While in Siem Reap, we semi-splurged for a guided food tour. At $75 per adult and half that price for kids, it was a little spendy by Cambodian standards, but food tourists that we are- we were excited by the prospect. I realize this sounds like a gluttounous crawl from roadside cafe to street vendor to kimchi pub burger, packing ourselves full of far more than is prudent or humane, but as suspected, one’s guide makes all the difference. I had a poolside conversation with a fellow traveler who’d just returned from a “culinary tour” herself. She groaned with overindulgence while the other members of her family slowly digested their lion’s shares in the comfort of the room’s AC. “Don’t do it,” she moaned, clutching her belly in regret. “It’s just TOO much.”
Despite her graphic warning, we carried on with our plans. When I’d made reservations the week before, I felt confident in our choice. The tour’s organizer informed me that this would be a “private” tour because we had a Bushbaby along and assured us that they could alter the plan as necessary to make sure she (or we!) weren’t too overwhelmed.
Her partner, Steven, a Scottish chef with knowledge surpassed only by his curiosity, picked us up at our hotel; tuktuk stocked with a cooler full of water and wet wipes. My first request was for coffee since our hotel’s machine was broken and instant was their unfortunate solution. We loaded in to our transportation for the day and bumped off in search of breakfast.
We wound through the main parts of downtown, passing by organic juice and smoothie cafes and vegan bakeries. I’ll admit my brow furrowed when I detected freshly brewed coffee beckoning and we kept on rolling by. I wondered if he hadn’t heard me or taken my request with the urgency I’d intended. Lucky for us all, we soon arrived at our first stop, the Cambodian version of a diner.
It was nondescript from the street view with a cafeteria atmosphere inside. All of the tables were occupied. One gentleman, just there for a coffee, invited us to join him with a wave of his hand. Bowls of fresh noodles and pork steeping in an herbal broth were passed through a small window at the back of the room to the waitresses who delivered them to the hungry diners. The morning’s nourishment was balanced alongside the convivial spirit of the morning rush. We ordered three bowls, since there was no menu, and three strong iced coffees, served with sweetened condensed milk. Divine!
Once we’d had our fill, we set off for the markets. I knew that between the heat, the smells and the crowds (not to mention the tangle of freshly skinned snakes, still writhing with nerve impulses), this would be a tough segment for our girl. When the tattered canopies or low ceilings bumped her from the safe haven of her dad’s shoulders, she stuck close and muscled through.
Our guide was the wealth of information that I had been craving since arriving in Cambodia months before. He offered insight into the way the food culture has transformed during the past 4-5 decades from the strong colonial influence of refined french preparations stripped to one of survival through foraging. Fishweed- from the marshes, used to lend a fishy depth of flavor to soups and salads. Multiple types of basil, all with their own uses. Lotus root, galangal, kefir lime, water convulvulus. So many others with names and flavors equally unfamiliar. Still other curiosities like giant goopy buckets of sugarcane sap with a similar extraction process to that of maple syrup. And you’ll know it when you smell it, Prahok, a fermented fish paste that is distinctively unique to Cambodian cuisine.
One prahok master sold at least 10 different types, each one aged for varying lengths of time and chopped to varying consistencies, producing flavors and odors so complex and unusual that the uninitiated chef or diner may prefer fasting. (My one experience with prahok was when my housekeeper/cook prepared a dish that overtook our kitchen with the odor of a gangrenous wet dog. IT WAS EXTREME! I had the Daisy troop over on that particular day and they carried on dramatically horrified about what we were having for dinner that night.) Our guide, Steven, assured us that with the right balance of acid, salt and sweet, prahok could unlock a magical umami balance and elevate a simple dish beyond your palate’s imagination. But if the cook was heavy handed with one or more ingredient and the scales were tipped too far in any direction… prepare for the assault.
As we passed through the market, Steven gathered random items for us to snack on and assembled a couple of generous bags filled with herbs, fresh pork belly, starfruit, winged beans and more to offer the families we were going to visit at their homes in the neighboring villages later that afternoon.
On the ride out of town, the landscape opened up to rice fields and stilted family compounds. We stopped at one of the many which had a roadside grill selling sausage stuffed frogs and a prahok mixture steamed in a banana leaf. Our guide expertly supplemented this with a dab of mango salad, sliced cucumbers and an omelet he’d picked up at the market. He chose this particular spot due to the fact that a litter of puppies was born just 3 weeks earlier. Colette was delighted to play and watch them tussle. She opted for a nibble on a Lara bar I expertly supplemented from my own bag of tricks.
The next stop was at the family compound of multi-generational rice noodle makers. They’ve been using exactly this same “machinery” for centuries. I didn’t catch the entire process enough to explain in much detail. Below is the grinder, the press and boiling water and finally the hands with the muscle memory required to loop the delicate noodles into silky nests arranged neatly in the baskets headed to market.
Next we passed by a family farm where they were proud to share their dedication to self-reliance and sustainability along with a generous splash of sake straight from the still. Our guide translated with good humor and a skill to make what could’ve felt awkwardly intrusive seem more like a visit to your grandma’s place in the sticks. This country mouse felt right at home.
As the tour wrapped up, our final stop was at a cafe in the village center to sample what this region is known for, at least nationally if not beyond. Rice noodles in a prahok-spiked coconut milk broth served along side an overgrown bowl of foraged herbs and long beans meant to be snapped off and added to your bowl. It was a sublime balance of sweet and savory with a hint of lime anchored by that luscious depth of flavor as Steven had promised. I felt a timelessness to this ancient dish and a connection to these kind and generous people from whom it had come, a metaphor for the delicate balance of connection we all seek to the past, present and future.