Jenny Conrad continues her search for budget vegetarian street food in Phnom Penh.
Having conquered my initial wariness of Cambodian street food in the Russian market – largely through an appreciation of the tasty nom kachay available – I slowly started to branch out to sample some of the other options on offer and seem to have become quite a regular at one particular stall selling lort cha — stir-fried short rice noodles.
While ambling around the food court one day in search of a quick bite, I was accosted by a smiling woman who cheerily sang out, “Hello, sister, you want noodles?” Having been eyeing the fried noodles in a number of places for a while, I decided that perhaps this was the time to give them a try.
This particular stall I frequent is overseen by three sisters — KimSeyan, Chanthol and Chanthuon. Chanthuon was the lady who was enthusiastically greeting market-goers and herding them towards the food. With a big smile and a twinkle in her eye as she accosted passers-by, I thought this was a good opportunity to attempt some of my limited Khmer in response to her greeting.
“Yes, but I don’t eat meat.” From experience, I’ve found it’s always a good idea to state this up front before the dish is cooked in order to avoid any unexpected ingredients being thrown in.
“No meat. No problem. Fried noodles and vegetables, ok?” was the reply.
After establishing the cost – $1 per plate – I took my place on the stools as Chanthuon directed a stream of Khmer over my head at her sister, KimSeyan. Most days, KimSeyan can be found behind the stall, wielding a knife or spatula as she constantly chops, mixes and fries. While Chanthuon is the most friendly of the bunch, KimSeyan is a little more detached, only engaging with the customers when she directs terse questions as to their preferences.
The spirit of family enterprise is alive and strong, with the adjoining juice stall presided over by the third sister, Chanthol. Quieter than her more outgoing sibling but with a very ready smile, she offers fresh orange or passion fruit juice – also for a dollar – to the customers Chanthuon directs her way.
On my first visit, the plate of noodles placed before me was exactly what I was looking for. The plump short noodles had been coated in thick soy sauce and stir-fried until they were piping hot. Bean sprouts and bok choi were briefly steamed before being dumped into the pan, followed by some chives. The resulting dish may appear simple but provides a quick, filling lunch on the cheap.
Having accepted that there are limits to how strictly vegetarian it is possible to be in Cambodia if I wish to do things like eat lunch at the market, I have to admit I turned a bit of a blind eye to what may or may not have been cooked in the pan beforehand. I’m hoping it was hot enough to just burn off anything I might not want to eat; the heat emanating from the cooker certainly made it seem so as I sat there in the soaring midday temperatures.
Regardless, I’ve come to enjoy my little chats with Chanthuon and their other customers as I wait my turn, so I keep returning for more.
I swear that each time I eat there the ingredients are a little bit different. One day I watched KimSeyan add a liberal sprinkle of sugar as she cooked; another, it was a squeeze of lime. On other occasions, my noodles have been topped with crushed peanuts. I once accepted the offer of a fried egg on top – these are usually pre-cooked and can be rather rubbery so I’ve avoided them since. However, I’ve learned to just take it as it comes as most permutations of the meal end up being pretty tasty.
As for the fresh juice, this is accompanied by the compulsory saturation with sugar. Tasty as it is, I have found there’s a limit to how much over-sweetened liquid one can gulp down in one sitting. As the sweetness of my drinks seemed to slowly increase each week, I’ve taken to tempering my juice orders with a request for less sugar.
While I tend to stick with the noodles, these aren’t the only food on offer at the sisters’ stall. I’ve seen many people order a meaty noodle soup, while others eating there have told me that their fresh spring rolls are very tasty. As with most places, it is less a case of asking what dishes they have on offer as stating which of the ingredients on display you fancy and how you prefer them cooked. Chanthuon is very happy to launch into a discussion about this with potential customers. If they happen to be barangs, she has no qualms about collaring unsuspecting Khmer patrons to ask them to translate for her when needed.
I’ve witnessed this happen on more than one occasion. When she was struggling to convey the fact that the stall would be shuttered the following day for Chinese New Year, I did feel rather sorry for the poor young guy sitting next to me who practically had his earphones wrenched from his head as she demanded he explain this to me. Fortunately he didn’t seem too perturbed and was happy to chat away with me for a while.
Having become a regular, I am now unable to escape their attention. Wandering through that part of the market one day with my arms full of grocery bags, as I happened to pass them she spotted me in the crowd. Beaming at me across the other market-goers, I heard “Hello sister! Ot saich, ot saich!” I’m never sure how much the owners pay attention to the various barangs who pop by for their lunch, but she never fails to spot me as I shop.
Whether it’s me or simply my culinary preferences, I’ve become recognised enough that I don’t even have to order any more — but can just grab a seat and wait for a plate of steaming noodles to be handed over.
The noodle stall can be found at the northern end of the larger food hall in the middle of the Russian market, next to the Vietnamese pancakes.