This past weekend (April 13-16) Khmer people around the world celebrated the Cambodian New Year, a three-day festival that falls at the end of the harvest season and before the rainy season begins. A Cambodian-American friend told me about the holiday, and suggested I visit Wat Samakki Dhammikaram, a Cambodian Buddhist Center in Brooklyn, where there would be a large pot luck with traditional Cambodian foods I might like to write about for the blog.
I immediately marked it on my calendar with all good intentions to go.
And then Sunday arrived, the day slipped away, and before I knew it, it was 2 p.m. and the festivities ended at five. I quickly hopped on my bike and dashed to Rugby Road on the far side of Prospect Park where the temple was located.
Turning the last corner, I found myself greeted by an oversized, white house with colorful, square flags strung end to end from the porch’s rafters.
As I feared, the festivities were winding down and most of the food had already been eaten, although not entirely. In the front of the house sat two large baskets filled with fruit for the Buddha.
Behind the house, in a cemented backyard, people sat on plastic chairs beneath a simple, white tent eating grilled chicken and steak marinated in lime and pepper, a dish I later learned was called Loc Lac. One man welcomed and introduced me to the center’s leaders, while a woman offered me a sandwich of spicy steak and hot sauce on a crusty, white baguette. They apologized for the lack of food, but I wasn’t complaining. They were incredibly generous, and I was a stranger in their midst.
On top of one man’s plate I noticed prahok, a spicy fermented fish paste synonymous with Cambodian cuisine called prahok.
I learned that people who’ve left the Cambodian countryside for the city often say they dislike prahok, because its smell reminds them of farm life and the imposed hardships of forced agrarian labor imposed during the murderous reign of the Khmer Rouge, when nearly 2 million Cambodians were killed through genocide, and as many who could fled the country.
Still, people at the New Year’s celebration were singing karaoke, or at least the Khmer version, to songs about people working the fields. My friend later told me that the connection to the Cambodian land remains strong for refugees even, and perhaps especially, because they were forced to leave. It’s a homesickness she’d observed in her relatives, as they reminisced about their former lives in Cambodia.
I went inside the house, where a Buddhist monk dressed in a bright, orange robe was blessing an elderly woman. I removed my shoes, bowed, and asked if he would do the same for me. He obliged, and as I sat at his feet, he mouthed prayers, most likely in Sanskrit, then tied a red yarn around my wrist. A man who spoke English explained that it was for good luck and safe travels. something I needed, although the monk didn’t know it.
The red bracelet has special meaning in Buddhism, portending good luck to the bearer and having the potential to positively affect everything from personal relationships to career. The color red is associated with bravery, and the tying on of the thread, accompanied by the monk’s blessing, is said to protect the recipient with the monk’s presence, even when the two are separated by continents.
I said goodbye and thanked my hosts, then wheeled my bike back on the road. My stay was brief, an hour at most, and I can’t say I learned what I wanted about Cambodian cuisine. Yet I have few regrets. I now have a red bracelet around my wrist that’s been blessed by a Buddhist monk.
The best meal in the world could never give me that good karma.
To learn more about Cambodian cuisine, here are some of the first stops I’ll make:
Satrey Khmer Online: A compendium of recipes and links.
A recipe for Loc Lac, with a worthy critique about whether it’s really a traditional Cambodian dish or one created by colonizers and now adopted as the country’s own.
A great Cambodian restaurant in NYC: Kampuchea.
Anthony Bourdain’s Food Tour of Cambodia on the Travel Channel.