Sunday, May 18, 2008

Khmer Cuisine: Ja Ja, Oui Oui

Cambodia tends to get a bad rap for its food, and you’ll commonly hear a description of it that goes more or less “Cambodian food is similar to Thai and Vietnamese cuisine, just not nearly as good.” I would hereby like to call bullshit on that annoying line of thinking.

Okay, I have found that heart-stoppingly delicious food is perhaps not as abundant as in the lands of it neighbors. Nor is the street food here quite as accessible or varied. But in the one and a half months that I have been living in this fine country, I have personally been able to have quite a few fervid love affairs with Khmer food. And if I have, well then kind sir, surely anyone else can as well.

To illustrate my point, below is one very normal, cheap, and wholly satisfying food adventure I had one day, all within working hours.

A few of my coworkers and I ventured out into one of CREDIT’s Phnom Penh sub-branches, situated close to the airport. We used this branch as a hub to interview clients that lived in the outskirts of Phnom Penh. As usual, it was a very hot and dusty day, and also exhausting. Perhaps noticing our state of heat exhaustion, one of the clients we interviewed lavished us with the fruits of her labor:

Outside of her house she sold these homemade vermicelli noodles served with a typical Khmer sauce and cucumbers and garnished with salt and chili. I eagerly slurped my bowl down, and the nourishing coolness helped restore my energy in the morning heat. I've always said there's no better way to start the day than with two breakfasts!

For lunch we went back to the branch and partook in the staff meal there. To my glee, this is what we ate:

Staff meal

Like in many other Asian cuisines, Khmer meals typically consist of a few different types of dishes composing of vegetables, seafood and meat, eaten together family style with rice. No offense to you Westerners, but I'm pretty sure we Asians have got you beat when it comes to the "how to optimally enjoy a meal" department.

The Khmers eat a lot of fish. This one was filleted and pan-fried to crispy perfection. Please note the very fitting love plate on which it was served.

This dish was basically Khmer baked beans, but slightly more pungent than British baked beans. Its strong flavors complemented the other lighter dishes wonderfully.

Garlic-sauteed sliced pumpkin with chicken. The pumpkin in Cambodia is out of this world, and to sautee it with garlic is a genius idea.

Typical fish soup dish with pumpkin, green leafy vegetables, mushroom, tofu skins, and winter melon.

After our afternoon interviews we headed back to headquarters, but not without busting a tire on one of our motos. As the roadside mechanics worked to congeal the tire, we stopped for a delightful afternoon snack to bide the time:

Roasted Eggs

They hollow the eggs (the way that Christians do for Easter), mix them with some kind of saucy saucy, refill the eggshells with the mixture and bbq them. We in turn dig out the resulting treat and eat it with a limey-chili-salt sauce. YUM!