The Idiot’s Guide to Buying Food at Khmer MarketsAugust 3, 2006
As I sit in front of this 2Mb broadband-connected computer screen, a very reasonably-priced and perfectly chilled Viognier beside me and the memory of a non-financially based sexual encounter fresh in my mind, one question hammers away at my forehead – why am I writing in the style of Playboy?
So I’ll stop that and answer the real question – what’s something that I miss about Cambodia while I’m cosseted in western luxury back in England?
Bizarrely, the thing that immediately leaps into my head is the face of the cross-legged gap-toothed pyjama-bottomed “seller” who I bought my meat from twice a week at Psar O’Russey.
It might seem strange, but for me one of the greatest pleasures of living in Cambodia is the ritual of going to the market every other day to buy food. And it struck me that it can be a fairly intimidating experience to begin with, yet once your confidence is up it can be highly rewarding. Especially when it comes to fruit. So I thought I’d prepare a small guide to help you on your way if you’re new in town, visiting for a few weeks, or have been here years and never once lit up your standard issue twin gas hob.
Cooking for yourself can be a great experience if you’re remotely adventurous, as there’s so many fantastic ingredients that can be bought at a fraction of the cost you’d get back home. Buy a squid and teach yourself how to strip it down. Get a kilo or two of raw prawns for a pittance. Buy pork with actual flavour to it, something you certainly don’t get in England.
To buy these things and others, you need some very basic Khmer and to forget your squeamishness, because Tesco’s it ain’t.
Seeing (and smelling) flesh and entrails hanging off hooks might offend your western sensibilities, but it’s worth remembering that with no refrigeration the produce has to be fresh. I have never once had food poisoning from market-bought food.
Also, the very experience itself is entertaining. My regular pork seller swiftly got to know me, and I was the subject of much good-humoured banter from her and her pig-vending cronies when I came in to buy, but she also treated me as a favourite as her pet barang, giving me the best cuts. It’s also worth noting for the pecunially-challenged amongst you that you CANNOT get ripped off on food, the price is fixed.
More on that later. So, onto the actual buying experience. We”ll start with meat.
Your best bets here are pork and beef. There’ll be an area of sellers for each type of meat, have a wander around until you see a stall that appears cleaner/has a more attractive seller/is busier than others, and just go for it.
Buying food in markets is done by the kilo, which in Khmer handily is kilo, or in amounts of 100g, which is a cam. If you don’t know the words, pointing is sufficient to indicate ribs, kidneys or whatever you fancy, but something that’s handy to know is that sot (exactly the same word as in dteuk sot for pure water) will get you pure (i.e. no innards) meat. For example, saich ch’rook sot muay kilo gets you a kilo of pork, saich goh sot bpram-muay cam gets you 600 grams of beef. Gonlah for half is a good word to know, as in saich chrook sot gonlah kilo. Half a kilo of pork.
Chicken is a bit weirder, you’re buying whole chickens usually, if you don’t want the guts then yoak k”nong jayn (literally “take the insides out”) is your friend. With all meat they’ll cut it, trim the fat and have it in a cheap plastic bag before you know it. Visit the same seller twice and they”re cutting your favoutite order as you’re approaching.
That’s customer service, Asian-style. Unless you want something different from last time, of course.
The world of seafood is where real bargains are to be had. It”s still alive for Christ”s sake, you can”t get fresher than that. I’m a big lover of muk (squid) and bong-gear (prawns). They come raw, and they need a bit of prep, especially the squid (tip: empty the ink out), but are so worth it.
Fish is a bit of a minefield, and I’m happy to admit that I never completely got the hang of it, but as a rule the more expensive it is the better it is.
Just like they’ll trim the meat, they’ll fillet the fish and sell it in amounts that you want, cam and kilo as before.
Vegetables are a piece of piss and so cheap you won’t believe it. The seller has a metal dish. You pick out your aubergines (dtrop k’dor goh – aubergine cow’s cock), carrots, yams, whatever and put them into the outstretched metal dish.
He/she fills up a giant carrier bag for you, and asks for about 3500 riel. You walk away going “Bugger me, that”s cheap.” Easy.
Ahhh, fruit. The piece de resistance of the Cambodian market. If you live in a tropical country, one of the genuine pleasures is the availability of tropical fruit, and if you don”t buy it you’re a mug.
Local girls love it for a start. Some fruit is available year-round, for example the ubiquitous mango and pineapple, but a lot of fruit is seasonal and is the only thing you can get caught out on the price of. Sao-mao (rambutans), plai neark (Dragon fruit), plus mangosteen, tamarinds and many many more are only freely sold for a few weeks at a time, when in season.
For a week or two before, as they first come in, the price can be as high as 6-8000r/kilo, gradually coming down to about 1500r for a few weeks before creeping back up again as they become scarcer. There are two problems here – one is becoming so addicted to something that you end up paying 10,000r for a kilo of something in Psar Thmei because no-one else has got it (yes, that was me) and you can”t live without it, and also not knowing where on the up-and-down-scale you are at any given time.
To be fair to the market traders, it’s the only chance they’ve got to rip off a barang throughout the year, so don’t be too aggrieved at paying 4000r for a kilo of mangosteen as they’re coming into season only to find your Khmer neighbour has got them for 2500. The bottom line is that the fruit is fantastic. Eat it.
One more thing to do is choose a market. The main four are Psar Thmei (Central Market), Psar O”Russey, Psar Kandal and Psar Toul Tom Poung (Russian Market). Your choice will depend a lot on where you live and which market you feel most comfortable in. All have pros and cons. Psar Thmei is obviously big, central and has more English spoken. It is also the most expensive. Psar Toul Tom Poung is big and quite cheap, but is a way out. Psar O’Russey is massive and very cheap, but isn’t geared towards foreigners at all. Put your Khmer head on. Psar Kandal is the cheapest, but also the grottiest. My personal choice for food would always be O’Russey. As I mentioned before, the prices are fixed in each market for food. Each seller does have signs up, although even the numbers may be in Khmer. As a rough idea, pork costs 10,500r/kilo in Psar Kandal. 11,000 in O.Russey, 11,500 – 12,000 in Toul Tom Poung and 13,000 in Psar Thmei. Beef is about 18,000/kilo. Fish, squid and prawns are cheaper than beef. So what are you waiting for? Stop paying $5 or more for a crappy “western” meal, dive in to the wonderfully raw world of Asian food markets and make yourself some home-made calamari tonight. Or something. Just try it. I did, and I loved it.