My Tuol Tumpoung Fish Crawl

Posted on by Anna Spencer
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For a lover of fish life is good here in Cambodia where you really don’t have to go far for a good fish supper (or fish breakfast…fish lunch….fish snack ….fish cheese). Fish are literally everywhere. Even the walls in the classroom where I teach have fish posters on them and half my students have exercise books covered with fish species charts.

During my first month here I remember my motodop stopping at traffic lights next to a man on a moto with about 800 kilos of spring onions on the back and a dozen frantic catfish in the basket on the front. One fish got itself in such a flap it catapulted right out of the basket. The lights were about to change so I hopped off my moto, picked up the fish from the road and plopped it back in the basket as the man nodded gratefully. Yes, here in Cambodia we are literally surrounded by fish.

Which, for me personally, is a very good thing.

My favourite food memories involve fish and seafood. The Sunday sardine festival in Calella in the Costa Brava where I lived whilst I was waitressing for the summer was pretty unforgettable….turn up, pay nothing, fill a plastic cup with rioja, grab a fresh bbq’d sardine and a hunk of bread with olive oil and find yourself a place on the sea wall to enjoy with the locals.

Back home in Essex the place for seafood and celebration, where I enjoyed my leaving meal before I came to Cambodia and where I will gather friends and family for a pre wedding feast next year is The Company Shed in Mersey, where you turn up with a baguette and a few bottles of wine and pick your seafood platter from a delicious array of freshly caught mussels, prawns, oysters, razor clams. I am looking forward to Makara trying razor clams; I reckon he’ll love them.

There are a few good cooks in my family-my little brother is the master of moussaka whereas my older brother holds the record for the best fish pie, the only Western food I have yet to find in Cambodia, which I think it is better suited to a cold autumn day after a long walk, and washed down with a cloudy cider anyway. That’s one dish Makara won’t appreciate: when I cooked mashed potatoes for him once he was actually physically sick – he’s definitely no spud man.

Just as Makara enjoys watching my face contort when I taste prohok, I also can’t wait to introduce him to such British delights as jellied eels and potted shrimp and maybe I’ll even test out my childhood fish favourite on him – a fish finger sandwich with plenty of tomato sauce. And of course I can’t wait for us to go for a wonderful windy sea side stroll and eat fish and chips out of newspaper: cliché I know, but it has to be done. So much more fish excitement to come!

In the meantime, as a fish lover living opposite Tuol Tumpoung market, here are my favourite local fish and seafood dishes suppers.

BBQ Mackerel on the Corner (See top photo)

Of course Cambodia’s version of fish and chips is fish and rice, but I see no need for rice where this fish take-out is concerned. A one legged man gets his BBQ going around 5.30pm and around 6 is surrounded by people pausing their drive home to choose their mackerel.

For between 3-5 dollars depending on size you get an absolutely beautiful fresh BBQ mackerel with shiny, crispy skin and deliciously smoky white flesh. You also get a massive bag of crunchy lettuce, cabbage and cucumber with holy basil and a few baggies of a really delicious tangy green sauce made with tomatoes, fish sauce chili.

It’s the Tuol Tumpoung version of a crunchy battered cod with tartar sauce and mushy peas (and also much healthier!) The mackerel is best devoured wrapped in lettuce and dunked in the sauce and is, like most South East Asian food, a perfect accompaniment to a cold beer.

BBQ Seafood and Ray

I was pleasantly surprised by Tuol Tumpoung market’s recent addition of a couple of fresh seafood stalls. As the DVD shops close their stalls the plastic chairs and metal tables are laid out in front and the BBQ is lit around 5.30, so by 6pm it makes a very good Tuol Tumpoung tapas stop before a night out.

I order a couple of beers in plastic ups with ice and straws and a few little plates of squid, prawns and for 5000 riel a pretty tasty BBQ ray. This is served with the usual sides of fish sauce and fresh chili, lime pepper dip, sweet chili sauce or tangy green sauce, and sundown can be happily wiled away ordering more and more plates of little orange plastic plates of expertly barbecued seafood and fish.

Crispy Fried Fish and Pickles

Coming in at the cheapest fish supper-buy a couple of bags of pickled ginger vegetables and/or pickled bok choy with chili and a crispy fried river fish from the lady who sets up her stall just in time for my 5.30 finish and knows my order so well that she bags it up when she sees me coming: perfect for those evenings when you are knackered and want to do no more than pull a couple of dollars out of your pocket and collapse in a hammock with a bowl of fish, rice and pickles.

For beer gatherings, we get a spread of this fish as well as a few bbq beef skewers with papaya salad and there is our local surf and turf feast for under $5.

Sour Soup with Catfish and Banana Flower

Just down the road on st.155 opposite the Open Arms salon is my favourite hang bai- no English menus so you need to ask for what you want in Khmer or go with Khmer friends. Serving lunch and dinner they have all the typical local soups and stir fries cooked to order and everything that I have eaten there has been superb.

My favourite dish at the moment is a sour soup with fresh catfish and banana flour served steaming and lip-smackingly light and fragrant. My second favourite dish -one that I have tried and failed so many times to recreate at home- is their fried fish with ginger and soybean which is just absolutely fantastic.

The Best Fish and Chips in Phnom Penh

OK, so I have to leave Tuol Tumpoung for this one, but especially on those stormy days when the temperature drops a little and it’s time for a taste of home I need go no further than The Empire on 130, where local fish is fried in beer batter served with chunky chips and tartar sauce which hits the spot perfectly, especially washed down with a Magner’s cider on ice.

Yet another reason why I love Cambodia -I can feast on fish and seafood for breakfast, lunch and dinner perfectly cheaply and I could probably spend the next twenty years here and still not have tried all the local fish dishes on offer. A happy future of fish feasting awaits.

Anna Spencer

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7 Responses to My Tuol Tumpoung Fish Crawl

  1. philip phan says:

    having eaten bbq mackerel the way you described it before, my mouth waters while reading your piece. have you tried it w/ roasted garlic tamarind sauce yet? it’s so delicious! that’s it! bbq fish w/ tamarind sauce for me for dinner tonight. thank you for another excellent piece.

  2. Lawrence Chea says:

    You really hit it home for me with this article. My mother makes the best crispy fried fish with ginger and soybean. It’s rare to find this dish in the resturants in the States.

  3. Peter Hogan says:

    Hey Anna

    Have you got an address for the mackerel place? I don’t get out of work until 5.30pm on Monday but work nearby Psah Toul Tumpoung so it seems the perfect opportunity to grab a take away on my way home.

  4. anna says:

    Hi Peter,

    Yep, it’s on the corner opposite the street food stalls- the strip of 163 that has all the pharmacies in a row. Enjoy!

  5. Jay says:

    Phnom Penh being located at the butthole end of the Mekong River has me extremely concerned as to the quality/toxicity of river fish in Cambodia. A quick look at a map shows the Mekong meandering through thousands of miles of unregulated industry and agricultural lands. All that run-off ends up in the river and in your fish. Love me some fish, but I’ll stick with ocean varieties for now.

  6. CanDo says:

    Hi Anna, another fun read. I know this place well, close to my house.

    By the way, I sent u a friend message on FB (my ID: sophiavimol) but have yet to see your acceptance. I was meaning to seek your advice on a private separate matter if you don’t mind.

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