Stuffed frog, sauteed cricket and deep fried tarantula are probably the best known examples of Cambodia’s rich street food tradition – partly because Gordon Ramsay pulled faces and swore a lot when he was forced to try them on a recent TV series and partly because, well, they all sound rather grim. But dining on Cambodian street food is not just about claiming bragging rights for the most disgusting items ever consumed while on a holiday. A huge range of delicious fare is to be consumed at Siem Reap’s roadsides, and the street food tour through the River Garden Hotel that we recently took gives you an opportunity to try a bit of the good, the bad and the ugly.
The tour begins at 17:00 nightly at the River Garden Hotel, a pretty hotel by the Siem Reap River to the north town. The riverside itself is now rather drab thanks to ongoing flood prevention work, but just across the road there are still shops and a busy market, which was the first stop on our tuk tuk tour with English-speaking guide and River Garden chef, Buntheoun.
The first comestibles on offer were roast pork belly, crispy fried duck and Cambodian baguettes – similar to the French variety but less crispy – filled with pate and mayonnaise. But these “traditional Cambodian afternoon snacks” seemed a little tame and definitely too Western. On the next stall, however, a man was selling shrimp fritters. This seemed a bit more like it. Small shell-on shrimps are mixed with rice flour and turmeric, deep fried and served with a squeeze of fresh lime juice and a sprinkling of salt and pepper. At 1,000 riel (US$ 0.25) each they were cheap as well as delicious.
Next stop was the huge Psar Leu market on busy National Road 6. We browsed a few hot food and fresh fruit stands but there were still only a few items that really whetted the appetite. We tried fried chive cakes — rice flour patties filled with chopped chives and a mixture of herbs and spices, served with sweet and sour sauce. On their own the cakes were a little bland but the sauce spiced them up a bit. Again they were just 1,000 riel each.
After the savoury cakes we fancied something sweet so checked out the fruit stalls and in among the familiar dragon fruit, longans, mangoes and mangosteens spotted something decidedly unfamiliar: snake fruit. Shaped like a banana shallot it has a deep tan-coloured skin which is made up of hundreds of tiny scales, just like snake skin. Inside is a double-lobed fruit which tastes slightly sweet with a hint of citrus. Just 1,000 riel for two…
So far, so average one might say, but after Psar Leu we headed off to what turned out to be Siem Reap’s street food central. Five minutes out of town is a large funfair, enormously popular with local families and of course where there are people, there are food stalls. Lots of them.
It had been tempting to wonder why we had paid for a guided tour which had so far only taken us to two of the town’s markets. But the value of having our own guide soon became obvious when faced with such an array of unidentifiable foodstuffs. Buntheoun quickly confirmed that along with the regular bowls of noodle soup and stir-fried rice with pork (around 3,000 riel or $0.75 each) were indeed some of the hard men of street food: crickets, water beetles and even stir-fried silk worms.
I am not particularly squeamish about eating insects and entrails, and have tried stir-fried crickets — which, incidentally, taste a little like highly seasoned shell-on prawns — but I do have a bit of an obsession with food hygiene. This is due largely to my stomach being about as strong as a rain-soaked paper bag, so it was good to have Buntheoun with us to hand pick the stalls where we should eat.
He diligently identified every unlikely “foodstuff” before us, explained how it was cooked and almost made everything sound delicious. But I chickened out at the prospect of unlaid eggs – as in ‘removed from inside a poultry carcass’ — on a skewer, barbecued frog (with or without frog spawn stuffing), steamed Tonle Sap water snails and stir-fried cow’s intestines.
I did, however, succumb to what is known as a barbecued spring roll. The only resemblance it has to your standard spring roll is the shape, as its ingredients include neither filo pastry nor rice paper. It is a snack of seasoned coarse ground pork, cooked over charcoal and served on a stick. Ironically, it is probably far more likely to cause gastric problems than a recently killed bug or a snail, but was very tasty all the same.
For afters you can choose from various spongy desserts with day-glo icing, exotic fruits from the myriad fruit stalls or slightly crunchy sweet biscuity desserts made from rice flour dough and black sesame seeds and deep fried while you wait. If you fancy something really different I can recommend palm fruit. Similar to lychee, longan and mangosteen, the patty-shaped fleshy white fruit is slightly sweet, and contains a watery liquid that bursts into your mouth when you bite into it. An interesting experience.
At $15 per person the cost of the tour is reasonable, although that does not include the cost of any food purchases – take plenty of Cambodian riel with you – or the cost of getting to and from the River Garden. Of course, had we known about the food stalls at the fairground before we could have easily found them ourselves, but the presence of our guide did ensure that we were not ripped off, we knew exactly what we were eating, and we felt safe at all times.
At the end of the tour, which finishes around 18:30, you are invited to enjoy your purchases in the poolside restaurant at the River Garden. Or if, like me, you are a bit of a culinary coward, you can sneak off to one of the restaurants downtown for some more familiar food. Oh, and we didn’t find any elusive tarantulas. Apparently they are not very common around Siem Reap, which is probably a good thing, for more than one reason.
By Simon Hare.
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