Why travelers dislike Khmer food

It is no great secret that Cambodian food gets a bad wrap in the media. Most travel scribes are content with writing “it’s like Thai food but boring, except for fish amok” and leaving it at that. Here is where they go so atrociously wrong:

Ordering the wrong balance of things

A great Khmer meal isn’t necessarily about having each individual dish with balanced flavours, but having a whole spread of flavours and textures that form a balanced meal. When I first arrived and ate with a group of my Khmer workmates, they would order mostly the same things every time we ate: a sour soup, a curry, a fried fish, steamed rice (and when I was there, loc lac “American-style” because “that’s what foreigners like”). I never thought that we had any standout dishes but always ended up having a delicious meal.

The best of Khmer food is about balancing your meal as a whole. Where single Thai dishes might attempt to balance spicy, sour, sweet, salty (and occasionally, umami and bitter) in a single bowl, Khmer food goes about achieving the same balance through multiple dishes with diners themselves seeking gustatory equilibrium over the course of the meal.

Ordering the wrong meats.

If you happen to be cruising through the Cambodian countryside and see a cow to which your immediate reaction is “I’d like to eat a barely warmed slab of that”, my guess is that you have recently been on a heavy course of hallucinogens to deal with what your psychotherapist calls a “deep denial issue”. Cambodia is all about fish, pork, and in coastal areas, crustaceans. Chickens, cattle, goats, frogs and the weird meats of the forest are mostly subsidiary. Unless you’re at a Khmer BBQ place, try ordering three quarters fish/prawns/crab and one-quarter pig and you’ll be in for a treat.

Ordering no meats

There are a handful of great Khmer meat-free dishes (e.g. samlor karko sap; the ubiquitous stir fried morning glory/”water convolvus”) but they don’t maketh the meal. Although vegetarians are occasionally catered for by Khmer food, it isn’t a vegetarian cuisine as a whole. Most dishes try to heft the maximum amount of punch out of the minimum amount of meat, whether this is a spoonful of fermented fish or a few pork bones. When you remove this punch, there is often not much left but an anaemic broth full of MSG.

Familiarity

Practically every traveller that gets to Cambodia has come via Thailand or Vietnam. Most of these people have eaten Thai or Vietnamese prior to landing in South East Asia and thereby haven’t plunged headlong into the cuisine of either nation without a preconceived notion of what they enjoy in these foods and what they absolutely detest. When they hit Cambodia, everything is vaguely foreign.

The undeniable lure of weird meat journalism.

Whenever I read the “I went to Skuon and all I ate was lousy spiders” article in whatever foreign newspaper, the first thing that I think is that either: the author is too embarrassed to mention that they ate the rest of their meals at their hotel; or alternately, their editor thinks that their work is utter crap but needs a “fresh” angle to justify the Angkor junket. It’s true, Cambodians will eat practically any source of protein but for the most part, don’t subsist on weird meats unless it is out of sheer desperation. Every culture has their weird meat. Some Americans eat road-kill but it hardly characterises American cuisine. Nor does it get a mention every time that somebody reviews French Laundry.

Utopian expectations

When Anthony Bourdain came to Cambodia on the hunt for “the perfect meal”, he made a bee-line towards Pailin. If I was coming to Cambodia looking for some parasites to whom I could play the role of “fertile breeding ground” or possibly find out where the ex-Khmer Rouge are keeping the dream alive, I’d also head to Pailin. Admittedly, Bourdain confesses that his trip was ill advised. He was expecting Pailin to be the Indochinese equivalent of Reno, which it would be if Northern California had recently been involved in a prolonged guerrilla war with the genocidal regime from Nevada. Coming to Southeast Asia’s poorest nation and expecting it to be the lost culinary utopia is a little unwise. Cambodian food will eventually be revered like Thai or Vietnamese cuisine because most Cambodians who can afford to live more than a subsistence lifestyle are passionate about their nosh, but developmentally, Cambodia has a lot of catching up to do.

Somewhere in the early- to mid-1990s, a food meme surfaced that conflates poverty and authenticity. In Cambodia, this is revealed in the strange backpacker myth that street food is the best food because it is somehow a more “authentic experience” for the traveller than rocking up to BB World and stuffing their grimy, recently-bearded face with a BB Cambodia Burger. If you want to see what Cambodians love to eat, go to Pizza Company in Sorya Mall on a weekend. Trust me, they’re authentic Cambodians. Expecting that the food that the abject poor eat is going to be better or more “real” than the food that the slightly-less poor eat is insanity. Some street food here is excellent, but most of it is not. It is definitely worth shelling out an extra dollar to eat your meals somewhere better – even if it is a local, bones-and-napkins-on-floor joint – if you don’t have the time to dig for decent street vendors.

Addendum (18 August 2006): Loc lac (or sach ko loc lac) is marinated, cubed beef stir-fried with a soy sauce. It is usually served garnished with a single slice of tomato and raw onion on a lettuce leaf, and depending on your level of decadence, topped with a fried egg. Delicious lime juice, salt and pepper sauce (tuk meric) often comes on the side. The “American style” (also occasionally referred to as “French style” or in Khmer, sach ko loc lac barang) is served with a side of French fries. Vietnam has the similarly named “bo luc lac” and because I’ve heard the “that’s what foreigners like” mantra from a diverse range of Khmer people, I’ll hazard a guess that the French introduced the dish from Vietnam during the colonial era, rather than the Vietnamese popularising it in Cambodia at an earlier date. Cheers to Anonymous Emailer for calling me on an unfamiliar term.

13 thoughts on “Why travelers dislike Khmer food”

  1. Ace post. You just managed to sum up much of what Chef (aka Gut Bomb) and I feel about the topic but have thus far lacked the eloquence to express.

    When we first arrived from Melbourne to the dusty sleepy town of Siem Reap, it had no where near the selection of restaurants it has now. We would wander the streets dejectedly wondering what on earth we were going to eat. Everything would close by 9 pm, there were nearly no street vendors and people that ate there mostly ended up in hospital anyway. For the first time in my life I understood what it meant to be in a food scarce country.

    Although as the local population have found work in the florishing tourist industry there are now noodle stands everywhere. I still won’t eat in them. We both cringe when we see tourists sitting in them munching through a luke warm bowl of god knows what. Even in the expensive Khmer restaurants much of what is served today is “modern Khmer” which is to say, Khmer versions of Chinese classics. It’s all MaMa noodles and flourecent chili sauce. So called “authentic” cuisine is often under/unrated by many Khmer people.

    River fish roe rolled in a bannana leaf and grilled over charcoal is as exciting to them as cheese on toast is to us.

    Reminds me of when we first arrived and Chef’s Khmer commis’ gathered around in amazement and asked what he was making….”I call this a chicken sandwhich – waahla”

  2. Im not sure why, but there is something very heartbreaking about this post (maybe the Tony Bourdain bit) but overall, I think you perfectly captured your point and it is incredible to read. Thank you.

    The time I spend in Cambodia is always punctuated with delicious food that is prepared by traditional home chefs, something most people do not experience. I wish that werent so…the Khmer have a lot of culinary traditions to be proud of.

  3. Ahhh… the Pizza Company. Essentially, Khmer Pizza Hut. It’s alright, I guess.
    I do disagree with one implication that was made, though. The average Cambodian cannot afford to eat at Sorya. It is the relatives of the “excellencies” and the tourists that can afford to frequent the Sorya…

  4. Six months behind in commenting but what the heck…

    The first question you’d ask is “what’s Cambodian food?” I suppose it was the soups and rice and fish my Khmer co-workers ordered whenever we went for lunch. It was a family affair, the odd Khmer soup terrine with a hole in the middle (like a Bundt cake pan), from which you ladle the blandish soups into your rice bowl, and the whole fried or gilled fish which everyone picks from. But is that it for Khmer food? By no means.

    For me, it was “authentic” enough to make a semi-regular trip to Pon Lok on the riverfront. It was usually but not always packed with Phnom Penh’s “elite” and VIP middle class (judging from the Benz’s in front), and the normal scattering of NGOs. I recall an extensive menu of chicken, pork, seafood and other dishes and we always had good meals there. Fried frog legs (which were massive) and a memorable diced chicken with some kinds of nuts stick in mind. By my standards, any restaurant with 80 percent Khmer customers was “authentic” Khmer.

    On the opposite end of the scale were our adventures to the evening “dinner market” which used to form immediately west of the (then) “new” Psah O’Reiussy construction site. It was strictly a Ma and Pa operation with 20 or 30 vendors presenting their homemade delectables in huge pots, portable grills, boxes, whatever. Everything was pre-made, and included various kinds of fish, stews, curries, vegetable dishes, and the like, as well as enormous rice pots suited to feed an army. It was just a matter of pointing at what looked tasty and probably wouldn’t kill you. Whatever you wanted was packed directly into a plastic bag or styrofoam container, and of course this approach was cheap beyond description, a huge and delicious take-home meal for 5,000 reil or so.

    Of course we were taking our lives in hand by eating there, and our hotel management warned us repeatedly that eventually we’d get deathly sick from the food (I wasn’t too concerned since my last illness had been a bout of food poisoning more than a year before in Kathmandu, and I felt my resistance was now quite high to any Asian street food, which proved to be true).

    It’s been a long time now and I apologize for not remembering the Khmer names, but many of the “authentic” Khmer foods also have a Vietnamese analog. For example directly across from what’s now the “new” Psah O’Reiussy and on the same street as the awful Capitol Guest House was an outstanding “pho” restaurant (again, don’t recall Khmer name for this). It was always packed for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and had excellent pho bo (beef) and even better pho bo long (the “long” in Vietnamese meaning a smattering of the offal and innards like heart, liver, intestines, whatever). The same place also had a big evening snack crowd which would gather on the sidewalk toddler-tables and chairs for “pong tea khon” which are the boiled duck eggs with embryo included (“balut” in the Phillipines and “hot vit lon” in VN). Not my favorite but popular with the Khmer.

    And there were a couple enterprising drinks vendors who set up shop on the sidewalk next door, one selling “chuk a luk” which was a variety of fruits (your choice, point at them), condensed canned milk, and crushed ice thrown in a blender to make a delicious evening treat (the name “chuk a luk” comes from the sound of the blender mashing the fruits and ice together). The other vendor had freshly-pressed sugar cane juice, which he’d make on demand by running several canes through the press, and capturing the delicious juice directly in your ice-packed cup.

    Is all of that “authentic”? It must have been, because we’d rarely see any other Westerners at these places but plenty of hungry and thirsty Khmer.

    Just up the street toward Monivong was an elderly street vendor who sold a delicious evening meal which I never saw anywhere else, and he had quite a bustling business. His cart was half storage, half frying grill. Accompanied by a daughter or two (his support crew), he’d fry up a serving of cooked noodles, bean sprouts and a couple other vegetables, topped with one or two fried eggs and an unusual vinegary-sweet sauce that brought everything together. If I recall this quick and lovely “authentic Khmer” meal was about 1500 reil at the time.

    Phnom Penh also had a number of “hot pot” (Vietnamese “lau”) restaurants which I recall always being packed with locals. There were several on Monivong which I recall liking, but they also had a reputation (deserved or not) for random and deadly gunplay, especially when Cambodian army guys were there. So we tended to avoid them despite the good food. In any case that may be a thing of the past… All “hot pot” places are pretty much the same. There’s a clay pot with steaming broth and a burner placed center of the table, followed by an array of vegetables, dried noodles, meats and sauces. There’s a matter of careful sequencing (the foods cook differently), but the basic idea is to toss stuff into the pot and remove it when it’s cooked. Everyone shares the pot and the foods, which are plopped into the ubiquitous rice bowl (but now used for the noodles) and dipped into the lucious sauces. $10 US for 4 people excluding Tiger beer and some high-octane liquors that came in small soda pop bottles.

    As an aside, “hot pot” has a bit of a “guy thing” attached to it, especially the goat meat version which is said to make you randy. But I think the real reason is that it’s also a tad messy and also that proximity to the hot pot makes everyone sweat like pigs, especially on an 85F degree Phnom Penh evening (I have yet to visit a hot pot restaurant with aircon, they’re always open window and/or streetside affairs).

    If you’re not up for sweating, you can also grab 500 grams or so of roast pork from street vendors or the food sections of the larger markets, which by the way normally have several Ma and Pa restaurants inside. One place I recall had a big crowd for it’s delicious “bun xeo” (that’s the VN name), which is a rice pancake packed with pork, shrimp, sprouts, and some herbs. Is that “authentic Khmer”? I suppose it is, since I was the only non-Khmer at the breakfast counter.

    I’ve rambled on long enough, but I wanted to save the best for last.

    There’s one Khmer food which I’d call truly authentic, available on almost every streetcorner, and so much in demand that you’d better stock up before 9:00 or 10:00 AM.

    Are we talking prahok (fish sauce)?
    Nope.
    Grilled crickets and little snakes from the Bassac river?
    Uh unh.
    Dried squid?

    Nope. It’s baguettes. French bread baguettes. Baguettes that you can smell from a block away. A warm, yeasty, pleasant odor that overcomes the normal smelly clouds of rot and decay that can attack you anywhere in Phnom Penh.

    Once you’ve smelled that lucious odor, it’s only a matter of seeking out the Khmer lady with her huge bamboo basket covered by a cloth and loaded with 50 or 100 of those delicious loaves. When I was in Phnom Penh they were 3 medium loaves for 3500 reil (then $1 US). If they were still warm you were in for a heavenly experience. I could eat one and sometimes two directly from the basket with no butter or jam or anything at all. Adding some butter seems gross in SE Asia (if you can find it), but a wedge or three of Laughing Cow cheese (available everywhere) goes well. For the “authentic Khmer” experience, grab a can of sardines in tomato sauce (all of the markets carry them) and shovel the entire can into your split baguette. Yum. Truly Khmer, truly delish.

    One of the big unknown secrets about the former colonies of Indochina – particularly Cambodia and Vietnam – is that both developed local expertise in French-inspired cooking over their 60 years of colonization. That survives today in my two favorite “Khmer” and “Vietnamese” foods: baguettes and omlettes. They are so good that I became addicted to my Indochinese breakfast of a nice fresh baguette, a bacon omlette, and a glass of thick, black “cafe Khmer” or “cafe dien”. French acquaintances (Parisian French no less!) consistently told me that Cambodian and French baguettes were often superior to what they bought in Paris. And as an American omlette expert, I can attest that the eggs were better in Vietnam and Cambodia as well (maybe it was a secret sprinkle of nuoc mam?).

    In any case to make it the true Khmer indigenous experience, make sure that you get a small side dish of teuk trei (fish sauce, “nuoc mam” in VN) with a few chopped-up Thai bird chilis mixed in. Split your baguette, stuff it with omlette, and dip judiciously in this now very spicy fish sauce. If you’ve developed a “taste” for fish sauce and chilis as I have, you’ll soon be ordering a second small dish and ladleing it by the spoonful directly on top of your omlette. Heaven.

    You’re not likely to see your average Khmer or Vietnamese going for this breakfast, but it does bring together two of the local foods that both countries pull-off flawlessly, and in my opinion better than you’ll find in the west.

    If that’s not “authentic”, I don’t know what is.

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