Monday, September 01, 2008

A Field Trip to Cambodia

Serve me fresh fish, and I am a happy girl. Serve me fresh fish topped with crispy, stir-friend threads of ginger, squid sautéed with green peppercorns, banana flower salad, and coconut milk and lime smoothies, and, well, I might never leave your country.

I did leave Cambodia, after one week of work, and one week of holiday. But it was hard.

Phnom Penh and Siem Reap - the two cities we visited - are bustling. Motos (motorbikes) and tuk-tuks (motos that pull four-seater, covered carriages) zip about, with scarce regard to traffic rules, traffic lights, or pedestrians' toes. Although
trials of Khmer Rouge leaders are ongoing, the Cambodians I met were focused more on the future than their country's past. Property prices are skyrocketing; tourism is beginning to flourish. And, of particular importance to me and you - good food is everywhere. Every third storefront seems to be a family restaurant. These home-restaurants often lack English menus - you'll just need to be brave, visit one that is crowded, and order by pointing at what someone else is eating. At night, when the restaurants close, family members fold up the chairs and tables and use the space as both their garage and living room, faces lit by the blue glow of the TV.

The local markets are crowded and chaotic, with motos struggling to weave amongst the people and the ground muddy from rain. Squatting women scale and chop fish using a cleaver and a short, circular butcher block. Enormous fish display their guts; slippery black fish squirm around in baskets; skinned frogs attract flies; marinated baby chickens turn on spits. Fruit stalls showcase homely-looking longan, flashy rambutan, the imposing durian, cutely dimpled lychees, smooth-skinned green oranges, and the miraculous mangosteen, which tastes like a concentration of every fruit in one bite.

Bicycles and motos trundle street food throughout town - Vietnamese spring rolls; French bread spread with fish paste; tiny snails, boiled and tossed with chili, salt and garlic (very tasty!); stir-friend noodles; sugar cane juice; and thin pancakes brushed with egg and dusted with Milo.

In Siem Reap, the home of Angkor Wat, "bouquets" of matte-green lotus flowers are sold by the side of the road. Like, in my opinion, the world's best snacks, lotus flowers take a bit of effort to eat - their edible seeds need to be individually popped out of the flower. These seeds have the texture of slightly under-boiled peanuts and a fresh, lightly-sweet taste reminiscent of edamame. They can also be boiled and roasted. Lotus roots are consumed, too - they add a distinctive crunch to salads.

On the road to Banteay Srei, one of the many temple complexes, almost every front yard boasts a little stand/shop/kiosk selling something - usually fabric, handbags, Johnnie Walker Black bottles filled with gasoline, and neat pyramids of boxes made from palm tree leaves and filled with discs of palm sugar. Women tend the stalls while simultaneously watching over a large, wide pot of boiling palm fruit, concocting palm sugar. Some stands also sell palm fruit fresh from the nut - it is squishy and opaque (like a jelly-fish, really) and the size of an egg, with a lychee-like texture, but a disappointingly bland taste.

We toured the Psar Salam (Big Market) in Siem Reap, a bit outside the main part of town, as part of a "Cooks in Tuk-Tuks" cooking class offer by the gorgeous
River Garden Hotel. I must have asked the chef who accompanied us 150 questions about the mystery foods on display. Cambodia has an amazing variety of eggplants - cream-colored, baby eggplants the size of blueberries (bitter-tasting, they eaten boiled or fresh with fish paste), green and white globe eggplants (grilled and eaten with pork), "bird" eggplants the shape and size of - you guessed it - bird's eggs. We saw caraway leaves, which grow amidst rice fields (they smell just like the seeds), green tomatoes and tamarind flour (used for making sour soup), hot basil and saw mint, cultivated and wild morning glory (also called water spinach), and tiembi (I'm unsure of spelling), which resembles a potato, but can be eaten fresh and tastes like a cross between a potato and an apple.

Yellow curry paste, sold from shallow plastic bowls, is made from kaffir lime, lemongrass, galangal, turmeric, and garlic, all pounded together. Pickled beans and radishes can be bought in scoops from glass jars, and are used to top morning porridge. Shredded, dried fish is another porridge mix-in - it tastes strangely sweet, like fishy cotton candy. A woman with a pole over her shoulder, hung with two baskets, sold us a fried rice flour cake, powdered in sugar; from another vender we bought a dessert of boiled coconut milk and sticky rice flour, served wrapped in a banana leaf and topped with shredded coconut.

If markets aren't your style, there is a fantastic array of restaurants to choose from. In Phnom Penh, one of our favorites was Romdeng, a new restaurant set in a beautifully-restored colonial house garlanded with a green-and-white-striped awning, feeds both your social conscience and your stomach. Romdeng is a project of
Friends International, and serves as a training center for former street children. Its dishes are artfully presented, and include such stunners as green mango and smoked fish salad with sun-dried shrimps, fresh river fish with green tamarind and a salsa of green mango and red onion, lime-marinated Mekong fish salad with galangal and saw mint, and red sticky rice porridge with coconut milk and longan. This is also the place to try crispy tarantulas - a Cambodian delicacy - here served with lime and black pepper dip. Nyemo, a restaurant run by an organization that supports women who have been abused, abandoned, trafficked or affected by HIV, serves a fantastic fish amok - one of the most well-known Cambodian dishes. Tender cubes of fish are steamed in a lemony, spicy coconut sauce, and served in a banana leaf basket. Don't go to Nyemo in a rush, however - service is slow!

Another yummy choice is Boat Noodle - the one at 8B Street 294 is located in a fantastic old wooden house. The dishes are served in narrow, ceramic "boats", with spicy sauces in the fore and aft. We made two trips to Sakrawa Café restaurant (#12 Street 118, near riverfront), where all the dishes 2.5-6 dollars. Its squid dishes are excellent - try the squid in black pepper sauce, served with julienned green pepper and red chili. Just beware of the bad lite jazz pumping through the loudspeakers.... If you need to duck in from the afternoon rain, like we did, the Tamarind on 31 Street 240 offers half-price drinks from 3-7 and excellent Mediterranean-inspired tapas. We enjoyed two Moroccan dishes –
zalouk and chakchouka (without the egg).

It would be impossible to mention Cambodian food without talking about prahok - the ubiquitous fish paste. Different varieties of prahok accompany meat, chicken or fish dishes; they can also be used as dips or stirred into soups. By outsiders, prahok is almost universally described as an acquired taste - I echo these sentiments! My husband, who is the only person outside of Australia and the U.K. who actually likes Vegemite and Marmite, was a quick fan, however - prahok shares the same concentrated, powerful, salty, fermented flavor of these spreads.

In case you are feeling particularly daring one day, here is a recipe for prahok from the cooking school at The River Garden. The chef said this version of prahok is most commonly eaten with chicken dishes. We ate it as a dip for veggie crudités - long green beans, cucumber and baby eggplant.

Don't forget the red ants! And don't let the prospect of eating prahok scare you off from a visit to Cambodia....

Cambodian Prahok
1½ tbsp fermented fish, chopped
3 cloves garlic, chopped
3 slices galangal
Small handful lemongrass, chopped
1 small red chili
1 tablespoon red ants (or the juice of 1 lime)
1 tablespoon liquid palm sugar

Chop together all ingredients until it forms a smooth paste.

More photos!

Banana flower salad at The River Garden

And maybe a few fried cockroaches?

Prahok for sale

To market, to market


Christopher Reichert said...

So its nearly 6pm and for some reason I am still in the office, and I am already hungry. I'd like to thank you for making me hungrier, but then unthank you for making me nauseated....FRIED COCKROACHES???

Tarantulas? I had a pet Tarantula once. He escaped the first day home - to my mother's chagrin. We found him, but by then he was known as Houdini.

Great post.

BDusel said...

Great post! I am the other non-native convert to the wonders of marmite, but I think even I might balk at fire ants...

Jeanne said...

What a fascinating post Carolyn - and how lucky that you got to go! Your descriptions are wonderful. Interested in your comparison between fish paste and umami-paden Marmite: I love Marmite, but the one time I had a chicken dish with fish paste, I really did not like the combination of flavours. Maybe another time.

Looking at those cockroaches, now might be a good time for you to do te Omnivore's 100 that's doing the rounds on the food blogs at the moment ;-)

The F Family said...

Dear Carolyn,

I always enjoy your blog updates,



Alan said...


You're not supposed to eat ants (or cockroaches for that matter) you're a v e g e t a r i a n. Sheesh.

Snails are nice, though, I've learned here. Baked with garlic butter and parmiggiano. Yum.


Mesothelioma said...

Your blog is so inspirational. I would love to experience all of these places and food. Being exposed to different cultures is important. Thanks for the awesome posts.

security fencing said...

I have always wanted to go to Cambodia...such a wonderful places with all the vegetarian cuisine you can find around.