Camdodia, and in fact the whole of Indochina (Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam) is well known for its weird and wonderful delicacies. Some dishes are so different to the familiarity of what we know, we are tested to our limit when placed in front of a plate of suspect, questionably-edible stuff.
Wandering around the streets of Phnom Penh, I was enticed by the wonderful smell of meat barbecuing on a grill. A vision of sizzling slices of beef skewers led our salivating selves to a street vendor on a quiet roadside. It didn’t occur to me to ask what animal the meat once belonged to; the smell was undeniably beef – wasn’t it? Actually, what led me to hesitate wasn’t the source of meat but whether eating from this particular street stall was a wise idea. There were no signs of other customers – usually a fail-safe to indicate the food is good.
And then I saw it, under a blue canopy where raw bits of pink flesh lay on a make-shift table – a dog’s head, a black greasy dog’s head with eyes rolling back to its skull. I think I would have passed out there and then if I had stuck around, but I ran away shrieking from the bemused vendor. Yes, I failed the ‘Culinary Adventure Test’…
Dog has long been a cheap and freely available alternative to beef, chicken and pork. There are many Cambodians who believe that dog meat is even tastier than all of the above. I’m generally open minded when it comes to food, although I will draw the line at some things – Intestines, brain, donkey, monkey… and of course dog, ‘Man’s Best Friend’; but on my list of things to taste were Cambodia’s famous delicacies of deep-fried crickets, grasshoppers and tarantulas. According to a recent U.N. report, insects could be a solution to some of the world’s food and health problems. Nutritious, eco-friendly and abundant, many countries like Cambodia consider them to be a staple part of their diets.
However, my ‘Culinary Adventure Test’ really was being tested to the limit when I finally came across a bug vendor. Perhaps I had imagined it but weren’t they supposed to be deep-fried in batter to disguise the dead bugs as enticing pieces of tempura? I think my stomach turned when I saw great big pans of greasy looking cockroaches. Some of the cockroaches were so big, perhaps even as big as 2 inches, that I wondered if the heat of the pan could have permeated through its hard shell and killed it. The vision of wriggling legs en route to my mouth followed by an awful crunch sound quickly ruined my appetite.
Adventurer Bear Gryll’s may insist that a small insect contains much more protein than a succulent bit of sirloin steak but give me the sirloin any day. I fail happily at the ‘Culinary Adventure Test’ again and leave the braver of you to try these bugs.
Rest assured if you’re not craving for a bug, there is no need to go hungry. Cambodia offers some delicious dishes. Try these authentic Khmer dishes:
Fish Amok – Freshwater fish fillet covered with an aromatic ‘kroeung’ (pounded shallots, lemongrass, garlic, kaffir lime), roasted crushed peanuts, coconut milk, and egg, wrapped in banana leaves and steamed until it achieves a mousse-like texture. It’s fragrant, zesty and flavoursome.
Khmer red curry – A coconut-milk-based curry without the overpowering heat of chilli, with eggplant, green beans, potatoes, fresh coconut milk, lemongrass, ‘kroeung’ and meat of choice. Khmer red curry is usually served with bread.
Lap Khmer: Lime-marinated Khmer beef salad – My favourite dish in Cambodia. Thinly sliced beef dressed with lemongrass, shallots, garlic, fish sauce, Asian basil, mint, green beans and green pepper. It’s a sweet but salty dish that gives you a kick with its generous amounts of fresh red chillis.
Nom banh chok: Khmer noodles – A typical breakfast food similar to the Vietnamese Pho but topped with a fish-based green curry gravy made from lemongrass, turmeric root and kaffir lime. Like Pho fresh mint leaves, and bean sprouts are heaped on top.
Lok Lak: Stir-fried marinated, cubed beef served with fresh red onions served on a bed of lettuce, cucumbers, and tomatoes and dipped in a sauce consisting of lime juice, sea salt and black Kampot pepper (tek merec).
‘Fried Fish on the Fire Lake’ – A whole fish is deep-fried and then finished on a hotplate at the table in a coconut curry made from yellow ‘kroeung’ and chilies. Take the opportunity to go to the Phnom Kulen National Park while you’re in the Siem Reap region (located about 60 km north of Siem Reap). You can try this dish at one of the small restaurants for no more than $4, sitting in the surroundings of beautiful waterfalls. The $4 includes a sweet and sour soup (see below).
Samlor Machu Trey: sweet and sour soup with fish – Its ingredients include fish, garlic, lemongrass, celery, tamarind juice, bean sprouts, pineapple and seasoning with sugar, fish sauce, and salt. You can also add some fresh green herbs and hot chili pepper on top before serving.