I’ve wanted to write a whole post about the Brave New World of food I’ve entered ever since travelling to Cambodia. From chicken feet to the tastiest tofu I’ve ever had, my stomach has seen more experimental action in the last few weeks than it ever saw coming. Khmer cuisine comes in all kinds of creative forms and sometimes the simplest ideas work really well (Grilled Banana Lady on the way to work, I’m thinking of you). Some of these dishes are definitely more interesting than delicious, but all are worth a go, if only for the street cred. Here are my top hits – and misses – when it comes to Cambodian food.
I was recommended this foul-smelling fruit by a friend who shall remain nameless. According to some, the taste of the durian is worth suffering that rubbish-tip bouquet it produces (and kindly leaves lingering around your home, fridge and on literally everything it’s touched). I had heard so much about this Malaysian and Indonesian native that it became a mission to find and eat one, just to say I had. DO NOT FALL INTO THIS TRAP. Most people I’ve met here have made a noise like I just suggested they drink their own wee, at the very mention of durian. I should have listened.
Insects are big news on the dinner plate around these parts. Mealworms, beetle larvae and even fat hairy tarantulas are all on offer at both street stalls and restaurants in Cambodia, but I had my first edible creepy-crawlie encounter with a plate of ants. Once I got over the squeaky texture, they had quite a nice sweet-sour tang, and oddly, were served with beef. Still, it’s hard to shake off the feeling that they’re just playing dead, and will be happily wandering around in your belly later on.
You can get a decent mango on most high streets nowadays. But I’ve never had mango cooked, prepared and dipped in so many different ways before. There’s the savoury mango, sizzled in a pan with cashew nuts and tofu (tofu’s also done really well here. Which is a relief, when you’re not sure whether that meat looks too dodgy to eat). There are the sour, crunchy green mangoes, eaten with chilli and salt for desert. And then there’s everyone’s favourite: the juice-dripping ripe yellow mango waiting for you in the fridge at the end of a hot and dusty day.
The Sausage Donut
Phnom Penh is home to a surprising number of bakeries. Perhaps not so surprising, considering the country’s French colonial past, but I doubt that France would thank me for claiming that the Sausage Donut was their fault. The Sausage Donut crops up in various forms: sometimes the sausages are sliced on top of the pastry, sometimes, like above, they are slotted neatly in the middle, like a ready-baked hot dog. But they’re nearly always the tinned Frankfurter variety, and covered in a sticky sweet-sour drizzle. Bleurgh, you may well think. But when Greggs is your guilty pleasure and you realise you’re not going to see one for eight months, this little beauty looks pretty appealing. ‘Homesick British travellers’ is probably the sole market for the SD.
…or any Amok for that matter. Amok is a coconut, lemongrass and chilli-infused curry, similar to Malaysian Masaman curries or Thai peanut Satay. But what wins it for me is definitely the novelty factor – it comes in a big coconut shell! Dinner instantly turns into an occasion.
Cambodian Street food roulette
Ok, so it’s not roulette all the time. Sometimes I can work out, using my broken Khmer, what the thing on that stick is, and what’s cooking in the pot. Other times, you think, ‘Ooh maybe I’ll just go for it, see what that tastes like’, without really knowing what you’re getting. Pointing is a traveller’s best and most faithful friend and it’s often all you need. On this occasion, the mystery parcel wrapped in a banana leaf turned out to be very good chargrilled salt-fish. The thing that looks like a chicken foot kebab was exactly that, but turned out to be mostly fat and skin. Trial and error seems to be the theme of my trip to Cambodia. At least it only cost me the price of a Freddo.