Local Khmer Food Odyssey

Last night I took another food tour for dinner in Phnom Penh and I have to say I am really glad I did. Much of the food was sensational, all in local restaurants without a westerner in sight. My guide, Sophany, was very sweet and gave a lot of information about the food and the history of the restaurants. The first stop was at a little place not far from my hotel and I will be sure to go back there when I’m in Phnom Penh again soon. The specialty of the house is Num Ban Chok, commonly known as Khmer Noodles, and Sophat, the owner really knew how to cook. The fermented rice noodles were soft and fresh and to that they added banana flower and a curry sauce made from turmeric, lemongrass, garlic, shallots and galangal, pounded into a paste with fish and prahoc (Cambodian fermented fish paste) and cooked with coconut cream.

The fragrant dish is served with all sorts of herbs and vegetables which you can add to your own taste, with lime, chilli and pickled cucumber. It is one of the best things I have ever eaten in Cambodia and, while I tried to not eat all of it and save room for the next 4 restaurants we were to visit, I had to eat it all, it was just too good. After a few more photos and thanking Sophat for such a delicious meal it was back into the tuk tuk and off to the next restaurant for curry and prawns. I should note that the tuk tuk was stocked up with an esky full of beer, all you can drink apparently. Although I didn’t want to fill up on beer with all this great food to eat.

The next restaurant was called Boat Noodles which started as a street food stall and was turned into a restaurant in around 2004. We went out behind the main restaurant where a traditional Khmer house sits and has been set up with tables and cushions so you can eat sitting on the floor. The first dish was a curry, similar to a Thai red curry, with chicken and served with rice. The other dish was prawns wrapped in vermicelli noodles and deep fried. Nothing wrong with the dishes as such but the curry could have done with a bit more fish sauce for the salty element, and the prawns were a bit on the greasy side. Not a hit but not a miss either.

The next restaurant, called The Corner, and yes it is on a corner, is apparently one of the most popular among locals in the area. Famous people and politicians also come to this place which opens at 7am and closes at 4am. It’s a really busy restaurant so you know the food is fresh and they really pump it out. It looks like the kind of place you might walk pass and give a miss, but the really busy ones with lots of locals means it’s good. And it really was.

We had 3 very different dishes here, Kaw Sach Chrouk, Cha Troap, and Prahoc K’tih. Kaw Sach Chrouk is pork belly cooked in a sauce with star anise and caramelised with the addition of whole eggs and tofu. The flavour is delicious and very rich. Cha Troap is a dish made with eggplant, smoked over hot coals and chopped up, topped with stir fried minced pork. I loved the simplicity of this dish and the fresh flavours which felt quite healthy to eat. The last dish was one I’ve had many times before and consists of pork mince cooked with prahoc, chilli and spices, served with vegetable crudities. The flavour is intense and very satisfying.

Feeling very full we jumped back into the tuk tuk and headed to Song’s Barber Shop. The owner of this restaurant used to be a barber and he and his wife loved making BBQ pork ribs and duck, and they do it really well. So they turned the barber shop into a restaurant. I wondered if he was as good a barber as he is a cook, as we tucked into the succulent BBQ pork ribs and a fresh green mango salad. The meat was tender and the marinade was to die for, but I couldn’t pry the recipe out of Song. They cook the meat in a tall round oven which reminded me a lillte of a tandoor. As good as it was, towards the end of the meal we were fighting as to who must eat the last piece as we were all getting so full.

Before the final stop we made a quick detour close to the Russian Market where Sophany bought us Cambodian donuts with pandan custard. I couldn’t say no! I love anything pandan. The donut itself was just a semi sweet bread type consistency but it was perfect to dip into the creamy green custard which also had some coconut in it. I loved it and it wasn’t very sweet which suits me fine. And I scoffed the whole thing. Feeling very sluggish after all the food, we walked down a side street to out last stop, which was a bar. YAY, no more food.

If you didn’t know this place existed you would probably just walk straight past the Sundown Social Club. It is located on the top floor of a building, up a couple of long flights of very steep stairs, overlooking the Russian Market. It had a nice relaxed vibe and a mix of local and western clientele. The bar is actually owned by a westerner and hasn’t been open all that long. I chose to have a craft beer, called harvest, which is brewed by Kingdom Breweries right here in Phnom Penh. I know their beer and have visited the brewery on a couple of occasions on previous trips, but the harvest beer was a new one. I quite liked it but could only manage to drink half of it as i was pretty much full to the brim at this point.

This had been one of the best food tours I have been on in a while. What I loved best was that the places we went and the food we ate was authentic and a truely local experience. They have another food tour in Siem Reap, so I am thinking about maybe doing that one when I get there in a couple of weeks. I’ll see how the waistline is going after this tour and decide then, but I definitely think this is one to include in future A Taste of Cambodia Food Adventure Tours.

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