The not that cheesy Cambodian cheese

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?

Khmer cheese - The "tasty" Cambodian delicacy

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?

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Not only tea and rice & curry

Being so close to India, Sri Lankan flavours undoubtedly show some influence from its neighboring country, though they still conserve their unique personality. Only 10 days in Sri Lanka gave us little time to experience the local gastronomy, but these 10 days were enough to discover that Sri Lanka wasn’t only the land of tea and rice & curry.

Breakfast

The national breakfast are string hoppers. These thin rice noodles are served with egg, coconut sambol, dhal and a plate of fruit on the side. We tried it one morning and we didn’t feel the need to eat anything else until dinner that day!

String hoppers accompanied with egg, coconut sambol and dhal.

Fresh bread served with tomato or coconut sambol was our choice a couple of days. Sambol is a sweet chutney-like mix, being coconut sambol the most famous. We felt in love with this soft and sweet bread. After our night hike to Adam’s Peak we almost ate a full loaf of bread!

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A bit of Thailand served on a plate

Thai cuisine is well known all over the world. These days, with Thai restaurants everywhere, most of us have probably tried or heard of Pad Thai and Green Thai Curry even before visiting this tasty country.

Over the years, Thai food has been influenced by neighbor countries such as India, China, Lao… And while fried rice, beef in oyster sauce… can be found in most of the menus, Thailand still preserves its own unique identity with signature dishes like Pad See Ew or Tom Yum soup.

Every town big or small has at least one fresh food market where locals do the day to day shopping. Meet, fish, vegetables, fruit, rice, noodles, tea, spices, clothes, cooking utensils, fried insects… you name it and you find it! We both love to wonder around the crowded Thai food markets, discovering new types of fruits, being amazed by the variety of rice and noodles, being surprised with new smells (not all of them pleasant I have to say!) and the best of all looking for new flavours to taste.

Fish and rice are the staple of the Thai diet. Fish sauce, oyster sauce and shrimp paste are added to the wok (almost everything is cooked in the wok!) to prepare most of the dishes (even of meat dishes). And rice, both in grain or noodle form, is part of every meal. In addition to fish and rice, fresh herbs and spices are core to the Thai flavours and aromas, galangal, kaffir lime leaves, coriander, lemongrass, ginger… are just some of them.

I’m going to let the pictures do all the talking this time!

Pad Thai - Thai style stir fried noodles with eggs, fish and oyster sauce, shrimps, tofu... served with green onions, lime and peanuts. A classic!!

Pad See Ew – Stir fried fresh thick noodles with soy sauce, sugar, broccoli, egg and meat. While simple, one of our top dishes worldwide!

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South Indian flavours

Similar flavours can be experienced in North and South India, though food tends to be a little bit more spicy in the south (to our surprise it wasn’t as spicy as we expected). Some peculiarities of the food from the south are that bread tends to be replaced by rice, that fish is more widely used for cooking and that flavours are much more coconutty.

Thalis, curries, breads… are also very tasty and very easy to find in southern India, but as there were so many other interesting local specialties that we wanted to try, we kind of forgot about them. These are some of the dishes we tasted in Goa and Kerala:

  • Dosa. Savory Indian pancakes made with rice and urad dal (black lentils), served hot, stuffed with vegetable fillings and accompanied with sauces. Trully adictive! I hope that I can find urad dal back at home…

  • Uttapam. Uttapams can somehow be described as the Indian pizzas. This thick pancake is made with a rice and lentils batter (similar to the one used for dosas) to which onions and tomatoes are added. Yummy, a healthy alternative to dosas.

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North Indian flavours

All the different flavours, the many textures, the intense aromas and the unusual cooking techniques make the Indian cuisine so incredible and unique. We ate at many dhabas, restaurants and street stalls, we took a cooking course (at Spice Paradise in Jodhpur with Rekha), we tried Beena’s delicious home cooking when visiting Rajesh, and even though we had both previously tried Indian food, we kept being surprised with new flavours every day. We of course did as the locals and ate with our hands, and strange as it sound, everything tastes much better when eaten with your fingertips!

It is impossible to describe in a couple of posts what Indian food is like, I would say that it’s not even possible to do it in a book. And being India such a huge country it is normal that North Indian tastes are very different to South Indian ones. These are some of the pillars of North Indian cuisine:

  • The spices. So important in Indian cooking, the spices are the starting point for every dish and a good spice box is a must in every kitchen. Many cooks, after years of practice trying to find a good balance, are experts in the mixing of spices and don’t like sharing the secrets of their masala (spice mix).