There is an old Khmer saying which runs roughly as follows: “Eat anything that has four legs except a table, eat anything that flies except an aeroplane, and eat anything that travels by twos apart from a bicycle.”
It is sentiments such as this which give Cambodian food a bad name. And, especially since we have just had our first (unscheduled) encounter with the dreaded fertilised eggs in Saigon, it seems a little unfair.
Since you ask, they were pretty palatable. In fact, if one could get over the internal speedbump caused not only by a European background but a childhood spent in convent school internalising pro-life propaganda, I reckon they’d be a real treat.
Anywise, herewith a round-up of good, can’t-go-wrong and handle-with-caution choices in Cambodia.
Varyingly spelt Machou Kreurng, M’jou K’reung, M’chou Krourng, etc., this comes in incarnations from a thick, golden chicken broth soured with tamarind and packed with baby aubergines through to a clear soup soured with calamondin or lime and sprinkled with spring onions and rau rom. Always good.
Make your own Soup
A big pot of broth, over a flame, into which you add your choice of ingredients. Typical ingredients are morning glory leaves, the bitter tree leaf known as sdao, beef, seafood, pork balls, rice noodles and egg noodles, but really the sky’s the limit. The broth gets thicker as you work your way through it. Z really enjoyed the experience, if not the broth, at Suki Soup in Siem Reap: it’s a conveyor belt restaurant, along the lines of those Japanese sushi bars, and you simply pick your favourites as they trundle past.
Cambodia has a great range of fungi. Besides the obvious enokitake, and the delicious white mushrooms known as paddy straw mushrooms, I’ve had white oyster mushrooms, dark, chewy, meaty shiitake-style black mushrooms, plus delicious, flat, leafy shrooms of a deep, burgundy hue that look not dissimilar to liver.
This term is used on menus to mean anything from a version of a Thai red curry through to lumps of meat in a heavily sugared sauce. The authentic version, fish in a mild coconut curry steamed in a banana leaf (foil will also do) is delicate and delicious.
Pork with Pickled Greens
A market-stall favourite, this is reliably good.
Crab with Green Kampot Pepper.
Delicious combination of sweet seafood with fresh, pungent, chlorophyll peppercorns. I wrote about this <s href="http://www.escapeartistes.com//2010/02/17/kampot-pepper/"here.
Sold everywhere at the roadside, and one of the most fun snackfoods ever. I wrote about these here.
Fry slivers of beef, pork and slices of fresh vegetables in butter over a table-top grill. Dip in your favoured sauce. Enjoy.
Sugar Cane Juice
Pressed from fresh at markets, street-stands and the like, and served in plastic bags over ice, this is a must-try. Add lime to achieve perfection.
A great street-stall choice when near the Tonle Sap lake: whole shrimps fried in a spicy batter to form a crunchy, golden pancake studded with fresh-cooked shrimps.
Also spelt pleah, plea, and blea, this is a salad of raw meat or fish (the base ingredient doesn’t matter) “cooked” ceviche-style in lime juice, and served with fresh veg, chilli, fresh herbs and a smattering of peanuts. It’s really hard to get a good take on this anywhere where it appears in English on the menu: tends to come either with cooked meat or smothered in peanuts. We tried a great one at Ramsey Buntam in Koh Kong.
Green Mango Salad
You can’t get away from green mangos at the roadside, where they are sliced into a flower shape, kept in place with matchsticks of sugar cane, and served with a dip of salt, pepper, sugar and chilli. Less aggressive than the very under-ripe green mangos, these make an outstanding salad when shredded.
Bitter Melon with Pork Filling
Even if you don’t particularly like the bitter taste of the squash known as bitter melon, the tang of a salty, chopped pork filling combined with the smooth squash mellows the bitterness to perfection.
The Khmer take on the ubiquitous steamed white bun known as bao in China features egg in a sweet and spicy meat filling. Surprisingly moreish.
Served whole and crispy from the grill, this is great street food with an intense dark flavour.
Lemon Grass Curry
Your choice of meat stir-fried with chilli, lemongrass and generally some herbs, including Thai basil. Delicious.
Grilled aubergine mixed with soy sauce or prahok (fish sauce), plus spices including chilli and lemongrass. All the smooth smokiness of baba ghanoush with a distinctly South-East Asian edge.
HANDLE WITH CARE
The versions of this I’ve tried appear to be some ungodly cross-pollination of French pâté, Vietnamese savoury custard and, quite possibly, Spam, or the US equivalent. Z really liked a sweet type based on snake and deep-fried at the roadside.
Very similar to the sweet, plump, fatty Chinese sausage known as xiang chang. Did I mention the sweet, fatty bit?
Generally muddy. Almost always served with sweet milk, a sugared, condensed milk dolloped from the can to the base of the glass, where it lurks, polluting all.
Often served with eggs, most versions of this are fairly heavy on the sugar.
A rural delicacy, where it appears in stews. The white, gooey stuff on the inside is the best bit, apparently, so as guest of honour you will be expected to, err, dig in.
CAN’T GO WRONG
Sold fresh on the street every morning and one of the most positive results of French colonialism.
The whole wealth of South-East Asian fruits is here, pretty much. Rambutans, dragon fruits, watermelon, bananas, pineapple, papaya, sapodilla, mangosteens… White Rose in Battambang has a great fruit salad menu, and a lot of street stalls will make shakes.
Corn on the Cob
Easy street food. Lighter in colour and tougher in texture than the yellow, tender version we favour in the West, but with much more flavour and sweetness thanks to its longer ageing.
Grilled until chewy, a delicious street food.
From songthrush eggs to hen’s eggs, these are sold hard-boiled at roadsides and in markets.
I’m going to do a proper post on these — we’re getting quite obsessive about them.
All this said, Khmer cuisine, at least on its home turf, feels a little like British cooking did fifteen or twenty years ago: so scared of its reputation, so intimidated by the phenomenal cuisine of its historic enemy Thailand (read France), that it’s quite hard to find local dishes on the menu at all, or, when you do, they are served Thai style.
In places where they have no menu, and speak no English, of course, the flavours are fantastic.