Goodbye Russian Market?

Via DAS. Market vendors at the Russian Market (Psar Toul Tom Poung) have just received the eviction call. Diana from Cambodian recycled bag vendor, Bloom writes:

I got a call from the Bloom manager in Phnom Penh this morning. Vendors at the Russian Market, where we have a stall, were told the government was going to shut down the market.

We have heard similar rumours for the last year or more, that the market would be closed for either (a) renovations or (b) relocation. In fact, the landlady at our former shop sold the shop, which was on the outside of the market, because she was told only shops inside the market would qualify for compensation. Shops on the outside are not considered part of the market, it seems.

There was a sign up at the Russian Market a few years ago with an image of a market eviscerated of any local character, suggesting that the wave of gentrification was about to swamp the market, but at that point in time it looked as likely as motodops being replaced by flying cars.

Orussei Market

Ever wanted to know where to find the stall in Cambodia that specialises in just pig’s ear, snout and throat?

Pig's Ears at Psar Orussei

Like every other question that involves where to buy something in Cambodia, this porcine otolaryngologist can be found at Psar Orussei, not to be confused with Russian Market (Psar Tuol Tom Poung). Apart from that sort of meat horror (which oddly, I also stumbled upon at Orussei Market last time that I wrote about it), Orussei is the catch-all market for Phnom Penh.

Everything you need to live a comfortable Cambodian lifestyle exists amongst its uncomfortably dark and crowded stalls. Prahok, karaoke machines, orange beer coolers and Honda Chaly parts can all be found within. Your local Phnom Penh corner store that stocks 400 different but equally useless objects have all been bought at Psar Orussei

My ostensible purpose for being there was to buy a Western-style grill for a friend; a grill far superior to the pot barbecue that I previously invested in before I discovered the breadth of items available at this market. For your reference, the grills are on the southeastern outer corner of Orussei on the St. 111 side.

Psar Orussei

Even the more palatable cuts of pig can be found barbecuing in the centre of the market, amongst a heavy concentration of food vendors which takes me about five passes to find. It’s not the best bai sach chrouk (pork and rice) in town but the complimentary bowl of watery chicken soup came with a slice of carrot and a hefty chunk of congealed blood tofu, which is an individual touch.

Psar Orussei

For a market that is relatively “modern” in Cambodia, it is suffocating and dingy.

Psar Orussei

Orussei Market is the worst place to find anything in particular. Even after years of tactical excursions into the heart of this labyrinthine bazaar, I could not describe to you where that pig’s ear vendor was but I can guarantee that you’ll still be able to find a meat vendor whom is equally unappealing. Most of my excursions to Orussei end with me unable to find three of the five items I needed. Only ears or throat when I needed snout.

Suckling Pig at Psar Orussei

Slightly more attractive is the outer rim of the market and surrounding streets. Whenever a journalist passing through town asked me where to shoot photos of real Cambodian markets, this is where I’d hit. Street 166 to the north of the market is packed with local vegetable vendors, suckling pig stalls and small fishmongers. It is brighter and less oppressive than hunting down food within the market and easier to make a quick getaway.

Just a pile of catfish


Small, semi-dried catfish at Psar Toul Tom Poung (Russian Market), Phnom Penh.

One of the more minor changes that I’ve noticed in Phnom Penh is that the markets are starting to seem even more local. The focus seems to be less on servicing foreigners with “Danger – Mines” t-shirts and more on placating the growing Khmer middle class with grey market Abercrombie and Fitch. The new Night Market on the riverfront, while a poor substitute for wandering along the currently billboarded-in riverfront, is mostly about keeping locals happy; oblivious to tourism.

Old Kampot Market

Old Kampot Market

One of my few regrets now that I’m back in Cambodia is that previously, I didn’t photograph enough architecture. I knew that the buildings that comprise New Khmer architecture were being razed to the ground with complete abandon, and even if I was in no strong position to halt it, at the very least, I could have recorded it.

Above is the old Kampot Market, dead in the centre of the Kampot township. It has been abandoned for a more sprawling and shambolic market near the new bridge. The terms of its abandonment and risk of demolition are unknown to me.

Old Kampot Market, Interior

Inside, the market is now used as a makeshift volleyball court. A few kids sit around playing cards.

Psar Loeu, Siem Reap

khtieu stand at psar loeu
Family sits for khtieu (Khmer noodle soup) breakfast at dawn, Psar Loeu, Siem Reap

Over half a million foreigners arrive in Siem Reap every year but go to the biggest market in town, Psar Loeu, and you’d be convinced otherwise. When you arrive at daybreak for breakfast, any self-respecting tourist is sitting in front of Angkor Wat’s north reflecting pool, taking the same photo that every tourist takes with a vigour that suggests that their memories of Angkor Wat are worthless without it, instead of immersing themselves in the chaos of the market. With the average tourist stay in Siem Reap being 48 hours, it gives the traveller a scant few hours to capture the same scene that every one else captures.

loeu vegies
Random vegetable selection

While it is easy to get swept up by the madness of Psar Loeu and convinced that the founding theory behind the market is anarchy, order emerges. What on the outside looks like a random selection of vegetables is a tight selection of greens for a single Cambodian soup. Some vendors specialise in having all the ingredients for a single samlor, others for salad ingredients. It makes shopping for dinner as simple as finding the right stall. Inside, vendors arrange the semi-dried fish trei prama and the coconut husk smoked trei kes by size. The live snakehead fish is quickly subdued, skinned, and divided into regular pieces; or butterfly filleted for later drying.

What differentiates Psar Loeu from the other markets in town is both scale and target market. The two markets closer to the centre of town cater more to the tourist trade with many smaller vegetable vendors in the central Psar Chas currently being pushed out to Psar Loeu to make way for another Beerlao t-shirt stall. Psar Loeu receives scant mention in the guidebooks. The new émigrés to Psar Loeu have started setting up shop in the surrounding dirt alleyways and upon any spare patch of bitumen, both contributing to the mayhem and the size of the market. The food now occupies the entire streets surrounding the market building with the butcheries and fishmongers just inside the awnings, who in the mornings are barely finished butchering their respective meats.

Location: Psar Loeu is on Rd No. 6 to Phnom Penh, in Siem Reap

Chbbar Ampouv Market: Snakehead heaven

Watching the fish circus at Chbbar Ampouv

Unless you happen to work at Cambodia’s Ministry of Fish, it’s unlikely that you’ll ever hear about Chbar Ampouv. If you eat fish in Phnom Penh, you will have certainly eaten something that has changed hands there, most likely, trei ros.

snakehead fish

The ubiquitous snakehead fish arrives at the Chbbar Ampouv landing point packed live in thin metal boxes, baskets, and tarpaulin-lined Toyota Camrys literally filled to the roof with flapping farmed fish. The modified Camrys drive straight into the unloading point; open the doors and a wave of fish slops out onto the concrete to be sorted into boxes of living and dead by the waiting attendants. A tango of weighing, tallying, repacking and on-selling ensues. The thousands of tons of snakehead that change hands at Chbbar Ampouv dock every year are redistributed by truck and motorcycle to Phnom Penh’s more consumer-oriented markets and a few cases make it across the street to the neighbouring bulk market.


Snakeheads are the perfect fish for Cambodia. They eat anything, grow quickly and can survive out of water for hours thus guaranteeing freshness in even the worst Cambodian transport and market conditions (Coincidentally, these are the same qualities that make them the scourge of fisheries elsewhere in the world). For eating, they’re a firm-fleshed fish. In Cambodian food, they tend to turn up in soups; fried whole with a sauce; or as dried fillets, both sweet and salty.

Location: The Chbbar Ampouv landing point is just south of the Monivong bridge in Phnom Penh, starts at dawn, and apart from the boxes of fish there is not much else to see. The opposite market (Psar Chbbar Ampouv) is one of Phnom Penh’s larger wet markets.

Spring Onion Bread: Khmer focaccia

Spring onion bread at psar toul tom poung

Cambodian street food acts as an indicator of the global and historical tensions on modern Khmer culture. The pull between different cultural and historical influences is literally played out in the street food. It isn’t uncommon to see food that was transported to Cambodia about a millennium ago served next to food that first arrived a decade ago. Occasionally, like this flat bread, both the influences and timing are difficult to place.

Spring onion bread at psar toul tom poung

I’ve heard this variously referred to as Chinese pizza or in Khmer, num pan chen (literally Chinese bread). My regular vendor at Psar Orussei has a sign that proclaims it “Stone Leek Bread”. It is certainly not a traditional Khmer recipe but seems to have come via China and capitalizes on one of France’s lasting colonial legacies in Cambodia: the ability to bake bread.

Where the Chinese version is simply fried, the vendors that I have seen around Phnom Penh simultaneously bake and fry the bread in a miniature commercial pizza oven. The dough proves in a plastic tub until a likely punter arrives, whence the vendor picks out a lump, adds a handful of chopped spring onions (scallions, for non-Commonwealth readers), gives it a quick knead and roll with a length of blue plumbing pipe and frys away.

Spring onion bread at psar toul tom poung

Hot off the press, the bread is soft, elastic, and remarkably similar to good Turkish bread. It doesn’t keep particularly well but is so good that it is unlikely you’ll have leftovers.

500 riel (US$0.12) for an eighth of a pizza.

Location: The above vendor has only been open for a week at Stall 572, on the northern side of Psar Toul Tom Poung (Russian Market), amongst the motorcycle parts. There another talented spring onion bread baker near the southern entrance of Psar Orussei.

See also: A recipe for Spring Onion Bread mercilessly lifted from Bill Granger’s recipe book Bills: Breakfast, Lunch + Dinner

Rule One: Don’t eat sashimi in the desert

Squid and Prawns at Psar Thmei

If I was writing a rulebook on Third World roadside eating, at the top of my list would be “Don’t eat seafood unless you can see the water from whence it came”, which I could probably shorten to something snappier and memorable like “Don’t eat sashimi in the desert”. Despite my wariness towards Third World streetside seafood, when I spot a vendor who is keeping their raw produce on ice, it pays to give them the benefit of the doubt and break a few cardinal food rules. This mom-and-pop kraken charring duo were keeping their squid-on-a-stick iced in a plastic bucket at the entrance to Phnom Penh’s Central Market.

Squid and Prawns at Psar Thmei

Compared to the diminutive beachside-in-Sihanoukville variety, this squid looked like it would play a starring role in the delirious undersea nightmares of Captain Nemo. Served charred, sliced into bite-sized pieces and topped with a spoonful of spring onions and fish sauce.

Squid and Prawns at Psar Thmei

Barbecued prawns (bawngkia aing) are also on the largish side, basted with the same sauce and onion mix. Sides of fresh but sickly sweet homemade chilli sauce, salt/pepper/lime juice dipping sauce, and a green tomato, chee krassang and cucumber salad were complementary. At 32000 riel (US$8(!)) for two plates of giant squid and a plate of prawns, these snacks are premium priced but top hole.

Location: The main eastern entrance of Central Market, Phnom Penh, after 2pm. Central Market (Psar Thmei) has a changeover period at about 2pm when the “official” food vendors who dwell near the northeastern wing in tiled concrete booths shut up shop completely, and a few makeshift stands open at the main eastern entrance to the market, serving late afternoon/dinner snacks.

How to buy fresh fish in Phnom Penh

Fish from The Russian Market in Phnom Penh Cambodia
I don’t often read Cambodia’s most popular expat website, but when I do, it generally has something to do with the food. This week, they’ve put together an Idiots Guide to Buying Food in Cambodian Markets and despite the missing apostrophe, it is fairly spot on. It does however make the shocking admission that:

Fish is a bit of a minefield, and I’m happy to admit that I never completely got the hang of it, but as a rule the more expensive it is the better it is.

In the Khmer spirit, I thought that I’d try my hand at some informal demining of the fish purchasing process. Fish is central to Cambodian life, so it’s no great surprise that there is a good deal of it to be bought at your local market at bargain prices.

Organoleptic assessment for Dummies

In the West, the best way to find a good fishmonger is that their fish counter should smell like the sea rather than like the fish: fresh, clean and crisp. There shouldn’t be pools of mucous lying around the fish, the store, or the fishmonger. This all goes out the window in Cambodia. Unless you happen to arrive at a market damn early, everything in the market smells fishy and finding a patch of floor in the meat section which isn’t covered in brown mucous or something coagulating is rare. You can of course pick up the fish itself and give it a sniff.

Five tips for choosing better fish:

  1. Gills should be bright red. There is a very handy practice in Cambodia of cutting the covering off the gills before sale and exposing the gills for all the world to see, eliminating the need to pick up the fish and poke at its fleshier bits. It does ruin the attractiveness of the whole fish a little. Steer clear of the brown gills.
  2. Eye clarity is a good measure of freshness in Cambodia. Although some deep-sea fish have naturally cloudy eyes, very few of these species will be on sale at the market. Look for the fish that is looking at you with bright, unsunken eyes.
  3. Skin should be bright, shiny; iridescent or opalescent with no signs of bleaching or discolouration.
  4. Texture: When you give the fish a poke in a fleshy part, the indentation should spring back in under a second. Even better is if the fish feels rock hard (and of course, is not frozen) – it means that rigor mortis has only recently set in, or possibly, the fish is still alive.
  5. The fish should show no signs of bruising or broken skin.

Where to shop:

Every market has fish but some markets are fishier than others. Because I don’t know my way around the local fishing villages, Central Market (Psar Thmei) is the best bet. They have the largest selection of freshwater and saltwater creatures and unlike most local markets, they keep some of it on ice. The next part is really only for your hardcore fish junkie.

Handling: Separating the fishermen from the fisherboys.

Knowing about how your marine friend was handled on its journey from underwater to under your griller is the secret that separates the angling amateur from the piscatorial pro. For the most part, these tips are a bit useless for Cambodia because most fish that you’ll see in the market have been caught and dumped on the floor of a small wooden boat, then shipped to market on the back of a refrigeration-free motorbike. However, if you’re lost for words next time that you’re speed-dating in a fishing village, try these questions:

  • How is the fish caught? Line-caught fish generally receive less of a beating than those trapped in a trawler’s net.
  • Is the fish stunned immediately upon coming aboard? Important to know for larger fish that tend to do a fair amount of thrashing around once they’ve left the water, damaging both themselves and unlucky crew members.
  • Show us your fish-to-ice ratio: As a rule of thumb, one part ice to 2 parts fish. This will obviously depend on the initial temperature of the fish, fish hold temperature, and the period of storage.

See also: Mekong River Commission has far too much information about the local varieties of freshwater fish. The FAO has a handy guide to organoleptic assessment, if for instance, you want a “Sensory score sheet for cooked cod flesh taken from gutted fish that have been stored in melting ice“. They’ve also got a guide to ice ratios, if you’re looking to radically reform the Cambodian fishing industry.