Jenny Conrad meets a grouchy vendor of tasty vegetarian street food.
On a day when I’m in a rush or feel like a cheap and easy lunch, heading into the rabbit warren of the Russian Market is my default option to grab a bite to eat. My go-to place has become a stall featuring a giant pan of fried rice cakes with chives and spinach. Despite her grumpy demeanor, I have managed to come to a cautious understanding with the lady serving these.
The stall I frequent is the only one inside the Russian market I have found with chive rice cakes on offer. Located in one of the smaller food areas, the giant black pan sat over the fire makes it easy to identify against the blackened wall behind. The chive rice cakes – called nom kachay – are small patties made with glutinous rice flour and fried in a giant skillet.
These tasty morsels come in two varieties — round cakes with rice flour dough on the outside and a completely green filling or a denser square variety where the greens are blended into the rice flour mixture. I have tried asking Khmer colleagues what the name is for each variety, but apparently they are all simply referred to as nom kachay.
Depending on how hungry I’m feeling at the time, I will usually opt for a combination of chunky rice dough to fill me up and one or two greener goodies. I like to think the ones with lots of greens on the inside must be healthy in some way, but judging by the amount of oil they are fried in I doubt the nutritional content is really that high.
When I first discovered the stall, I was met with a less than welcoming reception. The expression of the lady presiding over the pan hovered somewhere between an exasperated ‘urgh-what-is-this-clueless-barang-doing-at-my-stall?’ and a not quite hostile ‘well-do-you-want-to-eat-or-not?’. Perhaps I just caught her on a bad day, but it was a far cry – literally – from the jolly calls of “nyam bai” and “sister, you like noodles?” from the ladies at other stalls nearby.
After a few confused mumbles of non-communication, I ended up with a bowl of nom kachay – liberally doused in an unidentified liquid – plopped in front of me.
Now when it comes to food it’s always great to have options, but the problem is I am yet to discover what everyone else says to differentiate between the two varieties of nom kachay when they order. As with all food stalls in the Russian market, it’s not difficult to get up close and personal with the food as it’s being cooked, so I tend to just head towards the pan and start pointing.
However, my limited Khmer skills have not been successful in communicating much more than the fact that I would like to eat what she is cooking. The addition of some basic numbers along with this has caused a little confusion between the rice cake lady and I; regardless of what I say, I always seem to just get one of each.
Identifying them as big and small doesn’t seem to work either. While I definitely think the square ones are larger in terms of depth and being much more filling, from above they all look similar and so my efforts at communicating are still met with a blank stare.
Fortunately it is always easy to ask for one more, so we have settled into a congenial routine where I start with two and work my way up from there. I’m sometimes surprised at how much we are able to communicate, given her lack of English and my decidedly botched attempts at Khmer. Over the months, my original grumpy greeting has metamorphosed into more of a nod of recognition that I am a reasonably regular customer. I even once won a grudging smile when I ventured to tell her that my lunch was very tasty.
Our conversations progressed even further when one day I sat down to lunch and the Rice Cake Lady felt she should inform me that her prices had been raised. Perhaps worried that I still didn’t have a great grasp of numbers – although to be fair I did feel I had mastered the words for one thousand and five hundred by that point – she proceeded to accompany her words with lots of waving of various notes around in front of me.
I quickly deduced that she was trying to tell me that the cost per cake was being increased from 1000 riel to 1500 riel. While a 50% increase seems a pretty steep hike to me, I still feel it’s worth it considering a heaped plate of four nom kachay amounts to just $1.50. To be honest, I was flattered that she considered me a sufficiently regular customer to be told this in advance. Needless to say, I won’t be discontinuing my visits to her stall any time soon.
However, our relationship hasn’t quite progressed to the stage where she would allow me to take her picture. The most she would allow was a rather blurred image of her swiftly turning away from the main attraction — the food.
Enter the Russian market via the central entrance from St 163 and continue until your reach the first area of food stalls towards the centre of the market. The rice cake lady should be on your right hand side.