|Oh… rice. Hello.|
The food and drink we enjoyed in Cambodia was enjoyable, but not life-changingly memorable… with three very notable exceptions.
Rice is THE primary crop here (and pepper, if you go to the Kampot region) and, with the kingdom still in a rather steep process of post-war recovery, frankly the cheapest – the result is the “rice with stuff” syndrome, but kind of bland. Rice with chicken. Rice with pork. Rice with beans. There’s not much deviation. I’ve had these dishes hundreds of times before in Vietnam. In many ways, it was staples, and not much else… the ‘meat and potatoes’ of SE Asia, the ‘bread and butter,’ but not much in the way of a historical ‘jam’ to spread on top. In other words, it was good and nourishing but kind of boring – although you probably could have guessed I’d say that, after spending some time exploring the ridiculously intricate palette of Vietnamese culinary traditions.
As with any trip, it started with coffee… although not as sweet as Vietnamese Iced, it was a great cup of Joe after two days of traveling.
Our food journey was about to begin, and it wasn’t long until we had our first .
This leads me to my first revelation:
1. Khmer cooks have a few interesting tricks, and they do them really, really well. And in at least one particularly notable example, they’re capable of blowing your socks off.
My first example just has to be SquidPorks(TM). This was located at the Pregnant Lady Palace (Not real name. Also, who is now no longer pregnant, because I waited to write about this for months). These salty mofos are exactly what they look like, and just as delicious as you are imagining right now. I would imagine that it’s actually kind of hard to mess up deep fried squids stuffed with pork, but since I’m not going to be making this at home anytime soon, I’ll just go ahead and recommend the hell out of this dish when you’re in the region. This is the stuff that cravings dream about.
She also made a mean dish of green beans. Not die happy good, but a pretty tasty dinner. Gotta get your roughage!
Our second Khmer surprise was the vegetarian restaurant Chamkar. WOW. Located in an amazing series of Alleys and Passages (actually, one alley named “The Alley” and another alley named “The Passage” filled with restaurants, crafts, and bars, this was the perfect fancy gateway to the rest of the week.
Our appetizers were coconut and mushroom dip with baguette and Khmer spring rolls. The rolls were really fresh and salad-y, but the sauce was the real star. As for the coconut/mushroom dip… YES PLEASE. We continued to dip all our dinners in it. …We went through a lot of bread.
As for me, I got a pumpkin stew. I WILL be trying to recreate this someday. I don’t think I’ll ever succeed – it was just too perfect. I also like that pumpkins in Siem Reap are apparently blue.
Bananas figure into many (oh, so many) desserts in SE Asia, and Cambodia is no exception. I ate so many bananas here… and I don’t even really like bananas. Sure, I try… but these were something else. Something magical. Magically covered in coconut cream and roasted peanuts. Yesssss.
This leads us directly to revelation 2, which was so impressive that it gets its own bullet point:
What is amok, you ask? Let me tell you about what amounts to Central Cambodia’s culinary calling card: Fish Amok.
Being as it is in possession of the regions largest freshwater lake, largest fishing trade, and largest fish, there’s an awful lot of fish and water dwelling creatures featured in Khmer cuisine (which, in a confusing semantic quirk, is technically not ‘seafood,’ as it originates in freshwater – confusing, I know). The dish that made me sit up and take notice was amok.
We had dinner at Home Cocktail, which is certainly THE place I would use as a homebase if I lived in Siem Reap. Unpretentious, relaxed, and clean, with cold drinks and a thoroughly capable restaurant (I actually came here three times in six days), they also provide a few set menus for dinner. On our second evening out, I got the dish I’d been seeing all over town. My spring rolls were enormous by Vietnamese standards, not very tightly rolled, and, again, very salad-y. It must be a thing here.
But let me tell you about amok. I mentioned how appealing coconut cream is – now picture that cream used to steam a curry (with your choice of main ingredients – fish, chicken, bamboo shoots, eggs, or tofu – which also provides the name of the amok) in banana leaves, and then pour it into the empty coconut to use as a bowl. IT’S SO GREAT. Sweet carrots and a little bamboo rounded out my fish amok, and it was just about the most interesting thing I ate on my trip.
And, of course, bananas – but tonight, the bananas came dressed in a ridiculous homemade caramel! Am I changing my mind about bananas?? (Spoiler: Yes. I eat bananas now. But I still hate banana flavoring.) Look, you can see someone stealing one right from under my camera! They were amazing!
I had amok one more time, but in an atypical presentation. Erin and I stopped into what we thought was an Italian restaurant after our first trip to the Temples (Spoiler: it was not) and I got amok again – heavy on the curry, plus chicken, sprinkled with mozzeralla and broiled. It, too, was freakin’ amazing. It was like having a whole dish of dip to yourself. I don’t think I said 10 words while I devoured this.
But that’s not all. I mentioned three things.
As you’ll recall from my post about Siem Reap, this city is an expat paradise. If you didn’t like rice, you could eat for a month at different restaurants without having the ubiquitous side. These restaurants exist in HCMC, but in Siem Reap they’re mostly clustered within a span of blocks (instead of km) which frankly makes going to dinner much easier. Just start walking and peruse the menus as you go. Indeed, I had many fantastic dishes in Cambodia that I have had to work much harder to find in Saigon.
3. Dial ‘E’ for Expat
In one of the more bizarre ‘traditions’ found in Siem Reap: the ‘happy pizza.’ It really doesn’t get more backpackery than this, folks.
These pie joints are the remnants of a trend years ago that had pizza places sprinkling marijuana on their pizzas prior to cooking (when requested, I assume?). The practice has since been banned – although I’ve been helpfully informed that most of them still sell the drug to backpackers – but the names live on in a way so typical of Siem Reap that I can’t help but smile. We didn’t try some pies (seriously, you go to Asia and eat pizza??) but it’s still funny to think about, and the logos are pretty funny.
Beyond pizza that gets you high, there was great food galore along the main drag. I had a set dinner at a really great Indian place, Curry Walla. It was delightful – some of the best I’ve had on my Asian Excursion so far.
For some reason there’s a couple REALLY great homemade ice cream places in Siem Reap. This was at the Blue Pumpkin (no, really, they’re blue, I promise).
And you can see the crazy decadent selection that The Glasshouse offers – for my money, this ice cream was slightly better than Blue Pumpkin. But honestly, they were both ridiculously fantastic.
And, since I was on vacation, I nabbed that smoked salmon bagel sandwich. I hate to say that it was gone before I remembered to take a picture. I refrained from buying a second to get some pics, but that seemed pretty Fat American. And they didn’t have wifi that day. ppffft.
Sunday morning brought one of our more enjoyable meals – brunch at Sister Srey. It felt like it had just passed through a fold of space-time from Chicago’s near north side, without one of the walls, and with all the white people. I’d been craving a burger – it was more than serviceable, but lacked a certain something (and the bread/meat ratio was a bit off – I’m aware I’m a bit of a burger snob). Everything else we got was standard boilerplate brunch, and it was like a breath of much needed fresh air! Long live brunch, folks. Long live brunch.
And Siem Reap just opened it’s first Sarpino’s, which I thought was hilarious. I did not eat here, to be clear. I can have regular pizza anytime I want in HCMC – let’s be honest, if I wanted to do a world-tour of pizza, I’d have stayed in Chicago!
And there we have it – my favorite meals from Cambodia. I discovered some great new things, and found some local twists that let you see ingredients in a new light. All in all, an exciting, casual foodie adventure! I look forward to visiting Chris and Anya again, and trying so many new things (and definitely more ice cream).
Next up: PHARE – The Cambodian Circus! A must-see, and a high of our trip! (And it didn’t hurt that they were selling Blue Pumpkin ice cream there, either!)