Wednesday, March 14, 2012

A Look at Khmer Markets and Food

One of my favorite things when traveling to a new place is to stroll through a local market and try out food that I haven't eaten before. I avoid things that look unclean or disgusting (such as chicken embryos scooped out with a spoon directly from the egg shell, or chicken feet stew), but if there's some type of tropical fruit specific to that area, I always give it a try.

For street food and local market lovers like me, Cambodia is a real treat. It's also a great insight on how people live, interact with each other and what they like to eat. Cambodian food is similar to that of its neighboring countries (Thailand and Vietnam), but it also has its own unique flavors and some borrowed from Indian and Chinese cuisines.

One night Daniel and I strolled through a night food market in Phnom Penh. Night markets are very popular in Southeast Asia, because it's too hot to be outside during the day. A lot of shopping takes places from early evening until around midnight, when it starts to cool off.

Almost half of the market stalls sell fish, either still alive, gutted, dried or already cooked. Fish is the most important source of protein in Cambodia. As the country has an extensive network of waterways, freshwater fish plays a large part in the diet of most Cambodians. Daily fresh catches come from the Mekong River, Bassac River and the vast TonlĂ© Sap lake. 

If I lived in Cambodia and had my own apartment, I'd probably shop at these markets every day and cook my own meals. It's hard not to get inspired and excited to cook, when you are surrounded by such an overwhelming variety of veggies, spices and fish. 

 Night food market in Phnom Penh.

Khmer food (Khmer is the term everyone here uses to refer to Cambodian culture, language, food, etc.) is not spicy at all. While reading about this, I found out a very interesting fact that I bet you didn't know either: chilli pepper is not native to Asia. Chilli pepper comes from Central America and it first arrived to Asia in the 16th century with the Portuguese. While it became very popular in Thailand and India, it didn't catch on in Khmer dishes. Therefore, Khmer curries taste almost identical as Thai curries, but are not spicy.

Some of the fish in the market is still twitching in its bamboo tray, a sign of how fresh it is. Most of the meats are placed directly on the ground, the only thing separating it from the dirty asphalt being the bamboo tray and some banana leaves. They never use ice to chill the fish or other types of meat. Refrigerators are probably a luxury for these people. Somehow, this doesn't gross me out at all - it's how humanity has lived for centuries. It makes me grateful to have the chance to be here in this moment. Who knows how long their markets will look like this, before modern civilization runs them over.

After walking around the market and buying some "fast food" to snack on, Daniel and I had a first taste of Cambodia's premier beer: Angkor. Marketed with the slogan "My Country, My Beer," Angkor is a light pilsner that reminds me a lot of Budweiser or PBR. In 36 degree weather and at .50 cents a beer, my solemn promise to stay away from beer has gone down the drain. Many Angkors later, my belly has regained it's former glory. :(

This is one of the things I bought at the market: a bunch of small fish, speared through their heads and dried up or deep-fried. Apparently they're called Trey Dang Dau and they weren't very tasty, but I'm glad I got to try them.

Here's an example of a food stall that I'd never buy food from. I don't know what the brown cubes in the middle are, I don't like the look of those dead chicken and the stew in that bowl looks quite unappealing to me. The woman selling it didn't speak any English, so I couldn't find out what it was. But on some close inspection, the stew contained chicken embryos, chopped-up chicken gall-bladders, hearts and other unidentifiable organs. No thanks! I guess I'm not as brave as Anthony Bourdain.

Another street food I purchased at the market: deep-fried sweet potato and banana. The bananas were actually quite delicious.

We later went to a proper restaurant (where food is bound to be safe and not cause diarrhea - a traveler's worst enemy,) where I got fish amok. This might be Cambodia's national dish. It's a sweet coconut-based fish curry - and one of the best I've ever had in my entire life. YUM YUM YUM! After that day, I've been ordering fish amok a lot - I can't get enough of it.

One of the two days I spent in Phnom Penh I went to Psar Thmei (Central Market; Psar means market in Khmer) and got myself some food there. I absolutely love eating food in markets in Southeast Asia! Not only that it's cheap and fits well with a traveller's budget, but it's also a slice of real life, what people actually eat, how food is cooked for the locals, and not for tourists. This stall was selling grilled squid and shrimp, and I settled for one medium squid for $2.

The squid came chopped up in small bits that you could eat with a wooden toothpick-like stick. It was covered with a green sauce similar to chimichurri. It came with a side plate full of sliced cucumber, basil and cilantro, as well as a delicious chilli and garlic sauce for dipping. I also got me some fresh and fried spring rolls, but those were just ok. Fried spring rolls here are not usually eaten by themselves, they are cut in small bits with a scissors and added to soups for extra flavor and crunchiness.

People just sit down around the food stall and point to what they want to eat.You are close to the food, the cook and other people. If you don't mind that someone might cough or sneeze all over your potential future food, then it's all great.

To my surprise, these seashells were covered with ice. They were more expensive, so probably only rich people can afford to buy them. And probably rich people expect them to be properly stored.

Dried salted fish (trei ngeat - trei means fish) everywhere. I can't say what kind of fish it is, and I'm very curious to know how they eat it.

Similar to a curry paste, but less spicy, kroeung is the traditional national paste in Cambodia. I don't have a picture of it per se, but here's some of the spices used to make it. From Wikipedia: "From India, by way of Java, Cambodians have been taught the art of blending spices into a paste using many ingredients like cardamom, star anise, cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger and turmeric. Other native ingredients like lemongrass, galangal, garlic, shallots, cilantro, and kaffir lime leaves are added to this mix to make a distinctive and complex spice blend called "kroeung."

One night in Siem Riep I went to a little Khmer restaurant by the old market (Psar Chaa) and tried my luck with a couple local dishes. They both turned out to be absolutely delicious.The one above is a banana blossom salad. The toasted peanuts that were mixed in reminded me a lot of the green papaya salad I had in Thailand.

The other dish that I tried at the same Khmer restaurant was a stuffed bitter gourd soup. The stock was delicious. The bitter gourd pulp was interesting... I've never had this vegetable before. It's considered to be the most bitter vegetable around, and it's very popular in Southeast Asia and India. It looks like a cucumber or zucchini with "distinct warty exterior" (according to Wikipedia). I've seen it in markets before and was always curious what it tasted like. Now I know.

What I like the most about Southeast Asian food markets is the richness and freshness of their produce. There is always a wide variety of vegetables and they're always extremely fresh and perky looking. All SouthEast Asian countries don't overcook their vegetables or add them raw while they're eating a soup, so there's a great emphasis on eating fresh, raw veggies. By contrast, I remember the sad state of the markets in Peru or Bolivia, where all they had were small pathetic potatoes and tomatoes. I remember how once Anne and I were trying to cook pasta in Bolivia and we had a really hard time finding a few faded green bell peppers and tomatoes. The climate and soil in Southeast Asia makes for bountiful and diverse crops, so even if people are poor, at least they eat extremely well and healthy.

On the way to visiting the Kampong Phluk floating village outside Siem Riep, we stopped at a local market and I was delighted again to experience the sights and smells. This market was even more rudimentary than the ones I've seen before. Just when I thought it can't get more basic than food placed directly on dirty asphalt, there was food placed directly on dusty ground. The place was also as authentic as can be, where absolutely nothing on sale or on display catered to tourists. We bought sugar cane juice for 500 riel (12 cents).

The fish washing area of the market.

The green leaves in the foreground of the image above are betel leaves. They are used for chewing, kind of like tobacco or coca leaves in South America and are very popular all over Southeast Asia. Sometimes they are also used for wrapping food before you barbeque or cook it. Unlike coca leaves that are supposed to be good for you, betel chewing has been discovered to be related to mouth cancer. Betel chewing is popular among the tribes in northern Vietnam as well, where people get really dark teeth from this habit. The other things in this photo are betel nuts, tobacco and other smoking or chewing stuff.

This woman is selling many varieties of palm sugar. Palm sugar is made by making several slits into the bud of a palm tree and collecting the sap. Then, the sap is boiled until it thickens after which, in the traditional way, it is poured into bamboo tubes between 3-5 inches in length, and left to solidify to form cylindrical cake blocks. Alternatively, it can be poured into jars or plastic bags. The taste of pure palm sugar resembles that of brown sugar, yet with more rounded caramel and butterscotch notes, without the metallic ending flavor that brown sugar has. I used palm sugar when I made sticky rice during my cooking class in Thailand.

Dried salted smoked fish.

This village is located very close to a small river and to the Tonle Sap lake. Fish here is pretty much the only meat you see.

Dried fish, pork sausages and fresh gutted fish. All that on display in 32 degree weather. I really wonder sometimes if people here ever get food poisoning, if their meat goes bad from not being refrigerated for so long, or if us westerners are just too paranoid about refrigerating meat.

Fish is far more common than meat in Khmer cuisine and forms 60% of the Cambodian intake of proteins. (from Wikipedia)

Fish paste out if which you make fish balls. Gross, right? I've always avoided fish balls in Southeast Asia, until one morning in Chatuchak market in Bangkok when I was starving and all they had was fish ball soup. I ordered one, tasted a few balls, and later that day got massive diarrhea. There's something about this fish ball material that looks fishy to me. So no thanks, never gain. In hindsight, I bet that's what MacDonald's hamburger patties and chicken nuggets look like before they're shaped and frozen.

Local market.

With my new buddy Rachel from Texas, drinking our fresh squeezed cane juice straight out of plastic bags.