Upon landing in Phnom Penh’s tiny airport, I had a good idea of what to expect in Cambodia. The temples were a must-see – from the ancient mega structures of Siem Reap to the more modern (but just as interesting) buildings in Phnom Penh. I was also prepared for the onslaught of children offering us souvenirs, toys and trinkets at every turn. But one of my favorite memories caught me off guard: the market food. It is truly some of the freshest and tastiest stuff in all of Asia. Don’t go hungry on your visit to Cambodia; take the plunge and try some of these treats, available almost anywhere.
Fish Amok at the Old Market in Siem Reap
If Cambodia had a national entrée, this would be it. Given the easy access to plenty of freshwater resources, fish is easy to come by, inexpensive, and fresh, so whenever you have the choice, go for seafood. Amok is one of the many spices uses frequently in the Cambodian kitchen; you can find it for sale in any of the markets and it makes a cheap, easy-to-carry-home souvenir. Fish amok is prepared by adding in kroeung, a herbal paste, as well as coconut milk and steaming the final concoction in rice. The dish is typically served cooked in a banana leaf cup – almost too pretty to eat. Almost. Sometimes this is called amok trey. You’ll find it any restaurant, though I’d suggest you check out your options at the Old Market in Siem Reap. The menus are in English and the staff are friendly, which makes ordering easy. Another similar dish that you might like is Bai Cha, which is kind of like Cambodian fried rice, though if you’re not sure just ask your server for a recommendation.
Palm Sugar from the Central Market in Siem Reap
My introduction to palm sugar was very serendipitous; our tour guide mumbled something about stopping on the side of the road to sightsee. We didn’t understand what the attraction was (given we were in the middle of nowhere) but we gave him the benefit of the doubt and stopped. To our surprise, we were standing in what could Phnom Pehnbasically be called a roadside kitchen. There a mother and her young child stood stirring a boiling pot of liquid that looked kind of like maple syrup, but thinner. The equipment was simple, but crude. Our guide explained that this was the sugar of palm leaves, and offered us a brown-sugar like candy to try; the rich, earthy flavour cannot be described. Palm sugar is Cambodian candy, but because it has no preservatives or additives, it is the sugar sweet taste without the downside. If you don’t have the opportunity to stop by one of the roadside stalls (they are hard to spot), just pop into the central market where you’ll find it at many food stalls, usually wrapped in palm leaves. If you’re at one of the restaurants next to the market and wanting dessert, they probably will not have just palm sugar, but they will have sankya lapov (pumpkin/coconut flan).
Cambodian BBQ on Pub Street in Siem Reap
I’ve asked around and can’t seem to get a straight answer whether this is based on authentic Cambodian traditions, or it is simply an import from Western nations, but having a Cambodian BBQ restaurant experience is a must-do. The restaurant is squeezed in with many other establishments on Pub Street, which is just steps from the Angkor night market. You’ll sit down and order the types of meats you want, then the server will bring you a very warm clay oven pot. On top of that they’ll place what looks like an upside-down bowl with little slits in it. Your server will rub a garlicy-butter substance on the bowl, then pour a liquid over it where it will fill in reservoirs around the sides of the top of the clay oven. Then your server will disappear – it is assumed you know what you’re doing. We didn’t, but we quickly figured that the vegetables go into the warming liquid, and the meats get fried on the top of the oven. You’ll need to act quickly, as this thing is hot, but the entire event makes for a hilarious night out. Be sure to branch out and try a few different meats; the menu selection ranges from boring choices like beef or chicken, to more inventive choices like snake, kangaroo, crocodile, frog, and even ostrich! This is the perfect place to go before or after a bit of a shopping spree under the stars.Khmer
Curry at the Central Market in Phnom Pehn
I love a good curry and had no idea that Cambodia was really second only to India for the freshness, flavours and tastes of their curry dishes. Out of the many market stalls and restaurants that surround the enormous central market in central Phnom Pehn, the khmer curry was really my top selection; both times I tried it, it arrived in kind of a soup bowl with lots of broth. Khmer curry calls for a multitude of ingredients: lemongrass, turmeric, kaffir lime, sweet potato, potato, onion, and carrot to name a few. It comes with various meats – I can highly recommend either tofu or chicken. They’re not stingy with the rice, so this is one dish you will not finish hungry for more.
Fried Spiders at “The” Market in Sihanoukville
During the tough latter years of Khmer rule, the Cambodians working out in the fields were running out of food, and resorted to eating basically anything that wouldn’t eat them first. That included bugs, insects, and yes: spiders. It turns out that the Skuon spider, a grotesque hairy tarantula, is the tastiest. Now in more prosperous times, sales of the spider are up; it is typically served deep fried with garlic and salt. At “the market” – which is actually called Phsar Leu (the Upper Market in English) but so huge everyone just calls it the market – you’ll see people walking around with trays of them, little crispy legs dangling from the side. I couldn’t get past the un-adulterated appearance to taste one, nor did I try any of the ‘medicinal wine’ also made from the same animal. Maybe next time. Because I will definitely be back.