Khmer cuisine is a curious thing, as it sits on the crossroads between Thai and Vietnamese dishes, though the dishes are slightly more sweetish, minus the stomach-burning heat yet still bursting with flavour with the abundance of herbs used in each one.
Steven, our guide for the local food tour that we are taking of Siem Reap—and an ex-Scottish chef in a previous life—thinks that the cuisine in this region generally evolved at the same time, only with slight but distinct regional variations as national boundaries changed over the years.
The tuk-tuk we pile on goes around the corner from where we stay and into a fairly large shop where the locals feast on a fish porridge—the kind that’s boiled in a clear broth with filleted pieces of fish and a multitude of herbs floating in it—and dough fritters bundled in a clear plastic bag, should you wish to dip it in the broth. It’s the traditional breakfast that Cambodians eat and according to Steven, it’s only one of the few original stores left in the old market area that hasn’t been priced out of the area altogether when the tourists started coming and the prices started rising. It’s delicious, fragrant with the amount of herbs in it and non-smelly (as fish can be, when boiled) which is frankly, an absolute revelation.
While we eat, Steven talks a little about his history and our favourite cuisines. I half-listen and chip in how much I like Middle-Eastern food, too busy devouring the soup and the pandan tea.
We trundle to the wet market next and it’s a massive one as our driver stops at the edge of it. We enter through a small muddy lane, where both pedestrians and motorcycles have equal rights passing through. A bewildering array of vegetables and herbs are laid out on both sides of the lane (I get excited when I recognise some of them), and Steven chatters with the shopkeepers in Cambodian as he buys a myriads of things from the wet market some of which whose names I’ve already forgotten: fried banana fritters, fried coconut and rice flour waffles, a few variants of rice cakes, pickled vegetables, jackfruit, delicious coconut ‘cakes’, for starters.
We eat a few of them, and then leave the rest as a ‘non-bribe’ to the Angkor complex checkpoint officers so that our tuk-tuk’s passage through the complex (and into the village) would be smooth. As we talk, several storekeepers come over and make fun of Steven’s Cambodian. Laughing at his expense is a regular occurrence, though it seems to have more to do with the fact that they can’t get over how a Caucasian is trying to speak their language and getting it mostly wrong.
A slight drizzle starts, turning dusty lanes into muddy ones with huge potholes of dirty water. Meanwhile, the conversation flows: from corruption in Cambodia, health care standards, NGOs whom the government relies on to keep the general populace educated and fed, foreign investment, rural life and racial tensions as we walk around the stands of raw meat, clothes and vegetables…and how much Steven loves the dogs and puppies in the village.
On the way to the village, we stop yet again, to get some barbecued frogs stuffed with pork (seasoned with turmeric and other spices) and omelettes with herbs cooked over hot coals. We pinch some off; the rest are given to stray dogs that look tetchy and desperate for scraps.
The village is a long road with houses and farmland bordering it. We stop somewhere in the middle and walk into a few families’ homes to see how rice is milled and how traditional rice noodles are made. Steven explains that there is a measure of sustainable living among the villagers who live off the land and this self-sufficiency means that few of them don’t really venture out to the city, despite Siem Reap being only about 14 kilometres from it. But while the villagers hardly leave their homes, they’re more than happy to see foreigners stepping into their world and getting to know them a little. It’s a good exchange, so we’re told.
The last full meal of the tour is Nom banh chok Samlar Khmer and my favourite of the day, a bowl of rice noodles made from fermented rice with gravy made with fermented fish paste and coconut, garnished with raw vegetables like banana blossom, water lily stems and fresh herbs. I slurped mine quickly, then felt regretful that there weren’t more of it.
We pile into the tuk-tuk once again as the sun peeks out a bit. Slowly, the old market area and the surrounding traffic congestion come into sight as the grey clouds come around the edges. By the time we get ready to go out for dinner at a French creole place, the rain starts to come down, getting heavier by the minute. The sludge and mud are challenging to wade through and our shoes are dirtied, then dirtied some more. Things go awry at the last minute—though this is probably routine for Cambodians—a dead baby lizard gets stuck in the hairdryer and makes the hotel room smell ominously like barbecued meat. The windows leak, as does the huge lizard living behind the mini fridge that calls out persistently throughout the night.
But it’s a full, memorable day. Not all Cambodian food is to my liking, which doesn’t come as a surprise, but a few of these dishes have already, within a span of a few hours, become my favourites.