Cambodia was a bit of a mixed bag food-wise. While the food was considerably better and more varied than I’d been led to expect, I did manage to give myself a rather severe case of food poisoning which put a bit of a dampener on the whole culinary experience. Typically for me, the food poisoning wasn’t from some adventurous street-food but rather from the smart dining room of a 5« hotel in Siem Reap. Typical.
I have to admit at this stage that I was a bit whimpish on the street food front. I was simply too concerned to see the amazing wonders of Angkor Wat, Ta Prohm and Sambor Prei Kuk to risk it (which, given it was the 5« hotel that poisoned me, was probably not the best decision I’ve ever made!). Still, some of the street food we were presented with didn’t exactly inspire me to want to eat it anyway - in Skuon, which we passed through on the way to the 6th century temples of Sambor Prei Kuk, the street vendors were selling an assortment of deep-fried spiders and crickets. The spiders were absolutely huge, about the size of my palm - according to Wiki, they are a species of tarantula called "a-ping" in Khmer which are bred nearby. There seems to be some debate as to whether they were first eaten out of desperation during the Khmer Rouge period or if they are a longer-standing delicacy. To be honest, nothing was going to persuade me to put one in my mouth - particularly after I’d read the Lonely Planet’s assessment of the brown gunge inside the spider made up of organs, eggs, and excrement.
For me, the culinary highlight of the trip was actually one of the simplest things we had, fresh pineapple juice. The Raffles Hotel in Phnom Penh does, officially, the best pineapple juice I’ve ever tasted. Instead of that thin acidic stuff you normally get, this was thick and sweet - simply the juice of a crushed pineapple. Lip-smackingly delicious!
I was quite impressed with the food in Phnom Penh. There didn't seem to be as many sophisticated choices as in the more touristy Siem Reap but the restaurants we tried were of a good standard. We ate in the Raffles Hotel on the first night after a particularly heavy downpour kept us in the Elephant Bar longer than anticipated. The restaurant was grand with full silver service but was unfortunately seriously lacking in atmosphere and a little bit stuffy. Despite the fact it was a Saturday night, there were only a few tables of diners and we had to speak in hushed tones, aware that everyone around us could hear what we were saying. Still, the food was excellent. We chose the Khmer set menu which was as good as it sounded with a delicious pumpkin soup as well as a particularly good version of the national dish, fish amok, a fish dish baked with thick coconut milk and kroeung. According to Wiki, kroeung is the flavouring that distinguishes Khmer food from Thai and Vietnamese cuisine. The eight most common ingredients are lemon grass, kaffir lime zest and leaves, galangal, turmeric, rhizome, garlic, shallots and dried red chillies. The meal was extortionate by Cambodian standards but was an excellent introduction to the cuisine in a non-scary environment.
By the second night, having got our bearings in the monkey-filled streets of Phnom Penh, we decided to have a drink at the Foreign Correspondents Club before heading to Marli’s, a restaurant slightly away from the tourist zone in a more expat area. To be honest, the FCC in Phnom Penh has nothing on the amazing version in Siem Reap and we quickly hopped back into our tuk-tuk for the death-defying journey to Marli’s (crazy driving appears to be obligatory in Phnom Penh!). It was a good decision. The venue is quite lovely with the tables set around a central pond in the modern red courtyard, away from the chaotic hustle and bustle of the world outside. Unfortunately the food didn’t quite live up to the venue itself but my dining companions seemed to choose better options. My starter - a fish platter of slightly dubious tasting clams, prawn cakes and peppered scallops - was disappointing. I didn’t feel that the items were as fresh as they should have been and everything was a little over-oily. However, D.S. chose better, having a tasty pork with tamarind salad to start - it was fresher, less greasy than the seafood. The main course was dramatically presented - beef served in a bamboo dish - and was certainly flavoursome. Again, it wasn't cheap but it was a nice calm setting with interesting food options.
Quite early on I came to the conclusion that salads were the way to go with Khmer cooking. The two salads we had during lunch at Raffles’ poolside bar - an excellent spicy Khmer beef salad and a delicious prawn and pomelo salad - confirmed this theory, and indeed, were probably the best salads we had in Cambodia. Both tasted extremely fresh and had strong flavours, enhanced by the simplicity of the ingredient combinations.
Not all the food was fantastic during our journey through the country. We had a bit of a non-descript meal during our drive between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap - well, I say non-descript, but to be honest we were all a bit out of it having been thoroughly beaten up following the drive to Sambor Prei Kuk along roads sufficiently bad that I swear they caused the rearranging of my internal organs (even the driver admitted the road was “dancing” a bit!). Despite the serious internal damage, Sambor Prei Kuk’s pre-Angkorian 6th century temples were delightful and I'm glad we didn't fly between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap.
After a not so great food-poisoning based experience at an uber-trendy 5« hotel in Siem Reap (such a shame because the food tasted excellent and the décor, with these amazing hanging tables around the courtyard, was brilliant), the highlight of the trip came in the form of the Foreign Correspondents Club there. The venue is wonderful with tables set out in the large river-front garden lit by tea-lights or up on the open white veranda above. Unfortunately my stomach was not playing ball and after two slices of - most excellent - pizza, I had to give up on food completely. However, the contented noises coming from M.S. and D.S. as they devoured their selection of Khmer taster plates assured me that the food was as of as high a standard as it looked. The fabulous combination of good location, excellent atmosphere and brilliant food meant that this was definitely the highlight of the trip.
The temples of Angkor were amazing, filled with hundreds of carvings of Apsara dancers. Having wondered round all day looking at them, we felt that we should see a performance of the traditional dancing on which Thai dancing is based. All the options in Siem Reap have dinner included, whether you want it or not. Our hotel recommended the Apsara Theatre, partly because it comes as a set meal, rather than a buffet. The wooden theatre is dramatic inside and out, particularly if you sit downstairs on the cushions, and although the food does not match up to the venue, it was better than I was expecting for captive-audience type food. However, the food was all a bit of a side-show - it was, after all, all about the dancing - which was awesome.
Bit of a mixed bag but I was generally very impressed with the food options, particularly given that the cuisine isn't generally rated as highly as its neighbours, Thailand and Vietnam.