You can serve it as breakfast, garnished with fresh herbs or a handful of shredded spring rolls, but Phil Lees prefers his banh xeo with a healthy dash of geopolitics.
For Phnom Penh’s resident food blogger, the dish is indicative of the way that Cambodians tend to treat foreign cuisine: “Seamlessly working it in, without thinking of its origins,” said Lees, 29, between bites of the bright yellow, pork-filled crepe, whose Vietnamese origins are not always celebrated in Cambodian kitchens. “Once something is here, it is their own.”
Lees, an Australian native, offers up his blend of food journalism, wry commentary and socio-cultural analysis on phnomenon.com, a blog devoted to Cambodia’s food and drinks that has attracted as many as a thousand individual visitors per day.
Lees began blogging about his gastronomical adventures in December 2005, shortly after he arrived in Cambodia.
“Writing online seemed like a valid way for me to rant about people’s false belief that Khmer cuisine ‘is like Thai, but boring’ without bothering my friends in person,” said Lees, whose long-standing passion for Southeast Asian cuisine began in his hometown of Melbourne.
With entries spanning pig’s blood tofu, roasted coffee in the Russian market and Phnom Penh’s standing as “the next Prague,” Lees strips down the “vast inaccuracies” that surround what he considers Indochina’s most underrated cuisine.
With scant written resources on Cambodian food—Lees knows of only three books published about Cambodian food in languages other than Khmer, and very few written in Khmer—phnomenon.com has moved in to fill the void.
The site now generates predominantly international traffic, which Lees estimates to be about 95 percent international and 5 percent Cambodia-based.
Fellow food bloggers, travel enthusiasts and homesick Cambodian immigrants alike regularly add onto the site’s running comments section.
Phnomenon.com has been Lees’ first foray in journalism as journalism, per se, and he openly embraces his mission to “write about, and eat, practically anything.”
“I don’t mind being labeled a ‘foodie’ insofar as it means I’m mildly obsessed by food, but not snobbish about it,” said the blogger, who has a background in communications and currently works as an adviser for Angkor Microfinance in Phnom Penh.
“I’d rather make eating and discussing food more inclusive, especially when I’m writing about a cuisine that is foreign to almost all my readers.”
While he will throw in the occasional restaurant visit, Lees has consciously eschewed the ubiquitous, capsule-sized dining review for his more nuanced, free-ranging and, at times, irreverent observations.
But for all his self-deprecating intellectualism—one entry pairs a Loc Lac recipe with a “mercifully short digression on authenticity”—and tongue-in-cheek asides, Lees is ardently devoted to the basics of popular Cambodian cuisine: where it comes from, where to find it and why people love it.
“Sour soups just can’t get enough respect,” said Lees, who believes the dish epitomizes the tendency of Cambodian food to highlight a single flavor, in contrast to the composite flavor of, say, a Thai curry.
The blogger is especially thrilled by what he calls the “regional specificity” of special foodstuffs—ingredients that can’t be found anywhere else. Lees particularly relishes the memory of eating the seed of the Barking Deer’s Mango, which to his knowledge is only found in Angkor park and certain parts of Africa. For the record, it tasted like peanut and almond.
“It’s amazing when I discover an herb is only grown in a certain place, in a certain area of the country,” said the blogger, recalling an expedition to Stung Treng province to taste a specially fermented, leaf-wrapped fish that he compares to salami.
Lees’ next major project for phnomenon.com is an investigation into what is