Street food is often called ‘the people’s food’ and it certainly looked that way in Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s chaotic capital. On first impressions Cambodia felt like north India with crowded dust and dirt filled streets, scooters, cars and trucks darting in and out like the wacky races, bare bellied men and people constantly asking ‘tuk tuk?’.
With only 4 days in Cambodia, I decided to take up an offer for a guided tour with Nara, a pint-sized local, who shared stories about life in Cambodia, his Grandmother and becoming a monk with me that morning at Feel Good Café. As the day began to fade we pilled into our tuk tuk for the first of our six food stops.
Kandal Market (meaning central, even though it’s not really central):
We walked over to a silver and blue cart full of eggs perched on a silver grill. Manned by a shiny-faced lady with light blue jeans, a deep red tee and these light blue and pink crocs, each of the eggs was cracked from the top with something that looked like a baby turtle/dinosaur poking its little head out and starring at you.
As the single item vendor passed over her signature grilled egg in a magenta cup, I remember thinking ‘what the fudge?!’. Reminding myself that I’m on an edible adventure to learn about different food cultures, I taste, then ask. (Ok, maybe it wasn’t a turtle, but I didn’t know that at the time).
So, you probably are asking for the recipe and steps right now! What you do is crack open the top of the egg, mix it a little, empty the egg into a food processor, add coriander seed, sugar, salt, black pepper powder and garlic powder, give it a whizz, then pour that mix back into the shell and steam for 15 minutes, and then you grill the egg with the shell and heat through. Before serving you peel away the shell a bit, then drizzle this sweet chilli (but more of a milder fat chilli) runny sauce on top of it. The egg itself is quite salty (like most Cambodian dishes), but the sweetness helped to balance it out a tad.
Next up at Central Market was a slippery palm fruit desserts that looked like a dinosaur…not really. It looked like a snow cone, layered with cold, sliced palm fruit, warm coconut milk, then crushed ice, followed by a lashing of sweetened condensed milk. The idea is to mix it all together and drink/eat – it gave me brain freeze. But, it was better once all the ice had melted. I also learnt that the palm tree is entirely edible, to Cambodians anyways. And onto the next stop we went.
Pencil Market (by the Royal Palace):
As I walked into this restaurant, I felt really tall! As I look down at our stainless steel looking table with bright red plastic stools, they barely reached my knee in height (and I’m a hobbit). Nara ordered our food, speaking in his native language. The waiter came with four plastic plates, each with a different dish, along with one in a ceramic dish. On the yellow plate were some super tough deep-fried minced beef balls (shaped not actual), as well as bitter melon rolled in fish paste and a cornstarch batter, then fried. On the pink plate were crispy tempura frog legs, with a splash of coconut milk making them moist and well cooked.
Next up, Cambodian omelette – a dinnertime appetizer that’s quite rich and heavy, cooked within the dish, but with a runny top. The egg was cooked on top of charcoal; served with a dry mix of salt, black pepper, MSG (Cambodia’s favourite ingredient), ground coriander seed, refined white sugar and a squeeze of lime juice. After giving it a mix, you drizzle this on top of the egg. Random fact: Cambodians prefer the richness of a duck egg to a chicken’s egg.
And then onto the pastel green plate with three eggs and three ceramic egg cups, but this was not a happy Easter scene. As soon as I saw the white shelled, boiled eggs I knew. And so the moral dilemma began – I am an animal lover, but I also eat meat, I support Slow Food and raising meat and poultry humanely and ethically, but I’m here to learn about food cultures (and to one day be Anthony Bourdain’s little sidekick), so I had to do this. Vegetarians look away.
Nara takes the metal spoon and began to crack open the top of the egg. He peeled away the shell and there it was, a week old fertilized egg (sometimes two). The egg was boiled and then simmered over a low heat with a liquid of coconut water, kaffir lime juice and lime zest for over an hour to help the juice seep through. To me it just tasted like a hard-boiled egg, no citrus, no coconut, just flavourless egg. But when you take a peek inside the cracked shell you see the baby chick with veins and yes, I didn’t do so well, but I did try it. Then Nara turned to me to say:
“Sometimes it’s ready to fly” – FUCK! NOOOOOOOOO!
Ironically, a fertilized egg is supposed to help with the sex drive of men and is a delicacy up and down the country. I don’t have a penis, so I will leave this there.
I actually can’t remember where our next stop was (maybe that egg erases memories too), but it involved sticky rice from a roadside kiosk. The sticky rice was cooked inside a bamboo shoot with salt, coconut and beans. You peel away the bamboo to reveal your sticky rice present.
We also tried two more types of sticky rice, but this time inside a banana leaf parcel. The first was raw with fermented fish (of three days). The fish paste combined galangal, sugar, salt and chilli. It’s actually a leaf within a leaf, with the inner leaf being a star gooseberry leaf. As you’d expect from fermented fish, the flavours were salty and savoury. The second type was cooked inside the banana leaf, as you unwrap the charred leaf there’s this rectangular shaped thing with sweet flavour. It had been cooked with fermented chilli, but Cambodian interpretation to chilli was very different from Thai and Indian.
Back to our tuk tuk we head to a market full of bugs (like edible ones). Let me give you a quick history lesson: bugs were a key staple in Cambodian cooking, but then it was phased out. During the genocide, which ended in 1979, this food tradition was bought back and this time it stayed. With the western world starting to use bugs as an alternative protein source, this makes culinary sense.
As we get closer to our destination, the night sky became deeper and darker, with the Cambodians flocking to the markets to eat. Deep-fried everything – bugs, cockroaches, crickets and even tarantulas! All tossed in sugar syrup and colourfully garnished with green and red chilli (again, these were not spicy). And so I ate a fucking tarantula! Ok, not the full fucking tarantula, the plump black body just freaked me out, so I nibbled on a leg instead, but still IT WAS A TARANTULA. I ATE A TARANTULA.
The trick with any sort of bug is not to look at it or think about it, just rely on your palate to pick out the flavours. It was just crispy and sweet, most probably filled with even more MSG.
Up next was the small market.
Smoked filled the air, as charcoal was the fuel of choice for these street food vendors. Motorcycles and scooters crowd around the stands, waiting in anticipation, crowded pavements with no room to easily pass, red plastic chairs scattered randomly, curly end hooks supporting the weight of raw or cooked meat and the night’s sky illuminated by single light bulbs attached to each stall. Each stall was slightly different, but all consisting of different proteins – salted crusted grilled whole fish, beef, pork ribs, and rotisserie chicken.
As we packed our food, we headed to the bustling Phnom Penh Night Market. As we reach a mat branded with ‘made in Thailand’ on its side, we remove our shoes before we dig into our garlic rich BBQ. A cold Angkor beer cut the muggy Phnom Penh air, as I pondered the one-dimensional food I had experienced and the reasons behind it.
In 1979 Cambodia saw an awful genocide against its own people, anyone with an education were tortured and killed. The soul and palate of Cambodian food, in my opinion, had been diluted ever since. Family-recipes died with the people they were passed down to. And refined sugars and processed foods, including MSG, became staples in the diets of Cambodian across the country. The whole experience left me reshaped as a cook, and more determined to preserve food memories with ‘Say It Like You Eat It’. If you have recipes please pass them down, let the memory live on, get excited about learning where your food comes from and make dining an experience, with other people, just like it was intended to be.