Siem Reap: Twelfth century Buddhist and Hindu temples, huge fruit bats flying like black clouds over city parks, and rice fields stretching for miles in all directions. My wife and I went to see the temples and enjoy the remarkable hospitality--Cambodians we met were very curious about us and frank in telling us their life stories. We also returned with a love of their food.
Americans are familiar with the delicious cuisines of Vietnam and Thailand. As a result of the war, soldiers and Asian refugees brought products and recipes from Thailand and Vietnam to America. Vietnam gave us pho, caramelized pork, and dishes with young ginger. Thank Thailand, where G.I.’s went for “Rest & Relaxation” for fiery peppers and noodle dishes like Mee Krob, Pad Khee Mao, and Pad Thai.
Cambodia, located between Vietnam and Thailand, is best known for Angkor Wat, the world’s largest collection of religious buildings, and Pol Pot, the leader of the Khmer Rouge, who engineered five years of genocide.
Thirty years after the Khmer Rouge were defeated by the Vietnamese army; Cambodians are working hard to create normal lives for their families. Central to that effort is a cuisine which offers the memories of comfort from a time when Cambodia was at peace.
The singular ingredient, the one that is utterly unique to Cambodia, is Prahok, which has been used for centuries. Prahok is added to stir-fried dishes, soups, stove-top braises, and noodle dishes. On its own, it has a gray or dark brown color and a strong, musty taste like pungent cheese. But as a condiment, used in small amounts, prahok creates a depth of flavor accenting what is on the plate or in the bowl rather than overwhelming it. Due to the many lakes in Cambodia, fish is their chief source of protein.
Each day my wife and I went with our guide and a tuk-tuk driver to see temples just after dawn. Sixty square miles of buildings combined with the early visits meant that we never had to face big crowds. The guide and driver charged a total of $30 a day.
After each visit, we asked our guide to take us to good, local restaurants.
At a restaurant called Phum Stoeng Tror Cheak, we enjoyed soryor (deep fried spring rolls), tom yam fish soup, mjou kreung moun (chicken soup with galangal, kaffir lime, and tamarind), chrouk char mreas prov (stir fried pork with hot basil and red chili), and treay char chou chee (stir fried local fish with curry, shallot, and kaffir lime leaves).
Food at Cambodian restaurants is plated in ways familiar to Western diners, but is meant to be shared. Forks and knives are used to eat and dollars are the currency to pay for everything including food, hotels, guides, and museums.
The variation in menus and prices in Siem Reap are minimal: Each place serves essentially the same great food using the same delicious ingredients. Lunch or dinner at local restaurants is about $15 a couple. Hotel restaurants cost between $20-$75 per couple depending on wine and cocktails.
So how do you choose?