Cambodian Food Compendium

Cambodia is not a country that’s particularly well known for its food.  Indeed, even though I spent two weeks or so there back in ‘10, I can only remember one dish: a fish curry, kind of neon green, pumped full of coconut milk, lemongrass, and chillies.  It was so good that I ordered it several days in a row.

Actually, now that I write that, a few other stray memories begin to gather. Barbequed fish and homemade pork salad on my first informal homestay; coconuts and bananas fresh from the groves; a few draught beers with one side of deep-fried frog and one side of pork with red ants.  Plenty of good stuff for export!  So why don’t we know about it?  Why don’t our eyes roll back and mouth fall agape in anticipatory revelry upon hearing the phrase, “Khmer Food” the way they do when someone mentions Thai food (oh, the curries!) or Vietnamese (oh, the spring rolls!)?

As it’s my mission in life to right the wrongs of the world, I’ll take the expansion of Khmer cuisine as my assignment for the day.  Here it is in all its glory!

Goodies from Day 1:

We crossed over from Laos and had a 60km ride through mostly nothing.  No clouds, no mountains, no villages, hardly even anything that resembled a rice paddy.  Maybe the land was lying fallow, maybe they leave it overgrown and untended during the dry season.  Either way, I worried that an empty countryside might also mean a skimpy dinner, as it certainly must have at one point in history.

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Believe it or not, Cambodia, too, has entered the modern era.  Yes, there are stretches of hundreds of kilos where nothing at all seems to be going on, but that’s just because all the action is concentrated in the markets, which are absolutely bustling.

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The market was in most respects similar to the ones in the rest of the region, full of women sitting on mats or tables selling vegetables, fruits, meat, fish, and other stuff.  The market in Stung Treng, though not that big, boasted a pretty nice assortment of goodies.  Among them: BREAD!  Yeah!  From rolls the size of my fist to baguettes the size of my thigh, some filled, some seasoned, all must-try.

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More excellent provisions: banana chips, sweet potato chips, and so on.

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Good morning, jackfruit!  Usually, Minseong and I push for “go go go!” and Chris pushes for “Let’s chillax for a day.”  With a market so replete with goodness and a stomach so woefully limited in capacity, I was an easy pushover.  We stayed another day just to have another chance to come shopping again.

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The most unexpected item: a waffle!  Made one at a time by an old lady with a tiny charcoal grill and a cast iron waffle mold.  8 for $1$  Dah, why did I guzzle all that maple syrup my parents brought me back in August?

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Supplies for when we finally did hit the road: assorted donuts, steamed sweet potatoes, sticky rice with beans and coconut milk in bamboo tubes, a tub of peanuts, and ten baguettes.  The whole shebang probably cost under $3 and contributed to meals for me and Minseong for the next two days.

Rice et al.

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It turned out that finding vegetarian food was tougher than just about anywhere else so far.  Khmer-style restaurants, rather than cooking to order, tend to have five or six pots of “chef’s choice” sitting out on a table in front of the shop.  You wander up, peer in, and get a couple spoonfuls of whatever you want slopped on top of a bowl of rice.  Problem is, I didn’t want any of it – I didn’t see a single vegetarian dish the whole month.  The best I could do was get them to cut up a few cukes for me, or dig a few hard-boiled eggs out from the pork stew.  I could also have opted for a bowl of ramen, but…ugh, I want real food!

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Every once in a while, we came upon a restaurant where we could actually order.  Not off a menu, as those often didn’t exist, but whatever our meager Khmer skills would allow for.  Fried rice, it is!  $1.50 or so.

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That, or veg medley with rice on the side.  Usually $1.50-$2.00.  Notice anything interesting in this picture?  That’s right, bell peppers!  I had almost forgotten that these little guys exist.  Where the heck did these come from, and why don’t they eat them in any of the countries that Cambodia borders?

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Rice, veg, omelet.

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A standard breakfast stall in the market: rice with your choice of pork, fried egg, or omelette.  On the side there are some of the best pickles I’ve had in recent memory.  Cucumber, carrots, bean sprouts, all sweet and salty and chilled.  $1!

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Some restaurants know what we tourists want: curry.  Spicy, salty, with carrots and taters that have reached the perfect level of mushiness, disintegrating the instant they hit your tongue.  $2.50-$3.00.

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Khmer coconut curry, aka “Amok,” is usually mentioned as a traditional food in the tourist books.  I never saw it in any markets or Khmer-only restaurants, though.   What a tradition to lose!

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The spread at my one impromptu homestay: a bowl of rice for everybody, and a few bowls of curry in the middle for everyone to share.  Both the rice pot and the curry pot were teeming with food, but it seemed like everyone only ate about half a bowl of rice and a couple spoonfuls of curry.  Maybe they were embarrassed to eat in front of me?  I felt caught between my desire to fit in by eating little, my desire to show my appreciation by eating a fair amount, and my desire to share with them my true beggar self by eating everything in sight.

Noodles

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When I get tired of the whole “Khmer restaurants don’t have anything for me to eat, tourist restaurants don’t have anything I want to pay for” conundrum, I head to the local market.  Not only do they have all sorts of fruits, veggies, and snacks to take home – they also have stalls of stuff ready for instantaneous scarfing.

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Second from the right in the picture above this one, this is the local version of the Vietnamese savory rice paper crepe, Bahn Xeo.  Cooked fresh-to-order, and pork-free if you ask quickly enough.  Also stuffed with bean sprouts and other julienned veggies.

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I’d like a giant fistful of that one on the left there.

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Doesn’t get much more basic than this: skinny white noodles with a few herbs on top.  Totally unsatisfying.  This is why we stock up on donuts and potatoes before long rides.

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More skinny white noodles, but at least this one has herbs AND chopped up spring rolls.

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A bit more filling: fat noodles with a thick, spicy (chillies and fermented soybean?) sauce and crushed peanuts.

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Fried ramen noodles (bulk, not from individual packages) with egg and veggies.

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Oooh, egg noodles!  Last spotted in Chiang Mai four months and 4000km ago.  Nice, rich, and fatty.  $1.75 for one serving, or $2.50 for about ten cyclist meals’ worth of dried noodles at the market.

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Fat noodles again, this time reminiscent of Chinese “knife noodles,” big hunks of dough shaved off of an even bigger lump.  Maximum fullness.

Sweets n Snacks

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Dessert bar in a market with about twenty bowls of different candied grains, beans, and tubers, along with some jellies and other mystery objects.  A spoon of this, a dollop of that, a bit of syrup, coconut milk, and ice.  $1 buys you eight bowls!  Too bad even one bowl is rich enough to make me feel sick.

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Fried bananas.  No further comments necessary.

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Banana fritter, “footlong” version.

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Banana, wrapped in sticky rice, wrapped in a leaf, barbequed.  I’m sure I’ve said this about many a food, but this might be the ultimate 3RR cycling snack.  Cheap, tasty, highly portable, and practically trashless as long as you find a way to put the toothpicks to good use.

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Cambodia’s two national beers.  Usually my “no trash” rule rules these out, but in this case I wanted to patronize the little store at the gas station that let us spend a whole afternoon lounging in their shade.  If you ever find yourself faced with this choice, I’d recommend you go with Angkor.  It tastes a little thicker and more herbal.

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Mini donuts, but roasted rather than fried, with coconut and palm sugar filling.  This was another day when the market was so splendid that we decided to take they whole day off.

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Hush puppies filled with corn and lentils from the old grandma with three thumbs wayyyy in the back of the market.

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Scallion pancakes with glutinous rice flour – maybe the closest thing to Korean food that I’ve had in the past six months.

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Crepes with desiccated coconut filling.

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Baby spring rolls, once again 8 for $1.  Bought a whole camping pot full.

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Spring rolls and egg noodles, no need to wait; today is a good day.

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12 o’clock: glazed donut with salty lentil filling

3: mini crepe with shredded coconut filling

6: glutinous donut with a filling I don’t remember, possibly red bean or sesame

9: sticky rice and coconut puck

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12: sweet powdered sticky rice jelly snack

3: waffle

above 3: glazed donut with salty yellow lentil filling

6: some sort of pumpkin taffy stuff

9: sticky rice dough flakes with coconut and sweet lentils

All provided for me by Vandy and family the morning after I crashed at their place.  How sweet!

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The most popular lady in town.  She opened her stall at 3PM every day, lit up her griddles, and stayed until she had cooked her whole bucket of batter and sold everything, always finishing before 5PM.

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What she was selling: “Nom Khrua,” amazing little pancakes made from rice batter, coconut milk, and scallions, with some salted coconut milk for dipping.  Once again, 16 for $1 if I recall correctly!

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Chinese shaved ice cream with black beans and jackfruit on top.

Farang Food

That puts an end to most of the real Khmer stuff that I managed to sample.   The following are mostly from Taiwanese-style Vegetarian restaurants in Phnom Penh and Battambang.

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Banana flower and tofu stir-fry; hugely dissapointing, totally failed to live up to the one I had in China.

I think I could go back to China just to eat that one meal again.

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Tofu nuggets (L), Gluten nuggets

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I recognize that it’s a frozen fast food patty on a bun laced with preservatives, but I can still never resist the charms of a veggie burger.

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On a menu with over 100 options, all veg, Minseong chooses…fried rice.  I don’t think I’ll ever understand Koreans.

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Battered mushrooms.

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Hot and sour wonton soup with faux meat.

Mélange a la Mike

In places where we were able to find neither restaurants, nor markets, or Taiwanese veg stalls, we were forced to fend for ourselves.  Minseong claims that I nearly starved him to death, but I think we ate pretty well.  You be the judge:

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Go-to meal A: heat some water, chop up some veggie while the noodles are cooking, throw it all together with some soy sauce.

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Who needs elaborate seasoning when you’ve got soy sauce and peanuts?

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Go-to Meal B: Same as A, but with rice instead.

Special tip: you can cook pumpkin or soaked legumes (small ones, at least) in the same pot as the rice, and at the same time.  More vitamins, more protein, more taste, no extra work!

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A valiant effort at a slightly more involved meal: noodles and veggies stir-fried with fresh curry paste from the market.  Turns out that the curry paste is pretty crappy if you don’t buy coconut milk to go along with it.

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Morning mélange: mangos, bananas, and coconut (to be added soon) over rice.   Decent, but also would have been better with coconut milk.  You could say that about just about anything in the world, though.

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You can also put the same mix on a sandwich.

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Or on a waffle!

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Or with leftover cross-sections of the banana and sticky rice snack.

Home Cookin’

The SC crew bonded daily and nightly over trying to recreate meals from home.  Sometimes you need stuff like that when you live in a small town in the middle of nowhere.

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Mary’s pumpkin soup.

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Kate’s bruschetta.

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My own scrambled egg (with garlic and ginger) sandwich.

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Another contribution by yours truly: a big heap of Korean-style pumpkin and mushroom (separate) pancakes, served with a rice/bean sprout/shiitake mushroom mix.  It ain’t exactly pretty, but people liked it.  Or at least they pretended to.

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Katia, an Italian volunteer at SC.  Everyone usually begged her to cook dinner.

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Risotto.

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Minestrone w/ oyster crackers.

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A kickass, portable plug-in convection oven.

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What better way to put it to use than to make MAC AND CHEESE WITH HOMEMADE BECHAMEL SAUCE, yo?????

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Co-chefs Mike and Chelsea, both Californians by birth, team up to bring a bit of Americana to Cambodia.

My lord, was it good.  Chelsea can have a 20%of the credit for this beast.  I’ll take the same.  We can allocate 50% to the pound of cheese and liter of milk that went into this beast, and the remaining 10% to the tub of butter.

So, yes, this is what I ate in Cambodia.   Maybe one day, some of it will come to a restaurant near you.

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One Response to Cambodian Food Compendium

  1. 윤영 이 says:

    Wow!! I really want to eat all ♥.♥