A strange transition occurs when you have been in one country for a few months and then travel to another. Those little things that were so familiar all disappear. Suddenly, saying hello or ordering your meal become challenging again. We may also have entered Cambodia with a more negative attitude because of all the the things we heard about theft and rampant overcharging before getting here. Our first few days were rough and we thought we would just move on to Thailand right away. But after a week or so the transition occurred. And now, much to our own surprise, our hearts have been won over by Cambodia.
The is tremendous poverty and suffering here. Certainly there is crime especially in Phnom Pehn. The tuktuk drivers do hassle you when you walk down the street. But it is all done with a smile on their faces and is easy to manage. After a short time it becomes something you laugh at with them as you walk down the street.
I am learning too about the Khmer Rouge and the terrible genoside that occurred here after the Vietnam War. The political tensions continue as riots and death happen in Phnom Penh while I write this post. Fortunately we were not affected by the riots although we did see the protestors march through the city.
We crossed the border from Laos receiving a 30 day Visa without issue. After a hair raising ride lasting 12 hours in local taxis (minivan packed full of people and their belongings) on bad roads, we arrived in Phnom Penh. We stayed in the big city for 2 days and then moved on to the small city of Kampot in the south.
While in Phnom Penh we gave our passports to an agency who had them processed at the Thai embassy. This took about 9 days including holidays and weekends. We finally received them in Kampot from a bus driver courier complete with 60 day Visa for Thailand. Total cost was $100US for 2 Visas.
Unlike our Laos experience, we have difficulty finding the faces of the ethinic minorities here. The Cambodian face has softer features then other southeast Asians and the language is completely different then Laos and Thai. The food too reflects a perhaps more sophisticated palate with less often sugar or burning peppers and more often subtle blends of spices and herbs. We spent most of our almost month in Cambodia trying all of the Khmer specialties. Cambodian food has been influenced in different ways by India, China, Vietnam, and the French. We found curries made with turmeric or coconut, tamarind sauces, and the ever necessary occasional baguette.
We spent many hours wandering through the market in Kampot, our favorite little town in South Cambodia. We were introduced the best parts of Kampot by our friend Jean Louis (https://freebirdtravelblog.com/2013/10/24/festival-friend-and-food-in-luang-prabang/).
We discovered these tasty fried shrimp cakes which are dipped in a spicy sweet sauce. Wrap them in lettuce, dip in the sauce, and take a bite. The woman who cooks them stands right in front of you as you eat. 5 shrimp cakes cost about .50 cents. When Michel asked to take her picture she demanded a dollar which is why you won’t see her picture here. The women vendors in the market are tough and negotiation is often required when a barang (foreigner) is buying anything.
I also discovered the dessert section of the market. The women are cooking these deep fried goodies right there so you eat them nice and hot. The inside is full of mild sweet bean paste and the outside is coated with sesame. You can feel your arteries clogging up with each bite but it is gooey goodness all the way.
Ah salt! Ah pepper! I never really understood you before. Right outside of Kampot are fields of pepper and beds of salt. The local women all have their own special bottle full of dried local salt mixed with pepper in their own preferred quantities waiting for you on the table. So many years of eating Morton’s salt and pepper, how was I to know that it would make food taste this good. Also, they cook their food with fresh pepper corns. A subtle hearty taste with a tiny bit of heat.
Palm sugar was another revelation. Palm sugar is made by making several slits into the stem of a palm tree and collecting the sap. The sap is then boiled until it thickens. It has a more mellow sweetness than cane sugar.
The Khmer use it in some but not all of their traditional recipes. Most noteable might be Bai sach chrouk: Pork and rice. The pork is slow cooked and caramelized, then served over rice. When served at breakfast it came with a fried egg on top. Whether breakfast or later in the day it is always accompanied by a delicious chicken garlic broth and a side of spicy chili sauce.
We spent one magnificent week at an Eco Resort outside of Kampot called Genesha. As though we really needed to unwind anymore but unwind we did. Check Genesha out on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/GaneshaRiversideEcoResortKampot. Stephanie and Emannuell are fantastic hosts. We lived in a perfect little Yurt built on a platform above a secluded river and mangrove. They have a great chef at Genesha, Sam Nang, and every meal was a pleasant surprise.
The first was Koh Kong style beef with crying cauliflower. The name says it all here. So spicy you really do cry while eating it. This was the only really spicy meal we ate in Cambodia. The pieces of beef are tender and in a tangy chill sauce. The cauliflower is a perfect complement to this hearty meal.
The Misou “Sam Nang” style contains rice noodles, onions, carrots, and fresh basil. All drenched in a chili sauce with peanuts.
Chicken and minced fresh banana flower salad. The banana flower is cut very thin and mixed with lime, steamed carrots, peanuts, green beens, and a few red peppers sliced thin. Refreshingly good.
Matchou Slak Maka Sat moan is a coconut based khmer curry. What makes it really special are the herbs from the garden. We have not yet been able to identify what these herbs are. We have never seen or tasted them before but the flavor added to the curry is earthy and subtle. This curry contains chicken and morning glory as well. It is not possible to stop eating this once you taste it.
The four dishes above are traditional Khmer dishes as interpreted by Sam Nang.
A couple of the dishes that Sam prepared for us had a more international appeal. This first is called Parlement Roll. A fried pork roll with crispy skin stuffed with minced pork and herbs in a blanket of creme fraiche. Get ready to take a nap after this one. It is so good you’ll have to eat it all.
The dish called Shrimp Walking in the Garden is a Sam Nang fantasy. The sauce is a coconut curry base with peanuts, shallots, and garlic ground to a paste and all reduced. The vegetables are all battered and deep fried. They are adorned with a shrimp topping and then smothered in the sauce. All of this rests on a bed of French fries. The peanut based curry reduction is a perfect complement to the veggies and shrimp. You will end up dipping those french fries in it until it is all gone.
When we were not eating at Genesha we spent time sitting around the table with the local French expats. Michel and all the guys sharing stories of their adventures around the world. me struggling with understanding the French and working to improve my own, yes I can hear some of you chuckling now.. During those conversations we learned about several places around town that serve traditional Khmer food. We spent some time visiting those places as well.
Right next to the old market are some outdoor restaurants across the street from the river. One of them was recommended for a couple of excellent dishes. The first is The Beef in the Bamboo. This beef is slow cooked in the bamboo with herbs and what I assume is a lite bamboo sauce. The result is tender beef with a subtle yet tangy sauce. Pour the concoction over rice or dip the veggies in it and you are in heaven.
The most surprising and perhaps our favorite meal was Shrimp over Glass Noodles. What is a glass noodle? We are still trying to figure out how they do it. They are crispy rice noodles. Over the top is sweet chili sauce, peanuts, shrimp, and herbs. It is a sweet dish but it’s so much fun to crunch on those crisp noodles in that wonderful sauce.
We were referred to another restaurant on a dark street where no tourists go. It it large like a warehouse and the customers actually park their motorbikes in the restaurant. Sit down at one of the tables and order the Crab with Green Pepper Sauce. The city of Kep near to Kampot is well known for its crab and no doubt it was Kep Crab that we were eating that night. The green pepper corns in the tamarind based sauce create a savory mildly spicy flavor. We went back for this one more than one time.
Our last stop for Khmer food included a trip into the kitchen to learn proper techniques for frying frog legs. Our host Etienne and his wife Sriet share this meal with us after Sriet taught us how to prepare it. We spent a lovely evening in their restaurant. The first meal was Fried Frog Legs with a Lime Kampot Pepper Sauce. The deep frying techniques demonstrated by Sriet required to create perfectly crispy frog legs were important.
But the key ingredient is the sauce. It is made of lime, local fresh salt, a pinch of palm sugar, and ground Kampot pepper. You can really taste the freshness of the pepper in the sauce.
Take your crispy yet still very juicy frog leg and dip it in the pepper sauce. The fresh pepper blends perfectly with the mildness of the frog leg meat.
Our second meal at Etienne’s place was Frog Legs with Ginger and scallions. Ginger, we discovered, is another perfect compliment to the mild and juicy frog leg meat.
They say that to really understand Cambodia you must see Ankor Wat. The ancient ruins built long ago are a reminder of the long lasting reign of these people as the premier culture in the area. It’s true that Ankor Wat has stood the long test of time when so much of the Cambodian culture has been lost during the tragic war and strife here. But we believe that perhaps the best way to experience what remains of the ancient Khmer culture is to eat their glorious food. We’ll come back to Cambodia again and look forward to gaining deeper understanding of this charming country.