In Phnom Penh we learnt an important lesson, there is no such thing as Cambodian cheese! I have to say that we were a bit surprised to find in the menu a Khmer dish that included Cambodian cheese within its ingredients (cheese it’s not a common ingredient in Southeast Asian cuisine) but we didn’t hesitate and we went for it. Cambodian cheese with pork, how bad can it be? As soon as the dish was at the table, a rotten fish odor assaulted our nostrils. We thought this must be a mistake, this is not what we ordered. Before complaining we searched for Cambodian cheese online. It took us just two minutes to find out that Cambodian cheese has little to do with cheese and that it’s a fermented fish paste! It’s just called cheese for its texture and for its distinctive smell. So there was no mistake… we forced ourselves to taste it… all I can say it’s not for my palate… even the memory of it makes me gag! How can Cambodians love their “cheese” so much?
Unlike Lao and Thailand, Cambodia didn’t truly enchant us for its gastronomy. Don’t get me wrong, we did eat very well in Cambodia and we did try very tasty dishes throughout the country. But for some reason, Cambodian flavours didn’t really surprise us (leaving aside our beloved Cambodian cheese) as much as Laotian and Thai, maybe it was just that we were used to them?
Within the dishes that we tried, Amok would be the most popular and probably Cambodian star dish. Amok is a freshwater catfish speciality, the fish, covered in a savoury coconut-based curry, is wrapped in a banana leave and steamed. The result is a porridge like medley, almost identical to Lao’s Mok Pa.
In Phnom Penh we discovered a few restaurants serving barbecued meet near our hotel, all of them packed with locals every evening. We could smell the delicious aromas of the fresh meet being slowly roasted over a fire from far away and many days our craving stomachs guided us towards one of these restaurants. The meat comes to the table already cut and ready to eat, and it is served accompanied by a mix of raw vegetables (to be eaten raw or dipped into a lime, salt and pepper mix). The meat is at its best when there is a jug of Angkor beer by its side!
What in many places was called Khmer barbecue or Cambodian barbecue was a hit, specially among the tourists. The concept is easy, they bring to the table a volcano shaped grill, raw vegetables and various types of meet and seafood and you cook the meal yourself. The vegetables are cooked in the broth and the meet on the top of the grill with a bit of butter. It was very enjoyable and very tasty too!
Cambodians are soup lovers, and they have a very wide repertoire of soups. For example: Rice porridge soups, very interesting and perfect for a cold winter day but a bit on the heavy side for Cambodia’s weather (this was the only food available during the Khmer Rouge years). Foe like soups, so flavoursome that it’s impossible to get tired of them. Hot and sour soups, with a perfect balance of sweet, spicy, sour and salty. Banana flower soups (in the picture), a bit like Thai’s Tom Yum soup but with more texture!
Curry dishes are also part of Cambodian gastronomy. In Koh Rung we tried Kaeng Sach Mourn, a traditional Khmer curry dish with chicken, mixed vegetables and peanuts cooked in a coconutty curry sauce. And it was indeed a very tasty and rich curry!
We did try many more dishes, like the utterly delicious fried eggplant with mince pork (so simple but so tasty) and the comforting lok lak (marinated beef with steam rice, salad and fried egg on top, it’s secret relies on on the lime and pepper dipping sauce). Pate baguettes are also available throughout the country and were our choice for lunch when traveling by bus. We also found ice cream sandwiches, which at first doesn’t sound strange, right? We expected the traditional two biscuits and ice cream but instead in Cambodia they serve the ice cream with a bread baguette!
I thought we were used to see locals eating unusual snacks like deep fried worms, crickets, cockroaches, snakes… and that we wouldn’t be surprised any more… but Cambodia did surprise us with these two tidbits…
Of course we couldn’t forget the drinks! All the dishes above taste much better with an Angkor beer or a Cambodia beer on the side.
After writing this post I’m starting to think that we did really enjoy eating in Cambodia!