One of the greatest debates of life might be this: does one eat to live or live to eat? While it is no doubt true that food is essential in maintaining life, good food also brings joy and passion. I love food and cooking, and I am intrigued by the many cuisines and delicacies of the world. I cannot fathom living a life where food is just a substance and source of nutrient. Food is also culture, art, and love ❤
In fact, food is one of the anticipations and inspirations of travel. Wherever I go, I try to get a taste of the local food scene and appreciate the differences between theirs and mine. My trip to Southeast Asia last year was the perfect opportunity to try some local food of the cities that I've visited, starting with…Siem Reap, Cambodia! Now…before going to Cambodia I had no idea what Cambodian/Khmer cuisine is supposed to be like, and even with prior research, I was clueless beyond the popular amok. So my friend and I just ordered whatever we felt like from the menu and went from there. No preconceptions, no false expectations – this is as real as it gets!
Just a note: Siem Reap is incredibly touristy and commercialized, and I am aware that the stuff I ate might not be what you consider truly "authentic" (since I have no idea what authentic Cambodian food is anyway), so I am just trying to share my experiences without much bias. If you are from Cambodia, please do let me know if what I ate is really what you would consider authentic Cambodian/Khmer food!
Cambodian curry chicken – Starting off simple and mild, we’ve got a good ol’ curry chicken. Curry chicken seems to be popular in many cuisines – Japanese, Chinese, Thai, Indian…you name it. The Cambodian version seems to be coconut-based and not very saucy, and gave off a homey taste. It won’t be the only time you see the description “homey” in this post, that’s for sure!
Thick noodles with stir-fried chicken – This is another one of those very homey dishes, and my friend fell in love with the thick noodles after eating this. You could never go wrong with a good stir fry!
Spicy squid with basil – This was probably the best thing I ate in Siem Reap. It was from a huge outdoor road-side restaurant at a night market and it might look quite ordinary, but it was REALLY spicy. And the kick from the spiciness was what made this dish really memorable. Oh the squid – so good with the complementing basil. I could eat this again and again but please just give me a bowl of rice to neutralize the spiciness!
Watermelon shake – In addition to a bowl of rice, a watermelon shake was also the perfect side to a spicy meal. Actually, in the scorching 35+ degree weather, even in December, stalls selling fruit shake all over the place were a heavenly treat, and I certainly had more than a couple a day to cool me down! There were so many varieties, but my favourite was definitely the watermelon shake. So cheap, so refreshing, so amazing!
Fish amok – I mentioned amok before and if I knew anything about Cambodian food before my visit, I knew about amok. It is a traditional Cambodian dish of basically fish and curry, and aside from the lovely presentation, it was another one of those things that went down perfectly with just a bit of rice. I liked this a lot!
Beef lok lak – This dish reminds me of what I would often get at Chinese “cha chaan teng” restaurants, which serve a huge variety of rice dishes with any combination of meat and sauce you could imagine. The taste of the lok lak was not very exotic and in fact very…down-to-earth, if I may put it this way.
Beef soup noodles – This bowl of hearty beef soup noodles was served as breakfast at my hotel…BREAKFAST! This is why Asian breakfast will always triumph over western-styled ones, sorry bacon and sausage! The soup noodles reminded me of pho (definitely to come in the Vietnamese version of this series) but certainly had more intrinsic flavour with the abundance of green onions. If only breakfast could be like this every day…!
Chicken keng – I have no idea what “keng” means, but this innocent-looking dish introduced me to the very potent FISH MINT. As I was eating I noticed a very strong fishy smell, which was strange as nothing we ordered had any seafood in it. A bit of investigation led me to the inconspicuous leaves mixed among the chicken that I had thought were some regular herbs. OH HOW WRONG WAS I. A plant that smelled like fish…that was something new and intriguing, but the smell was SO STRONG that I was quite taken aback. Thankfully it didn’t affect the chicken much, so we were still able to eat it, but this fish mint…is definitely an acquired taste/smell!!!
Nom chak chan – Finally, some dessert! “Nom chak chan”, as written on the menu, is a special layered cake with “blended rice flour, mixed coconut cream and sugar, and steam”. I think they meant that the whole thing was steamed. Like the other dishes, it was mild but flavourful, not ridiculously sweet like many other desserts. And it was very pretty! So good I want another bite!
Cambodian stir-fried beef noodles – A nice stir-fried noodle with beef and vegetables couldn’t go wrong as part of a great lunch after an exhausting temple-hopping morning 🙂
Chicken with tomato and pineapple – If I were to pick the most homey-tasting dish on the list, it would have to be this one, the chicken with tomato and pineapple. It literally looked and tasted like something that my mom would bring out of the kitchen, though the addition of pineapple to a stir-fried dish was rather new to me!
Deep-fried tofu – This was a spontaneous addition to the final meal in Siem Reap, and my friend and I just wanted something super simple. What could be simpler and more classic than deep-fried tofu with a bit of chili sauce, right?
Coconut rice cakes – During the final few hours of strolling through the streets of Siem Reap, I spotted a stall selling these little coconut rice cakes, and I decided to give them a try before leaving Cambodia. Excellent…if you like sweet things! To be honest they were a bit too sweet for my own tastes, but I did like the texture of these little things. A bit less sugar would have made them perfect 😉
So the conclusion is…Cambodian food is very homey, as you’ve probably deduced from the title and the many times I called the food “homey” in the post, and makes me feel like I’m eating mom’s home-cooked meals. Again, any Cambodian friends out there, please enlighten me as to whether this is what you would usually eat on a daily basis? Whatever the case, the food was delicious – I want the nom chak chan and spicy squid again! And yes, there were things on the streets that were not exactly very pleasing to our weak stomachs (spiders, snakes, and crickets), so we opted to skip those, thank you very much. If you were looking for that, sorry to disappoint you! >_<