Category Archives: Street food

Deep fried balls

num something

It seems that I’ve arrived at Psar Thmei (Central Market) just in time to see it renovated. I imagine that the front, which is currently cleared of vendors, is being prepared to build either a twenty story apartment building or an illuminated fountain. These seem to be the two contributions of modern Cambodian culture to local architecture.

The good news is that the food at Central Market remains unchanged and untouched by development. The above balls fit into the grand genre of Cambodian sweets that consists of of bean paste coated in rice flour dough. The sesame coated balls hit the sweet/savoury bull’s eye; the sugar-crusted versions are as bad an idea as modern Cambodian market renovation. They are both crusty but retain rice flour chewiness.

Price: 4000 riel (US$1) per styrofoam clamshell

Cambodian Waffles (Num Poum)

Cambodian waffles

I’ve been teaching a friend’s grandmother, Channa, to make pizza. I literally have no idea how she got the desire to learn to cook Italian but she’s a relentlessly inquisitive student and masterful Cambodian cook. The exchange is a little one-sided – I tend to pick up about ten recipes for every one that I teach her.

“Can I put morning glory on pizza? Cucumber? Prahok? Do you need a special knife to cut pizza? Is yeast made from rice or wheat? Is cheese and butter the same? Can you make cheese?” She asked.

I tried to explain that you can put anything on pizza (I’m not a purist). I explained yeast as “the powder that makes bread grow” only to find that there is a Khmer word for it. Cheese and butter are not the same. I can only make simple cheese and not mozzarella. Then she described to me her first disastrous attempt to make pizza.

Knowing how to make waffles, she assumed that Cambodian waffle batter and pizza dough, were at heart, the same thing and so she made waffle batter with more rice flour to thicken and no palm sugar.

Her thoughts: “It was not delicious”

In the process, I managed to glean her waffle recipe. The above photo is from a waffle vendor at Psar Tuol Tom Poung (Russian Market) in Phnom Penh

Cambodian Waffles (Num Poum)

1/2 cup rice flour
1/2 cup wheat flour
1/2 cup of coconut milk
3/4 cup of palm sugar
2 eggs
1/2 tsp salt

In a bowl, mix the flour, coconut milk, palm sugar and eggs and salt. Brush a waffle iron with oil pour in the batter and cook over an open fire until light brown and crispy.

See also: Sisters All Day Breakfast

Dirty street charcuterie

Cambodians are world champion charcutiers. What the locals lack in quality produce, they make up for in sheer volume and world-beating determination. A Cambodian household that doesn’t dry its own fish, meat scraps or leftover rice is rarer than one that doesn’t enjoy the sublime beauty of prahok. Everybody knows how to sun-dry their own ingredients: probably the best way to spot a non-Cambodian household is to pick the one without a tray of leftovers soaking up the sunlight at the front of the house. It’s a response to the seasonal nature of Cambodian food. The frequent boom and bust cycles of local agriculture and fisheries have forced everyone to develop a taste (and huge amounts of skill) for preserving everything that they can eat.

Dirty Street Charcuterie

The Cambodian sausage is much maligned. It’s palm sugar-sweet, composed of half pork gristle and half pork fat, sometimes a touch of chilli for color, sold grilled on the dirtiest streets imaginable. They are inspired by Chinese sausages (laap cheong(?)) but will also be sold as small ball-shaped sausages as well as the more recognisable links. Vendors make their own links which they hang from a clothes rack to semi-dry before barbequing over hot coals. While hanging, the sausages pick up a little of the smoke-flavour from their charring compatriots as well as a good deal of dust from the road. Of all Cambodia’s streetside foods not deliberately involving fermentation, this is the one that I approach with the most trepidation.

Dirty Street Charcuterie

The above sausage was served on a stick; a one-handed food in the parlance of modern convenience cuisine. More often than not, it is plated up with a basic pickle of shredded green papaya, carrot and vinegar that slices through the sausages’ sweetness and fattiness.

Location: Near Psar Chas, Phnom Penh. 500 riel per stick.

As full as an egg

Thy head is as full of quarrels as an egg is full of meat, and yet thy head hath been beaten as addle as an egg for quarreling.

So says Mercutio, regarding the “Egg Man” debate currently raging in The Cambodia Daily letters page. For those of you playing at home, Phnom Penh’s aural landscape is punctuated by motorcyclists with a cartful of eggs and a loudspeaker that intones the looped words “PORNG MOAN AING PSOUM KROUENG PISEH” (Barbecued eggs with special sauce!). He’s up there with my favorite street vendor sounds: not as good as the Lambada-obsessed icecream vendor but more entertaining that the bread delivery guy who yells “nuuuuuum pan” (Breeeead!).

A few days ago the Cambodia Daily published a letter from an incensed expat, disturbed at 9am by an Egg Man’s call. This followed with an outpouring of support for the Egg Men, along with a follow up from the original writer pointing out that Phnom Penh has banned mobile loudspeakers. Essentially this is as good as local coverage of street food gets.

John from Jinja follows up with an interview with the Egg Man.

Parachute Foodblogging: 5-hour Kuala Lumpur mission

One of the greatest perks of food writing is that I can justify certain types of extreme eating behaviour in the name of “business”. This weekend I had a five hour stopover in Kuala Lumpur which I could breakdown as 30 minutes to clear Malaysian customs, 28 minutes on the train to Sentral Station (RM70, return), two minutes to Chinatown (RM1), an hour of finding and assessing streetfood vendors, an hour of eating, return journey, dash to my plane before I they start referring to me as “Mr Lees” over the loudspeaker.

I’ve been to Kuala Lumpur’s Chinatown once before, about 15 years ago, and am now not sure if I remember eating there or if I’ve supplanted all of my Malaysian food memories from KL with Robyn and Dave’s photographs from EatingAsia. What had remained unchanged over the last decade and a half was that Chinatown’s central road Jalan Petaling is still filled with the type of souvenirs that can be classed as Southeast Asian Generic Tourist Crap: faux-sneakers; pirated CDs; t-shirts for pan-Asian beer brands; fishermen’s pants; tschotchkes made from either coconut shell, wire or discarded beer cans. I believe that I may have bought a pair of parachute pants there in the early-90s and that these same pants are still on sale. I would still wear these pants if MC Hammer had not betrayed his more secular audience by recording “Pray“.

More heartening than both the tourist trap and Hammer’s continued career is that the streets and alleys around Jelan Petaling are filled with great streetfood that can be found by someone not at all familiar with KL.

Claypot chicken and rice from KL

Sweet Chinese sausage, chicken and rice: it takes some clever cooking over an open flame to both cook the chicken to the perfect consistency as well as delicately charring the rice so that it’s both burnt and delicious. The gelatinous result was topped with spring onions and filled with fresh ginger and a little soy, and a world away from the following ten hours of inflight entertainment and plane food.

6 rules of Cambodian street food eating

My reliable source of Cambodian food paranoia, the Lonely Planet Cambodia (4th Ed.) opens their paragraph on Cambodian food with the

…colonial adage that says ‘if you can cook it, boil it or peel it, you can eat it…otherwise forget it’

Following with bleak warnings against ice, shellfish, salad, steamed foods, empty restaurants and vendors wallowing in their own insalubrity. I don’t ascribe to the maxim that you should look at whether the vendor looks healthy because maybe he’s had a rough night on the Mekong whisky and I’d hate to deny him a round of his favourite tipple after an oily day behind his deep-fryer. Short of the vendor suffering something that can be recognised as transmissible via food, I’ll give them my time of day and fistful of riel. Originally I set myself the rule that I’d never knowingly eat in a village where somebody had recently died from diarrhoea but after consulting some World Health Organisation statistics on childhood diarrhoea mortality I realised that in most of rural and urban Cambodia, I would be going hungry a good deal of the time.

I tend to eat more food from the street in Cambodia than your average tourist as well as eating everything that the LP warns me against and tend not to ever injure myself doing so. I don’t have a cast-iron stomach and accordingly, I eat in a way that I consider sensible. Here’s my rough guide to surviving street food.

1. Heat – Hot food should be served hot. Your pho should steam. Your deep-fried banana should burn the tips from your fingers through the inadequate newspaper wrapping. If it doesn’t look like it might lift the skin off the roof of your mouth, don’t order it. Avoid foods from the streetside bain maries in Cambodia: generally you can get exactly the same dish cooked for you fresh in most small Khmer restaurants for less than a dollar more with better produce and surroundings to boot.

2. Cold – Cold is an entirely different matter. Ice tends to be a problem where the water has been contaminated prior to being frozen or the ice has been contaminated in storage or transit. If you’re having a bad day, both. Cambodia’s drinking ice supply is excellent: the only people that I’ve met who have been sick from the “ice” has been when it was combined liberally with a dozen beers. The only cold food that I avoid on the streets is the ice cream as vendors commonly unfreeze then refreeze their wares, coupled with the ice cream itself not being tasty.

3. Timing – In Phnom Penh, people stick to rigid schedules. Many are up at dawn and thus breakfast starts roughly after sunrise and continues no later than 8:30am. Breakfast foods, especially the ubiquitous pork and rice, are best consumed early. For most office and factory workers, lunch begins at exactly 12:00pm and runs until 2pm. Hitting a roadside lunch spot after 1pm often will mean that you’ll get the dregs of the soup and the fried fish that the rest of the locals rejected. With the exception of mixed fruit smoothie (tuk alok) and the occasional fried noodle vendor, there aren’t many late night street food options yet.

4. Other patrons – This is important for two reasons. Firstly, if people are spilling over onto the pavement and into the street, it’s an accurate indicator that the food is either tasty or underpriced. Even if the food is dirt-cheap, if people are pulling up to a stand in both Landcruisers and Honda Chalys, it gives a good indication that the food crosses economic boundaries and that it is worth people stepping down from their high (or in the case of Chalys, low) horse to dine amongst the plebs. Secondly, it’s a great indicator of how quickly the food turns over. Busy venues tend to be constantly cooking or at least refreshing their food as quickly as possible and thus you’re likely to receive fresher produce.

5. Family tag team – if the more than one member of the same family works at the stall, this is always an excellent indicator of a top notch venue. It means that their stall is lucrative enough to support the entire cohort. Be on the lookout for husband and wife teams, and award bonus points if they have kids in school uniforms (outside of school hours), because they’ll be the ones starting the next Jollibee.

6. Don’t eat stupid things – A good guide to judging the stupidity of a food is that if the locals believe primarily that a food will give you strength or vitality in the pants department rather than chiefly eating it because it tastes appealing. Some foods stay as provincial delicacies for one of three reasons: they’re either shit, endangered or they kill you. If snake’s blood was really that delicious, McDonald’s would have a cobra-flavoured sundae. I’m all for eating new and random (but not endangered) things but remember to keep your expectations very low and your bowels at maximum readiness, because when you do discover something that is loosely edible, it will taste like the food of the gods.
Continue reading

Godspeed, you palm sap vendor

Sugar Palm

The ubiquitous feature of the Cambodian rice paddy landscape are the sugar palms which punctuate the flat landscape, skinny fists of fronds lifted in the air like antennas to heaven. They’re a versatile plant providing fruit (palm hearts and pulp from the husk), fresh sap (which can be taken straight, fermented into vinegar or wine, or cooked into palm sugar), and leaves that are woven into mats and roofing.

Palm sap juice vendor Cambodia

Vuth buys his palm sap daily from across the river and catches the ferry into Phnom Penh to vend the sap and a few blocks of palm sugar door-to-door. It is a marginal lifestyle – for his day of cycling he makes a profit of one to two dollars from the sap and a little more if he sells some sugar. He says his palm juice is the sweetest in Phnom Penh and it certainly is fresh. The naturally occurring yeasts that collect in palm sap begin fermenting the fluid within a few hours of extraction, resulting in a tart and sulphurous brew. Vuth’s had not begun to take on that unpleasant alcoholic note and was the sweetest I’ve had.

Roasting Coffee, Phnom Penh-style

Cambodian Coffee

One of the rare disappointments that I’ve had when hunting the provinces for Cambodian food is finding Cambodian coffee. I’ve been to the far northeast, met the growers in their villages, and then wandered about Banlung in search of fresh Java with increasing and unfulfilled desperation.

What I ended up discovering in my brief Ratanakiri-ward sojourn is that there is a disconnection between growing and roasting coffee within Cambodia. Rumour has it that a Cambodian roastery briefly existed in Ratanakiri until growers were offered a better price from Vietnamese buyers. Bulk beans are now shipped from Cambodia’s north east, processed across the border in Vietnam, then imported back to Cambodia as a finished product. While I can confirm the rumour with at least one bulk coffee vendor in Phnom Penh, it still has an air of disingenuousness about it because on a small scale, coffee is easy to roast. All you need is an oven, some patience and a good deal of practice. Or alternately, a popcorn popper.

Thus it was an embarrassing bitch slap to the face to discover that a café within walking distance of my house roasts local beans. The process is relatively simple. Sok (pictured) rotates the beans in a metal drum over white hot charcoal.

Cambodian Coffee

When they approach the correct degree of blackness (Phnom Penhois tend to prefer a black-as-pitch roast), Sok adds a cup of rendered pork fat, gives the drum a few more quick rotations to let the fat partly burn off, then dumps them onto a waiting mat to cool.

Cambodian Coffee

The coffee smoke is so rich that I’m surprised that I could not smell it from my house and I’m still not sure of the best method to remove it from my clothes. I’m not even sure if I want to remove it.

Cambodian Coffee

I find it comforting that even my coffee has meat in it, vegans probably less so.

Location: Corner of st.432 and 155, near Psar Tuol Tom Poung (Russian Market). Coffee is roasted in the afternoons around 3pm.

Two recent street food regrets


Awful barbecued cake

One of the few street food regrets that I have acquired is eating the above barbecued cake. I don’t know what it is named in Khmer and despite exuding the lush aroma of roasted banana and sesame seeds, it appears to be made of either papier-mâché or its even less edible substitute, taro. Taro is proof of God’s disdain for humanity. Cooked on a stand out the front of the French Cultural Centre, its sole purpose seems to be to remind the French not to eat Cambodian food. 200 riel (US$0.05) apiece.

miniature Cambodian donuts

If you could fry a ring of lard in pure hogfat and then somehow bind it all together with toffee, you’d end up with one of the above cakes. These candied miniature donuts test my faith in the rule that deep-frying improves everything (except for taro). Possibly it is designed to mimic the edible equivalent of a looped, hardened artery. 100 riel (US$0.02) each from a guy wandering around the Russian market. He was a bit shirty that I paid the Khmer price and not the tourist price.