Breakfast: The Khmers’ make little distinction between foods served for breakfast, lunch or dinner. My working day starts at 07:00, at around 8 o’clock various staff members here pop out for breakfast; I have gotten into the habit of joining them 2 or 3 times a week. Having tried fish-head soup and noodle soup with pork or beef dumplings, I have settled on what I consider to be the least problematic Khmer breakfast food, which is: Bai Sak Chrook Literally translates as ‘Rice with the meat of the pig’ and consists of a medium sized pile of rice, on which is placed chopped bacon – very thick slices of bacon, approx a quarter of an inch thick. This is garnished with green tomatoes and slices of cucumber. As accompaniments you are served gherkins/picked veg and a sweet chilli sauce. You also get a small bowl of fish broth flavoured with coriander and spring onions. How you eat this all is down to personal taste, for me, I mix the bacon and rice and add the sweet chilli sauce. The broth is eaten at the end to ‘clean the mouth’ and to use up any left over rice. Personally I hate gherkins, so I just ignore them!
Lunch: On those occasions when I go out for lunch with the guys from the office, rather than go home. I often have the fish amok. Fish Amok (or Amok Trey) This is generally considered the ‘national dish’ of Cambodia. However, it comes in two different styles. The usual type is a thin, lightly curried, soup or broth containing medium sized pieces of white fish (whatever is seasonally available), as well as potatoes, carrots and any other seasonally available vegetables. Topped off with a very generous swirl of cream and a big pile of fresh coriander. It is served with steamed rice. The other version that is becoming more popular, is a newer creation originally served only in Khmer restaurants catering to ex-pats. It is a completely different style of dish altogether. Small discs of fish, around an inch and a half in diameter, are served with a thick reduction of the curried sauce spooned on top, each garnished with a sprig of coriander. These bite sized nibbles make a great appetizer and serve as a good introduction to Khmer food for the newly arrived, or tourists.
Dinner: Dining out with my Khmer colleagues is always something of an adventure, as I have mentioned previously. When we [eventually] decide on a restaurant and we [eventually] decide where in the restaurant where we want to sit, several dishes are ordered between us all.
This pot porri of dishes arrive as the dish is cooked and ready, not all at the same time as it does back in the West. A typical selection of dishes would include:
Baked snakehead fish. Snakehead is a large, white fleshed freshwater fish common in Cambodia. Often baked whole [and I mean whole; head, eyes, gills, intestines…] it arrives on a bed of assorted green things.In Cambodia almost nothing goes to waste, so every part of the fish is eaten, excepting the bones…
Pork and Cashew Stir-fry. A very simple dish, often containing seasonal vegetables as well; carrots, spring onions, bok choy, etc
Stir-fried Morning Glory. Morning glory is a semi-aquatic plant, thick green tuberous stems, looking a little like asparagus without the tips, it has a slightly bitter taste, but is one of the few vegetables that are available for most of the year here. It is quite often served topped in oyster sauce, or with prohoc – prohoc is a semi-fermented fish-paste that the Khmers seem to smoother over everything. Its smell can offend at 25 yards and is generally considered to be disgusting by all but the Khmer.
Mango ‘slaw. One of my personal favourites, although sadly we are now reaching the end of the mango season. Julienne strips of green mango [not the sweet yellow mango] are marinated in white vinegar, fresh red chillies and sugar. The resulting salad is hot, fiery and refreshing all at the same time. It really refreshes the palate if you have been eating anything greasy or anything covered in prohoc…
Fish and pineapple soup. Towards the end of the main courses arriving, a huge tabletop tureen, complete with its own paraffin burner underneath, will often arrive, this contains a fish and pineapple soup. Eaten at the end of the meal, it serves to make sure that everyone has had enough to eat and that nobody leaves the table still hungry. If you can avoid the fish heads and fisheyes floating around in it, then it is actually a pleasant dish Of course, during the whole of this dining experience, mountains and mountains of rice are being served. If you blink or glance away, your bowl will quickly be topped up with more rice.
Puddings, Desserts or Sweets. Fresh fruit. Very nice, very fresh, fruit, but that is about your lot for traditional Khmer pud !
And the Rest …. Although there is abundant food grown in and is available in Cambodia, a poor transportation infrastructure and the years of civil war and unrest did create many periods where rural areas faced famine conditions.
It was during these periods that some of the more ‘unconventional’ dishes came into being. The most notable of these being: Deep-fried salted cockroaches Stir-fried locusts and grasshoppers Stir-fried water beetles – N.B. water beetles are around 3 to 4 inches long and 2 wide Battered and deep-fried tarantula – the whole spider, very recognisable! Grilled sparrows on a stick (3 whole birds BBQ’d on a wooden skewer – and when I say whole, I mean whole, feathers, heads, entrails, etc) Grilled frogs on a stick (3 whole frogs BBQ’d on a wooden skewer – again, whole means whole….) Even today all of these dishes are available in the many markets around the country.
Over the last 4 months I have found myself in a couple of situations where it would have been rude to my hosts to not at least try a couple of the dishes above. All I can say is that Deep-fried salted cockroaches taste a lot like dry-roasted peanuts, and that stir-fried locusts just shatter and fall to bits when you eat them, those many legs get stuck between the teeth very easily…. Bon Appetite !!!