I don’t mean that Cambodian cooking is like eating the infamously suspect locally produced rubbers, though others may have investigated this further, but then what they were doing with undersized, inferior quality cock sheaths so I close to their taste buds I choose to ignore. If the statement is taken that local food here is the best, then I’ve heard it said with complete sincerity by a hell of a lot of people that Khmer cuisine is by far their favourite in the world. OK, most of those polled were Cambodians, in fact all of them were. But what do they know anyway? They don’t know any different right? An isolated culture and all that.
What foreigners think on the subject is of greater significance, being widely travelled, broad- minded, adventurous and adaptable. Well, it seems that the closest Khmer food comes to the top spot in the Barang mind would be if the gold medal was for the worst food, dodgiest dishes, skankiest snacks or blandest cuisine. But is that fair? Is it really that bad?
After all, Cambodia is never a world beater; even for corruption, genocide or number of amputees and national holidays some other nation pips them to the post and leaves this country playing second fiddle, eternal bridesmaid. Laos food would give any crappy cuisine a run for its money, Spanish food is no slouch for ordinary eating, with Eastern Europe another stronghold for shite bites. English cooking gets bad press too, yet the Rising Sun in Phnom Penh has one of the most popular menus in town.
To start with Khmer food is not the best in the world. It doesn’t claim to be or set out to be. It won’t be the next fad, you aren’t going to see Khmer restaurants springing up in a town near you, dishes rarely sound appealing on menus and bookshops are unlikely to have shelves groaning with coffee table books on the subject. Food here is neither visually stunning nor exotically spiced. However, whilst you’ll find it much easier to find examples of awful cooking here than in, say Thailand, Vietnam or Malaysia, it is possible to eat well in Cambodia.
Strange as it may seem, I actually like Cambodian cooking. I even relished it after spending too long in Thailand; between two and five days let’s say. What struck me were freshly baked bread (yes, real bread), beef stews like a rich goulash, black pepper which could be the world’s best, handmade noodles in a hearty and proper broth and chicken curry.
Though admittedly far from an endless list, those first impressions left their mark and I still defend Khmer food: but I’m no devotee or zealot, nor on a mission to make converts or on the payroll of the local tourist board. I’ll just say it as I see it, or rather as I eat it. Care to try?
Well, a bit of local knowledge does go a long way, especially in the tricky area of chowing down in Cambodia and whether you end up with a mouth watering delight or a stomach churning nightmare takes some knowledge so choose any ‘guide’ with care; keep eyes peeled and brain in tune, else before you know it you have a mouthful of vile sludge or foul gristle that has no right to enter your stomach. Eating tips could come from an expatriate, native or even a tourist but you may find it wise to hang back from your eating buddy by half a minute to give yourself the chance to view, refuse, bolt or decide that you or suddenly no longer peckish.
Taking a temporary girlfriend to any reasonable Khmer restaurant can reveal things about your dining partner as well as getting you a better feed. Can she read the menu or are her eyes glazed? Does she know how to order or is she a hick who has never been into a restaurant before? Does she order you loc lac and French fries or sweet and sour fish like she has done for every foreign boyfriend? I suppose it would be possible to find a local male to help you find you way to the finer dishes in a restaurant, but that doesn’t really seem particularly appealing.
So where is all this good Khmer food hiding? You won’t find it in any backpacker place or tourist restaurant but if you read part two of this article next week I’ll guide you carefully through the day.
Next Week: Where to find the good Khmer food.