Ever wonder why there aren’t any Cambodian restaurants in Atlanta, while Thailand, Japan, Korea, and even Vietnam are well represented? Having just returned from my epic Asian adventure, including six days in Cambodia, I think I know why.
With the memories of the luxurious resorts of Bali fresh on my mind, my small group tour took off in a minivan from Bangkok, headed to Cambodia. There were no more meticulously manicured lawns, just palm trees and dirt as we crossed the border. It was a place of frenetic activity and commerce, with dusty markets lining the streets and vendors carrying baskets of fried crickets. I was getting hungry, but not that hungry!
We would stop for lunch about an hour inside Cambodia at a restaurant called Phkay Proek, designated safe for foreigners as many tour buses were there. Of the four curries offered, I ordered the spicy curry with pork while some of my fellow travelers chose the red curry, which turned out to be much spicier than my watery bland selection. Go figure.
Sam, our tour guide who is from Cambodia, explained that their traditional cuisine isn’t hot and spicy. Several of us frowned and made sure to request hot chilis at each meal going forward. As we continued on the road we passed many cricket traps and a motorcycle loaded with live chickens going to market. We’d have opportunities to eat both later.
That evening our group had a table reserved at The Khmer Barbe.Q in Siem Reap, a dinner theater featuring a performance of the traditional Apsara dance of Cambodia, with young men and women in ornate costumes. Each dance told a mythological tale with precise poses we would see carved into the walls of temples the following day. Our meal was served family style and included summer rolls, chicken satay, candied pork, chicken with cashews, and of course, rice.
Breakfast, included with our hotel stay, never filled me up. Fried noodles and rice didn’t appeal at 7:00am so I often had a rather plain omelette with a small croissant and some yogurt with muesli. After a full day of visiting the eerily beautiful temples of Ta Prohm (where Tomb Raider was filmed) and the intricate carvings at Banteay Srei dating from 967, we had lunch at a restaurant full of tourists from around the world, near the Angkor Wat temple complex.
Sam suggested amok fish, a Cambodian specialty cooked in coconut milk. Fish is particularly popular with vast Tonle’ Sap Lake and the Mekong River nearby. I substituted shrimp for fish and regretted it. The thin, lackluster broth concealed the smallest shrimp I have ever seen, about a half inch when cooked. Although nicely presented in a coconut shell with a scoop of rice on the side, it wasn’t enough to feed a baby.
That night, the couple from Canada joined me and the Swede for dinner at Chanrey Tree, a beautiful restaurant serving classic Khmer food in Siem Reap. Hoping to finally get a satisfying meal, I ordered an appetizer and entree. But first, a round of Angkor beers. Crispy sticky rice was much like a rice cake found at your grocer, paired with “natang” sauce, a generous bowl of minced pork and plump shrimp in a rich broth made with coconut milk and peanuts. Decorated with a fried frangipani flower, the starter was tasty, yet its two components seemed somewhat mismatched.
Craving a departure from rice, I chose the Khmer chicken (perhaps delivered by the guy on the motorcycle, above), roasted with honey and rice brandy, served with young jackfruit, lemongrass, and prahok dipping sauce. The restaurant’s atmosphere made up for the unremarkable dish. With two more rounds of beer, my bill came to around $25 including tip…extravagant by Cambodian standards.
The next stop on our tour was a floating village in Kampong Thom province, on our way to Sambor Prei Kuk, where we would stay with a local family. We had lunch at Prey Pros River, an inviting restaurant with a thriving tourist business, situated on Tonle’ Sap Lake. I gobbled up an appetizer of crispy spring rolls so I wouldn’t starve. Although fish is abundant here, I chose a specialty of chicken and mushrooms steamed in a lotus leaf merely for its clever presentation. Aside from the chunks of chicken and mushrooms, there were about nine whole cloves of garlic that I left behind. Instead, I added a few slivers of dangerously hot red peppers for flavor.
We toured the ancient temple ruins near our homestay village, getting drenched in the forest, before returning for an oxcart ride through the rice fields. Dinner, prepared by the wife and two daughters, was served beneath their living quarters at a communal table. Breakfast was, you guessed it, rice with pork and a wafer thin omelette with onions. Although the food was simple, the family’s hospitality made our meals there special.
Still hungry? Stay tuned for Part 2 when I encounter fried tarantulas!