hat’s cooking in Cambodia?
As you might have guessed, a lot of street food! The street stalls here are often just scooters with a sidecar/trailer turned into a moving kitchen/mini-mart. Everything is skillfully constructed and as compact as can be: a little shop window, a mortar and pestle, a little cooking plate or grill, a tiny counter top, a place to stack a gas canister (or a sack of coal) and the fresh produce and foodstuffs. Sometimes they even start cooking on their sidecar while driving to their destination, a very time-efficient mise en place!!
The food stalls are so plentiful and diverse that you can enjoy a walking buffet all through the day. People who claim that you automatically lose weight in Asia, think again!! You have to try all this yummy goodness, don’t you? We think we do :-).
Noodles with this, rice topped with that, soups in all shades and consistencies, spicy or non-spicy salads with novel ingredients such as dried seafood, juiced exotic fruits and vegetables, cookies filled with strange concoctions, and eggs prepared in a million and one ways. Strange fact: instant noodles out of a plastic bag are apparently considered to be more upmarket and fancier than the delicious freshly made ones, pretty baffling if you ask us…
Follow us on our trail of conquest through the stalls of Cambodia.
Coconut rice rolls, pickled crab, or fried ants, mystery meat skewers, steamed everything, fermented eggs, little marinated clams, snails, insects, fresh coconuts, sugarcane juice, chicken knees, chicken feet, etc.. They really eat everything here!
We did have a few favorites! The stalls were we queued most happily at served: 1) a sort of pancake (ban chav) made of an egg mixture filled with soybean sprouts, chicken and/or pork, pan fried in a wok set on some hot red little coal nuggets, this pancake is then dipped into a spicy, sweet sauce and topped with nuts right before eating it; 2) a type of fritter made up out of rice-meal dough and scallions, fried in a massive version of the typically dutch kitchen-utensil the “poffertjespan”, these fried lumps of dough are then dipped in a type of coconut based sauce. Both delicious and made right next to our hotel!! Very convenient, though maybe not exactly healthy for us.
If, however, you don’t want to risk eating at a food-stall, there are many restaurants to try out that serve traditional Khmer dishes. What are the typical Cambodian dishes you should order? Fish Amok, Lok Lak and Cambodian hot pot are pretty high on the list. Fish Amok is a fish curry served in banana-leaves, not the most exciting curry in our opinion, but not bad either. Lok lak is a beef dish in a gravy-tomato based sauce (it reminds me of a sauce my grandma used to make with ketchup). Hot pots are soups in all different flavors, colors and smells in which you dunk morsels of food to cook them. A bit like fondue but using a perfumed broth as self-service cooking equipment. While hot pots are pretty common all over eastern Asia, Cambodia has its own sweet and sour versions that definitely hit the spot.
However, the only dish that would by itself make us take a detour to Cambodia are the “famous” crabs we had in Kep. Sometimes it doesn’t get any better than this: a restaurant with a sea view, two plates of deliciously fragrant crab. One with the signature fresh Kampot pepper (another local specialty) and one with lemongrass, lime, salt and coconut-milk. We munched and munched away, it was literally fingerlickin’ good!!! Every leg and cavity was thoroughly cleaned out, we had reached food heaven!
If you think Asia, you think exotic fruits, and indeed even a fruitarian would not grow hungry here. Although fruit is relatively expensive and they seem to prefer it slightly unripe. No mushy mango’s or pineapples, but more crispy and sour than we are used to eating them. Every type of fruit can be bought inventively chopped up or even beautifully carved into delicious bits ready for immediate eating accompanied with a dip of sugar, chili and salt.
Little bananas, all types of pears, apples (a premium fruit here packaged by the piece), pineapples, mangoes, longans, rambutan, dragonfruit, etc.. For the liquid fruit fans, every type of fruit can also be blitzed into a fruit shake (although you don’t want to know were they got the ice). A less enticing fruit experience was durian ice cream. The test is in the eating and we can confirm now that it pretty much tastes as it smells. For those who do know this typical odor, that says it all. For those that don’t know it, you will just have to try it for yourself. However, be advised that all regional airlines and most hotels explicitly forbid bringing in durian.
For those who manage to resist the moving feast of smells and tantalizing tastes and want to go on a diet in Cambodia. We have found something for that too, although we have not tried in out ourselves and cannot attest to its efficacy nor to its healthiness, but the package does contain some interesting statements: “18 year old woman, we are unable to give you 40 year old wisdom, 40 year old woman, we may give you 18 year old waist”. And all that supposedly “made in the USA”, so order away! For the 40 year old wisdom you will probably have to direct yourself to the nearest temple to burn some joss sticks.
Hungry? We definitely are after writing this! So do try out our favorite Indochinese restaurant in Brussels: click here for our first tip on Brussels.