Note: *4,000 riel is the equivalent of $1.00 USD
This past week I went on an adventure to explore the local flavors of Cambodian cuisine. While there are many good restaurants to choose from I decided to go native and ditch the air-conditioned establishments for the flavors of the street to show where and how most Cambodians eat. My street food extravaganza was filled with pungent aromas, intense flavors, and interesting textures.
We started our journey by finding the perfect drink. The easiest to find off the street is the fresh coconut juice that is wheeled around by vendors lugging a cart full of young green coconuts, some the size of a small basketball. For 2,500 riel, (or .55 cents), you will get fresh coconut juice that tastes slightly sweet and quenches your thirst, not to mention some of the health benefits like potassium and other vitamins and minerals. In a country where you are sweating 99% of the time on a daily basis, coconut juice helps you to gain those valuable electrolytes and minerals that were lost in the heat and humidity.
Another popular drink is freshly squeezed sugar cane juice. For 1,000 riel a man in a cart will take three sticks of sugar cane and ram it through a grinder, squeezing the juice out of the sugar cane until it fills about 6-8 ounces in a cup.
For the more adventurous type, I found a vendor that had racks of palm juice tied to the side of her bicycle. Kept in bamboo containers these juices were separated in two sections, the slightly sweet palm juice and the palm wine, a type of alcohol made of fermented palm sap. The drinks were held in a small square basket made of palm leaves that probably added to the distinct taste. For the less adventurous type, carts selling sodas, canned juices, and coffee can be found throughout the city.
Next on the menu were the appetizers or ma hope claam, commonly served during weddings, parties, and in the evening when enjoying a beer with friends. Here is where Cambodian cuisine gets interesting and a little strange. It seems anything could be used as an appetizer/claam. All parts of the animal are fair game including a pigs’ nose, chicken feet, and digestive tract of any animal, as long as it is cooked with the right spices and accompanied with lime, salt and pepper.
My first stop to find ma hope claam was at Psar Dumix (Dumix market) near Psar O’russey where I was exposed to the many ways you can use parts of an animal that would normally be discarded or not sold for human consumption in most Western countries. For example, the first is kreung knog moun (insides of a poultry). It is a mix of intestines, stomach, dried blood of the poultry. In another part of the city there is a version kreung knog tchakai (or the dog version).
Then there are the other parts of the chicken that are placed on a skewer such as ka-toot ong (butt of a chicken) which can be found on yellow skewers or kos moun (chicken gizzard) or thlam moun (chicken liver); and cheam muon (chicken blood).
If a mature chicken or duck was not what you wanted, you could go for the baby duck eggs, or quail. Most of these foods are eaten with lime juice/salt and pepper to kill whatever bacteria is left after the boiling or deep frying process. Another common claam food is anything barbequed or grilled, such as the barbequed chicken, pigs, duck, and yes, dog meat. Fortunately for my stomach, I decided to pass on the claam foods, but it was an interesting spread.
After our appetizers, I went in search for my main course, and here is where I think Cambodian cuisine shines with delicate flavors, and simplicity. My favorite meal, which I could eat everyday, is rice with roasted fish (can be catfish, mudfish, or any type of fish) accompanied with sour mango in fish sauce. Then there are the meals that require a little more effort to cook, such as mee cha (fried noodles), nom ban chook with curry (thin rice noodle with curry soup), and banh xiao, which is a crispy yellow crepe dish with a mixture of chicken or pork inside and topped with vegetables and fish sauce.
Finally, we concluded our meal with dessert. Khmer desserts aren’t as abundant in carbohydrates like pies and cakes. What you will find here are small dishes of Nom such as fried donuts, or crepes. A common dessert is the bangaam, which usually consists of a glutinous dessert mixed with coconut milk, such as the bangaam crop chrewt (lotus seeds mixed with coconut milk). One of my favorite discoveries during this adventure is the nom bongpong, which is a rice dessert composed of sweet rice cooked in a unique cylindrical pot that looks like popsicles. When the rice is ready, it is served with coconut shavings and sesame seeds.
With the hustle and bustle of daily life in Phnom Penh it is no wonder that on almost every street corner, food is readily available at a moments notice. If you look around or follow the smell, you will find someone roasting a fish, selling palm wine from their bicycle, wheeling around a cart of mee cha or lugging nom ban chok with curry on their shoulder.
The extravagant spread I witnessed this week is only a small fraction of what can be found in Phnom Penh. There are so many other foods I did not get a chance to capture such as the fried tarantulas, fried termites, or even the common bowl of Phnom Penh ketiew (noodle soup). But as you can see, the variety of street food in Cambodia is abundant and full of unique flavors It is a one of a kind experience in Cambodia that is not to be missed.