established, as well as learning contemporary art.

Textiles are an important part of Cambodian life. Silk weaving has been practiced for centuries, given Cambodia’s proximity to the famous Silk Road. When it comes to weaving, there are two main techniques. The first is called ikat (no, not another Apple product), which is basically dying the weft yarn (the horizontal strands in fabric) in order to make designs. The designs vary from region to region. It’s somewhat of a long, complex process.  The other is called uneven twill, a process of taking two or three colors of yarn and weaving them in such a way that one color will be dominant on one side of the fabric and the other one (or two) will show on the other side.  The dye they used came from natural elements.

Besides silk, cotton is also highly popular. Some of the more popular woven items are a sampot (wrap skirts, similar to a sarong), pidan (tapestries with pictures woven into them), and krama (traditional headscarves worn by both men and women). Basket weaving, wicker and rattan arts are also prevalent.

Stone carving goes back to the Angkor days and was used to decorate the temple walls and surrounding areas. Some can be quite elaborate and intricate in design. It’s become somewhat of a lost art, but efforts are being made to try to bring it back. Likewise, lacquerware and silversmith work are two other arts that are starting to make a comeback into the arts world as well.

Kite-making and the kite-flying tradition is one that spans across Asia on a whole. In Cambodia, they sometimes attach small pipes onto the kite so that when the wind blows, it makes a whistling sound. They call these singing kites. The tradition goes back centuries, but in the past 20 years or so, kite-flying competitions take place with several competitors and many spectators alike, ranging from the young to the young-at-heart.

Of course, drawing, painting, and sculpting of a more modern, European style are also highly regarded as well. Especially in the years after the Khmer Rouge, art production and art education took off, and several art museums were rebuilt in Phnom Penh and other major cities. Some of the artists that have made a name for themselves are Chhim Sothy, Chath Piersath, Chhan Dina.

The first texts in Khmer were mainly religious texts (such as translations/ transliterations of the Tripitaka), written by Buddhist monks as well as court documents and stone-carved scripts at temples. There was also a strong tradition of folklore and storytelling in Cambodia.  Most of these stories were passed down verbally from generation to generation.  Many of the topics were deeply laden in Buddhist themes and proverbs.  The ancient Hindu epic poems were also a source for inspiration as well.  “Reamker” is a Cambodian version of one of these poems that has been adapted to both theatre and dance.

One of the first famous writers – perhaps because he was the king as well – was King Ang Duong.  Two of his well-renowned works, both inspired from the Jataka tales (stories told about the previous births of the Buddha), are “Kakey” and “Puthisen Neang Kong Rei.”

After the French took over Cambodia, written language took on another level.  The French were controlling, but they did help establish and produce printed Khmer literature by creating the movable blocks for the Khmer script to be used on a printing press, the first Khmer language book being published in 1908. They also transformed their educational system as well, giving more students a chance to learn to read and write. 

Writers and Cambodian literature on a whole also suffered the same fate from the Khmer Rouge days. One of the more well-known Cambodian authors today is Somaly Mam. Her beginnings were bleak, being essentially orphaned, not even sure which year she was born. She was taken in by a man she had to call “grandfather” (a sign of respect) who abused her and enslaved her before selling her to a brothel at the age of 14. She was then forced to marry a soldier in the Khmer Rouge, a man she had never met, who beat her and raped her repeatedly. She had to prostitute herself, sometimes five or six times a day just to make ends meet, and if she refused, she faced a barrage of torturous beatings. In fact, her best friend at that time was brutally murdered in front of her. She managed to escape, and a French aid worker helped her relocate to France where she later married a French national. Although she went through all of this, it did not deter her from helping other women caught in the sex trafficking trade throughout Cambodia and Southeast Asia. Her memoirs are written in The Road of Lost Innocence. She also founded The Somaly Mam Foundation in 2007 as a non-profit based in the US who helps organize anti-trafficking groups and assists in helping women and girls escape from sexual slavery. Please visit their website; there is a lot of information on the sex slave trade, what the foundation is doing, and how you can help:

Up next: music and dance

Tuesday, March 12, 2013


New Year’s Day.  January 1.  The traditional New Year’s Day on January 1 is relatively passed over. Businesses and schools are closed on this day, but that’s pretty much it. The big celebration happens at the Khmer New Year in April.

Victory Day.  January 7. This day celebrates the end of the Khmer Rouge regime in 1979 (the year I was born). On this day, Vietnamese troops entered Cambodia and started a bloody clash that ended the reign.  Most estimates report around two million Cambodians were killed in the genocide. Even after all these years, it’s still an emotional holiday and viewed with mixed feelings since it led to a dependency upon Vietnam afterwards.  Speeches from government officials and memorial services are often held on this day, as well as other displays of Cambodian cultural arts.

Meak Bochea.  Varies.  It’s a movable Buddhist holiday, mostly taking place during February. The holiday was established for the spontaneous gathering of monks to listen to the Buddha’s preaching. However, on this particular day, the Buddha accurately predicted his own death three months later.  The main ceremony is held in the Kandal province. Three hundred Buddhist monks are invited to the ceremony and offered money, food and drink. Other Buddhist countries celebrate this holiday annually as well.

International Women’s Day.  March 8. We just celebrated this holiday a few days ago (which I celebrated by doing things that I “wanted”: going to work, picking up Chinese take-out, and buying a cherry pie. And some Stella Artois.). It’s a holiday celebrating women, out struggles, and how far we’ve come in the world towards equality. One extraordinary Cambodian woman I discovered is Somaly Mam, who continues to fight for getting girls out of the sex trade. I’ll write more on her when I get to literature.

Khmer New Year.  April 14-16.  This is the largest and most important holiday in Cambodia.  It’s set around the time of year to celebrate the end of the harvest.  Many people head to the temples to receive blessings from the monks. While on the temple grounds, people will build five sand hills representing nirvana and decorate them with religious flags. The holiday lasts three days. On the first day, people clean and lighten their homes, decorating them with candles, flowers, statues of Buddha, as well as making a lot of food (much of which will be donated to the monks at the local temple). On the second day, people will often give to charity and help the poor. The third day is about washing: people will douse their own statues of Buddha with scented water, the children will wash their elder’s feet in return for blessings, and monks will perform a ceremony washing of the Buddha statues at the temple. Games are also popular at this time and each day a type of game is played.

Visaka Bochea.  Varies.  This day is in honor of the passing away of the Buddha 2557 years ago, as predicted on Meak Bochea. On this day, people often listen to talks about the Buddha’s teachings, and especially regarding The Noble Eightfold Path, the eight ways for getting rid of suffering.

Labor Day.  May 1. This day is for discussing labor issues and celebrating the worker. Usually there are a lot of speeches and parades. It’s also a common time to discuss labor disputes, minimum wage, and the state of jobs in the country. 

Royal Ploughing Ceremony.  Varies. This holiday marks the beginning of the rice cultivation season. Its roots stem from Hinduism, and the ceremonies are headed by the royal family.  These ceremonies are also a way to predict how well the crops will turn out that year, sort of like Groundhog Day in the US predicts how close to spring we are. 

King Sihamoni’s Birthday.  May 13-15. This day is in honor of HM Norodom Sihamoni’s birthday. His birthday is actually on May 14, but the holiday starts the day before and the day after.  Before he was king, he was a ballet instructor and cultural ambassador in Europe.  People decorate their homes with colorful lights, portraits of the king and national flags.

Queen Mother’s Birthday.  June 18. This day is in honor of the mother of the current King Sihamoni and the wife of Norodom Sihanouk, Norodom Monineath. Born in Saigon, Vietnam, she married into the royal family of Cambodia and became the president of the Cambodian Red Cross. In honor of her birthday, the a large portrait of her is placed in front of the palace, and certain radio and television programs will often have a short program about her life and accomplishments. 

Constitution Day.  September 24. This marks the day in 1993 when Cambodia became a constitutional monarchy. It also marks the day when King Sihanouk retook over the throne since after he was ousted in a coup by the Khmer Rouge.

Pchum Ben Festival.  Varies.  Usually in October, this 15-day festival is fairly unique to Cambodia. Also known as Ancestor’s Day, people pay their respects to their deceased family members up to seven generations (sorry eighth on back). At this time, people visit the temples and give gifts of food to the monks. There’s also a tradition to throw rice into the fields in order to feed the spirits. No word on whether they actually eat it or not. Unless they were reincarnated as birds, perhaps.

King Father’s Birthday.  October 31. This is in honor of the King Father’s birthday, Norodom Sihanouk. He was the king from 1941 to 1955 and again from 1993 until he abdicated the throne to his son in 2004. Last year, he celebrated his 90th birthday (along with my grandmother). A large portrait of the king is placed in front of the palace and many people will gather and have their pictures taken in front of it. His birthday is only three days after mine.

Independence Day.  November 9. This year will mark the 60th year since declaring independence from France. The king greets various government officials and gives a speech to the people; there are parades and celebrations held throughout Phnom Penh and across the country. People line the streets with portraits of their king. Cities decorate itself with the national flags and the national colors.

Water Festival/Boat Racing Festival.  Varies. The largest of the boat races are held in Phnom Penh, but other races are held in other cities, such as Siem Reap. Traditionally, this was the method the king used to determine who were the strongest warriors by choosing from the highest-placed finishers. The festival itself lasts three days, making it one of the more popular festivals in Cambodia.

Human Right’s Day.  December 10. This is a holiday in commemoration of the UN’s adoption of the declaration of universal human rights in 1948. Celebrations are held all over the world, and a very large celebration took place in 2008 in Phnom Penh and around Cambodia with a massive parade of 5000 people, and 1000 people let off balloons. I bet that was something to see.

Up next: art and literature