The first challenge is cutlery. There will be an array of implements in a glass of water on your table, which can be cleaned by a simple wipe with a paper towel. What you won’t find, however, is a knife. Cambodians generally eat with a spoon and fork, unless there’s a bowl of soup in front of them, in which case it’s a spoon and chopsticks. It’s impolite to put the fork into your mouth – instead use it to push food onto the spoon held in your right hand. For soup, use chopsticks to pick out the meat and noodles and the spoon for liquid elements. Cutlery that has been in your mouth should definitely not be put into communal dishes, if you’re eating family style — which means sharing plates placed in the centre of the table.
Help yourself to the shared condiments, likely to include chilli jam or pickled green chillies, sugar, garlic flakes, fish sauce and soy sauce. Apply the sniff test if you’re not sure. Sauces, such as pepper and salt with lime or prahok and peanuts, are often served in larger bowls to be decanted into individual dipping saucers. It’s not unusual for a range of items which you haven’t ordered to be placed on your table. This can include soggy ‘sandwiches’ in plastic bags, deep fried bread and a fine selection of lychee, soursop and wintermelon drinks plus the odd can of Coke. Don’t worry about your bill — if you don’t consume them, you won’t be charged for them. The tea is free.
While dining, feel free to indulge in slurping, lip smacking and any other noises you can find to convey enjoyment of the meal. You won’t get your hand slapped for eating with your mouth open, or for putting your elbows on the table. In fact, forget almost everything you learned in that finishing school for fine ladies! Bones and used paper tissues go straight onto the floor or into a dustbin provided under the table. After all, why would you want to litter your eating table with rubbish?
One thing that is frowned upon is blowing your nose at the table. When you stop and think, it is rather disgusting to inflict your snotty eruptions on your dinner companions. Picking your teeth after eating is, however, perfectly acceptable and wooden toothpicks are provided. It’s polite to cover your mouth with one hand, so your tonsils and fillings remain hidden to those seated around. The used toothpick, of course, makes it way onto the floor.
Dishes will often not be cleared from your table until you pay the bill — after all, you might want second or third pickings once you’ve had another jug of beer. When you are ready to ket loi, the waiter will count empty drinks cans and the plastic plates under your jugs of beer for an accurate total. Once you’ve vacated your table, the big sweep will begin, clearing the floor ready for the next diners. Bon appetit!
Abigail has been stoned by villagers in India, become an honorary Kenyan tribeswoman, sweet talked border guards and had close encounters with black mambas. Her motto is: “Live to tell the tale.”