A bit of a challenge
It’s not easy in Cambodia to find a sympathetic ear if you’re a vegetarian. Instead, you will be confronted with everything ranging from open disbelief, to dark mutterings that the barang is clearly mad, to acts of rebellion with secret sprinklings of shrimp or bacon bits. And sometimes the struggle is not even that overt. So much of Cambodian food is laced with prahok or fish sauce that it can seem like there’s no escaping it.
One expat, who’s been a vegetarian since she was six, and has lived in countries all over Asia and Africa, only discovered since she came to Cambodia that she clearly has an allergy to shellfish. Everywhere she goes when she’s outside of the main urban centres in Cambodia, she repeats the same phrases: “Khnum nyam banlae” (I eat vegetables), “At nyam saich” (I don’t eat meat), and “At nyam trey” (I don’t eat fish), and still her food is frequently sprinkled with little bits of something that once had eyes.
“It’s not on purpose,” she says. “It’s just that often, I think it may not be realised that the sachets of flavouring that come with the noodle packets can contain meat.” It is not impossible however, and she has frequently tucked into delicious plates of fried noodles with reams of healthy greens, onion and carrots.
Back in the urban centres, a vegetarian’s lot is altogether a better one. In Siem Reap, a number of restaurants are exclusively vegetarian, and some veggie-friendly ones whose dishes come highly recommended. Top of the list is Chamkar on The Passage. According to our veggie expat, the food here is “bloody scrumptious”, and she recommends in particular the pumpkin curry. The restaurant is quite small and discreet compared to the bustling on the rest of The Passage, and also sells organic wines, and a green tea latte.
At the top of The Passage and to the left, facing Blue Pumpkin, there is Little India. This north and south Indian cuisine restaurant has been quietly doing its thing for 12 years now, one of the longest running restaurants in Siem Reap. Five years ago they expanded, taking over two shopfronts, and acquired in the process a second kitchen. The owner took the opportunity to devote one kitchen entirely to vegetarian food so that it could meet the exacting standards of even the strictest vegetarians.
The Singing Tree is another hit with those who would rather wear nothing than Lady Gaga’s notorious Argentinean meat dress. This is a bright and colourful streetside café that is also vegan friendly, as with the two establishments above. Salads, burgers, quiches, sandwiches and grills are complemented by a good range of juices and shakes. There is now space upstairs and off the street, for those who like it a little quieter.
Not necessarily vegetarian restaurants, a number of other places still come highly recommended for either having a broad availability of vegetarian food, or only a few, but really-really good, dishes. Among these are Cuisine Wat Damnak, although you have to call ahead as the weekly changing set menu tends to have a strong fish focus. You will be richly rewarded if you do, and although our vegetarian couldn’t necessarily describe what she ate as she didn’t recognize all of the vegetables in the five different taster dishes that the chef prepared, the verdict was that it was absolutely amazing.
Tigre de Papier also has some impressive veggie dishes, including pizzas, salads and vegetarian bakes, and Il Forno rated a special mention thanks to its Parmigiana Melanzane, an aubergine bake. Their pizzas are also delicious.
The Passage, Pub Street Area
T: (092) 733 150
2 Thnou Street, Old Market Area
T: (012) 652 398
Cuisine Wat Damnak
Behind Wat Damnak Pagoda, between Psa Dey Hoy Market and Angkor High School
T: (077) 347 762
Tigre de Papier
The Lane (off Pub Street)
T: (092) 238 914
Nicky Sullivan is an Irish freelance writer (and aspiring photographer). She has lived in England, Ireland, France, Spain and India, but decided that her tribe and heart are in Cambodia, where she has lived since 2007 despite repeated attempts to leave. She dreams of being as tough as Dervla Murphy, but fears there may be a long way to go. She can’t stand whisky for starters. She was a researcher, writer and coordinator for The Angkor Guidebook: Your Essential Companion to the Temples, now one of the best-selling guidebooks to the temples.
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