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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
banana blossom salad. The toasted peanuts that were mixed in reminded me a lot of the green papaya salad I had in Thailand.
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.
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.