My initial days in South-East Asia were accompanied with excitement. Not only am I a big fan of Asian kitchen, it was also encouraging to see that I could buy a complete meal for some $3 in Cambodia. I have a stomach of steel that doesn’t get easily upset, but when I realized that I will be eating homemade, cooked food for the next little while, I started looking forward to significantly improved health. Swapping canned dishes and junk food from fast food restaurants with cooked, restaurant-style meals is bound to positively affect my overall health, right? Well, that’s what I thought.
That’s why it shocked me when shortly after arriving to Cambodia I started experiencing severe stomach pains. My stomach, which handled most dubious foods in the past without a wink started giving me insane problems shortly after my initiation to Cambodian food. It was making no sense. I expected to start feeling better, not significantly worse. The cramps were not something I could easily ignore either. When a cramp got me, it delivered intense stomach pains as if I had an Alien trying to rip out of my innards. It would take a hold and not let go for good two minutes.
Search for Causes of Stomach Problems
I was really having hard time trying figure out what could be causing it. After more than a week of persistent stomach pains, I knew I needed to start looking for the reason that causes them. There was no way a simple change in diet could have had such severe effect on my digestive system. I knew there must have been either particular food or a particular drink that was causing it. I only drank bottled water and even brushed my teeth with it, so I didn’t anticipate the cause of problems originating from there, but I was determined to nail it down at any cost. I deployed the elimination method.
Each day I completely left out something out of my diet what I used to eat during my stay in Cambodia so far. If stomach problems continued even after elimination of that particular food or drink, I would go on to eliminate something else until it becomes clear where the cause of problems lied. I even suspected beer as I used to have a couple glasses every day but to my joy it wasn’t the case. I enjoy a good glass of cold beer so having to go without would be rather painful, but I guess I would just need to try a different brew which was not a big deal. I really couldn’t imagine beer possibly causing any stomach problems, but I needed to be sure so I tried. Luckily, it wasn’t the beer that cause my stomach problems.
Food Additives and Stomach Problems
As I kept moving forward with my experiment, it became clear that this was strictly food related and nothing I was drinking was causing the problems. However, it also became clear that it’s not just general food, it’s something added to the food that causes it. I could for example eat Cambodian Lok Lak dish and not get cramps from it, but if I ate Cambodian Amok Fish, the cramps would be there. However, grilled fish with rice caused no problem at all. It was not fish, it was not rice, it was not vegetables or fruit and it was not other meat. So what was it?
I kept getting closer and closer to the answer but didn’t quite have it nailed down until the last day of Pchum Ben. I was invited to take part in the celebrations by the villagers from Sras Srang village in the Angkor area and it involved big lunch on the side of the moat surrounding Angkor Wat. Munchies were done the Cambodian way – everybody joined the food they brought with the food of others creating a feast of available dishes and everyone was free to load up their plate with whatever they liked. Since I didn’t have the kitchen in my room, instead of cooking, I brought a bunch of fruit.
Truly Cambodian Food
I followed the example set by the villagers who gathered round for the lunch and put a little bit of every dish available on my plate. I expected the same or similar tastes I was exposed to in local restaurants so far but these village dishes were nothing like that. Each of them had a very overpowering taste of some bad seasoning that was defeating the taste of everything else. Fish didn’t taste like fish, it tasted like that seasoning. Soup with herbs didn’t taste like soup with herbs, it tasted like that seasoning. The smell and taste of it was so distinct and so unpleasant, I was having hard time swallowing anything but rice.
Even though rice was the only dish that was seasoning free, at least there was one such. It tasted bland because it was cooked without any salt, but at least I had something to put in my mouth. To my disbelief, villagers also brought extra bags of that seasoning that each of the dishes instead of plain rice already had too much of and kept adding spoonfuls upon spoonfuls of it to the mix on their plates. It was a white, powdery substance similar in look to sugar but smelled horribly and made food that contained it taste like crap.
I asked what the substance was and was told that it’s a seasoning they always add to food because it makes it taste much better. I picked up one of the bags and through a bunch of Cambodian script writing I was able to distinguish a few words in English – MonoSodium Glutamate.
This discovery of MSG was a key point that eventually lead to the elimination of my stomach problems. It was just shocking to see how Cambodian villagers think MSG was the best thing since sliced bread and can’t imagine their lives without it. Local shops that specialize in business with the locals sell more MSG than anything else and have shelves full of it, usually placed at the most prominent location of their store. So much love for such a bad thing.