So where is all this good Khmer food hiding? Hint: you won’t find it in any backpacker place or tourist restaurant.
Let’s begin the day with breakfast: decent noodle soup can be had for 3000r just a few blocks west of Capitol at O Reussey Restaurant (thick yellow noodles with sliced beef is great).
For early risers (or all-nighters) 1000r plates or grilled pork on rice can be found at stalls near schools of any size – use your senses to pick the best one.
Another safe bet is rice porridge with flaked fish and X-shaped savoury donuts;this might not sound appealing but when it’s good, it lines the stomach well and soaks up the alcohol excess which seems to have turned toxic in your body. All of these options begin around sunrise and will have sold out and possibly packed away by 8a.m. – no all-day breakfasts here.
Lunchtime offers slimmer pickings as most Khmers will eat at home at midday and few restaurants bother to open then, whereas mornings see many Khmers (in towns at least) eating out.
Curbside eating around noon will see you competing for stool space with moto and cyclo drivers plus a few college students, and the array of aluminium pots may not contain much worth eating. Time to head to Lucky Burger or Sharky Mart?
Maybe, but if you are for some reason bent on trying to find good local grub,then wait a while. From around 2pm onwards the snackers begin to emerge, perhaps unsatisfied by the home-cooked luncheon of bland rice with watery fish soup. This could be the best time of the day for eating in Cambodia,when taste seems to take precedent over the day’s early offerings to provide sustenance.
Plus you still have the benefit of sunlight to assist you in avoiding culinary disasters.
Most snacks are freshly prepared, many before your eyes which boosts confidence, plus most ingredients in Cambodia are pretty,naturally produced and wholesome(the agrochemical ogres have made little headway here, unlike neighbouring countries or the West).
For a good range of options and generally tasty fare, one place to start is outside the Central Market facing east: grilled squid, soft white noodles with delicious green spicy sauce or creamy coconut curry sauce, spring rolls, variations of noodles in soup of fried,washed down with freshly pressed sugarcane juice. There are also the ubiquitous French bread with pate carts, but one snack at these can breed enough stomach beasties for many a session on the porcelain throne – munch with caution.
Getting even more locally oriented, stoop inside the Old Market: light and tasty bright yellow pancakes with chopped pork and bean sprout filling served with little slices of pork and grilled minced kebabs and a tray of garden fresh herbs and leaves (don’t ask if they wash the salad in Evian). Those with a sweet tooth might want to try some Khmer desserts towards the centre of the typically Cambodian Old Market, but choose your stall carefully or with advice; of the three vendors, one is head and shoulders better than the others.
Of course market dining makes no concessions to the foreigner’s delicate palate,so give a wide berth to chewy boiled innards, squidgy pig brain and other animal parts which may have never visited your stomach, and might not stay there too long if you foolishly tuck into a hearty entrail sundae.
After sunset local options can be found outside markets,even on the riverside and all sorts near the little funfair opposite the casino. Fruit shakes are nearly always excellent (don’t let them slip an egg in it though), but savoury options may seem rather unsavoury: deep-fried sparrows and yet more internal organs. And beware a Cambodian classic – inside that innocent white eggshell lurks an equally guiltless baby duck, steamed with beak, feathers and all for the diner’s delight. Proceed with caution, plenty of beer inside, and
you too can gradually explore a kind of culinary biology experiment. I was eased into it one night in Pursat, first being offered the less offensive yolky parts before finally managing after a dozen beers to eat a whole baby duck egg unsupervised. Alas all this training was worth nothing when I nonchalantly broke into an egg at sundown; with the addition of daylight I could see it all too graphically and being the day’s first food didn’t help, it was a shuddering nightmare. I have thereafter left all ducklings to hatch and meet a natural end.
In a provincial town everyone will know which are best. In Phnom Penh zooming over the Japanese Bridge will leave you spoilt for choice with scores of restaurants for several kilometres. On your left they face a lake, to the right many line the Mekong River. Some of them are enormous, the beer is never expensive, the food generally very good and reasonably priced, and service is fast and not at all unwelcoming. Grilled beef, eel soup, quail, superb freshwater lobster and spicy-sour chicken soup are all safe introductions to the better side of Khmer cuisine. Menus are pretty extensive.
Staying in town, some great late night restaurants can be found next to the field near Wat Phnom, serving a similar selection well into the night – cheap fresh draft beer and decent food at 4 in the morning is most appreciated when all your western options have shrunk to just The Walkabout.
Eating Khmer style is unpretentious, somewhat underrated and is essentially a case of the good, the bad and the ugly. Choosing with caution, trusted tips and a pinch of good fortune can see you smiling after eating. Blundering in with senses switched off can soon get messy, with lingering memories and aftertastes.
As is true in most countries the bad offerings are bad, and Cambodia is certainly no exception, but a little seeking turns up some unexpected rewards.