After the amazingly varied cuisine in Malaysia and the simple and fresh dishes available in Thailand, I did not have high expectations for Khmer food. This mentality was reinforced by Internet resources claiming that the culinary tradition of Cambodia is just mediocre and that travelers are hard-pressed to find good eats, especially on the street.
As with so many things, the Internet was kinda wrong.
While I don’t disagree that you have to take your chances with street and market food in Cambodia — there are absolutely no hygiene or sanitation standards, none — it’s absolutely possible to eat well without putting yourself too much at risk. Maybe just don’t think too hard about it, and use common sense (cut fruit sitting in a basket on the floor of a wet market is probably not a wise choice, for example).
My first stop in Cambodia, Siem Reap, has basically morphed into one giant tourist attraction. The old town area has what is known as Pub Street with bright lights, loud music, and cheap drinks geared toward foreigners. Sometimes it’s nice to have a meal that isn’t noodles or rice, and for that reason I fully appreciate the plethora of Western restaurants in SR and in Cambodia in general. But my goal, first, was to find out if the rumors about Khmer food were true.
After my first long morning at Angkor, I went in search of Chanrea Dom Makara, a tiny, nondescript Khmer restaurant on Sivatha Rd., one of the main thoroughfares in town just outside the old market area. You probably wouldn’t look twice if you passed the place, but as I’ve discovered over and over, this is where the best food is found.
My first meal there was prahok ktih, minced pork cooked with coconut milk, fermented fish paste (prahok), spices, and what I think are tiny peas. I wouldn’t really choose to order pork, especially not in Cambodia, but I went for it and was rewarded with a really great sweet and sour and filling dish. Prahok gives everything a sort of pungent flavor.
The dish was served with rice, cucumbers, tiny eggplant slices, and tomato, and I was completely sold.
I went back to CDM for dinner with Leja to try amok, which is probably one of Cambodia’s most well-known dishes to foreigners. Amok is fish covered in coconut milk and spices and steamed in a banana leaf until it becomes soft, almost like a mousse, but this version was a bit different, deconstructed, if you will. Since arriving in Asia, I’ve become a fan of all things cooked in coconut milk — I’ll have to wean myself of this unhealthy habit when I get home — and this curry-like dish was delicious. I’m still on the hunt for true amok, though, which I’ve seen at market stalls and will have to try in the next ten days.
The rest of my notable meals in SR came from street stalls and market vendors. For breakfast after sunrise at Angkor Wat, I stopped at a row of stands on a street that runs at a diagonal off of Charles De Gaulle Rd just south of the Jayavarman Hospital. The morning meal in Cambodia is almost always some type of noodle or noodle soup, and I ordered a dish of rice vermicelli noodles topped with chopped chicken, fried eggroll pieces, peanut, mint, basil, some cucumbers and bean sprouts, and fish sauce. I believe this is called ban hoaw but can’t be sure — ordering it involved a lot of pointing.
This was the first bowl of noodles consumed on my trip that truly wowed me. I wanted a second (and third, and fourth) serving.
My trip to Phsar Leur yielded a whole mess of good eats. More on this wet market later, but suffice to say that it is by far the most intense thing I’ve experienced in Asia — big, loud, crowded, dirty, literally wet — and a food lover’s dream. I spotted a woman selling pastries near one of the doors, and I picked up an unknown muffin-type thing wrapped in a banana leaf.
I think it’s a banana cake with some coconut milk in it (obviously). It was really dense but not too sweet, so I didn’t feel like I was eating dessert at 10am. To be clear, though, I’m not opposed to eating dessert at any time of day.
I also grabbed a takeaway box of stir-fried short rice noodles and bean sprouts topped with a chive-filled rice cake and a fried egg. Again, more pointing, less knowing what I’m actually ordering, result: amazing.
So that pretty much sums it up for Siem Reap. My other meals were a mix of Western foods and snacks, nothing worth noting. Many thanks to EatingAsia for the tips on where to look for great food in SR.
I tried to do some research on where to dine in Battambang, but as it’s a sleepy town less often visited, there’s not much out there aside from the best place to get good coffee. In this situation, you have to wander or ask a local or do a combination of the two.
I arrived on the slow boat in the late afternoon, and after dropping my things and pulling myself together, I wandered across the river to the night market, which was gearing up for its 5pm to 2am run. Most of the stands offer identical menus (fried noodles, fried rice, fruit shakes), but one guy in particular who spoke really great English was enthusiastically recruiting passers-by. So I stopped with the intention of drinking one mango shake, and this single decision completely shaped the course of my visit in Battambang.
Rot, the stall owner, is a government employee by day and a market personality by night, and he introduced me to another American who was hanging out. Turns out this guy has been going back and forth between Cambodia and Missouri for nearly a decade and now owns property outside of Battambang, and he was a great resource for things to do and see. He hooked me up with world’s greatest tuk tuk driver for a day trip to the sights outside of town and offered suggestions for where to get good food. You could perhaps argue that he gets a commission from some of these people for sending visitors their way, but every single spot turned out to be great, so I’ll just call him friendly and helpful.
Back to the Cambodian breakfast — noodles. In the one-block area that comprises Battambang’s tourist sector, there’s a popular Western restaurant called the White Rose. Everyone knows it. But next door is a large, unnamed (at least on the outside) place that serves good Khmer food and was packed with locals every day around breakfast.
I was advised to order the soup mee psych j’rook (Chinese noodles with pork) to really get the authentic experience. Again, not so enthusiastic about the meat, but it turned out to be tasty, and I now believe in soup as a light and healthy breakfast dish.
Around the corner from White Rose is a tiny Chinese noodle shop where diners can watch the owner pull noodles to order (this was an Amazing Race challenge!) for each dish. I had dinner there on the recommendation of my tuk tuk driver and can definitely say it’s worth a visit.
It was also in Battambang that I discovered Cambodian ice tea, which is a really sweet drink flavored with lime. I fell in love with teh tarik in Malaysia, and I have similar feelings about this beverage. It looks like radioactive Tang and probably has enough sugar in it to make an entire bakery of cakes, but that’s fine with me. My tuk tuk driver first introduced me to this, and I had another glass later at a small restaurant in the center of town that was filled with Cambodian men watching Terminator on a small TV. My life is really weird sometimes.
My other notable meals were at the two main markets in Battambang, Phsar Naht and a larger set of vendors closer to the center of town. Again, this is a situation where you lean toward things that have been cooked. Things like fried bananas:
And sticky rice with black beans and coconut served in a banana leaf or pancake:
And sticky rice cakes. I was tempted to have my noodle breakfast on a tiny child-sized stool at a market stand, but I just couldn’t quite bring myself to do it. In any case, markets truly are the best places to experience real Cambodia.
I think this is pretty solid evidence that Khmer food is nothing to sneeze at. Take that, Internet.