Begin the day as early as you can, taking in the morning cool. Join the locals crowding their favourite eateries. Find an empty table and sit down. In a moment somebody will place a cup filled with ice by your side. You can fill it with free green tea, thinned to a homeopathic level. Begin your meal with kuy teav – soup with thin rice noodles. The pork broth tastes delicate and the final taste depends on the additions – fresh herbs and leaves, sprouts, meat, marinated and fresh chilli peppers, soy and fish sauces. Even a couple of chilli slices dropped into the hot liquid can thoroughly burn your throat an ease the fear of raw meat slices that slowly change their color in the steaming soup. If you want to follow local customs, add some salt-sugar, which will change the broth into an electrolytic mixture, ideal for the approaching heat of the day. With a bit of luck, you might catch a glimpse of an Asian action movie, while waiting for the soup to cool.
The portion isn’t large, so you can move on in search of pork rice (bai sach chrouk). Delicious, marinated and grilled pork is served with sliced cucumber, lightly marinated vegetables and a small bowl of broth, to aid digestion. Despite the broth, pork rice can lay waste to weaker stomachs, those that begin the day with coffee and a pastry.
Breakfast will not be complete without babor, the local version of rice soup (congee). Peek into huge bowls steaming along the street in search of a thick, pale rice concoction. Don’t judge it by the looks because once springy white fish bits, crunchy sprouts, lime juice, fermented soya beans, spicy chillies, soya and fish sauce are added, it just may become your favourite breakfast dish, one that leaves a feeling of satiety and comfort.
For lunch, hop over to the Mekong, to try freshly caught fish, variously prepared. Begin with a soup, fishing out the bits into the rice bowl, which will soak in the aromatic broth.
Be sure to order fried ginger with fish, too. There can be a lot of it, even more than meat, but it’s not as spicy as you might expect.
Maybe you can even try the delicious fish with lemongrass, basil and chilli.
After the meal, treat yourself to a coconut or a fruit shake.
If you’re really lucky you might, at a restaurant or a stall, encounter small dumplings with a surprise. They’re a bit like gnocchi, but of more delicate texture, made of rice flour, drizzled with sesame seeds or fresh coconut shreds. The melted palm sugar inside will delightfully gush into your mouth.
To make it to dinner time, search the streets for a stall with a bunch of shredded green papaya and a mortar, where it will get mixed (in the right proportions) with crunchy peanuts, tiny dried fish, fresh herbs and sweet-sour sauce. If you’ve had enough of the intensive flavors, try a grilled banana for a change, it tastes like hot toasted bread.
For dinner best head to Phnom Penh, to the Remdong restaurant, where in a luxurious setting you can try Khmer classics with a modern twist. Luckily, many dishes are available as half portions. It’s time to try the famous amok, a dish not found in your run-of-the-mill eateries. Fish morsels, covered in the kroeung paste and coconut milk, steamed in banana leaves, simply melt in your mouth.
The restaurant, like a few others in Cambodia, hires and trains street youths. It provides lodging, food and healthcare, while they gather experience working at an elegant restaurant. The stuffed pork belly with delicious sauces and the pomelo salad are worthy a sin… Eat in peace though, this time your gluttony serves a purpose.
If you feel intimidated by heaps of meat and innards, meat-like products and mysterious grilled objects on a stick available at the street stalls, head to the Vietnamese-Khmer restaurant Ngon to try more tame and hygienic versions of the above-mentioned foods. It feels like an oasis amid the heat and bustle of Phnom Penh, with vendors simulating street stall placed around a green courtyard. Take a look at the back of the menu and you’ll find the Khmer cuisine but be warned that meals here are correct but without flair.
The day is drawing to an end but you still haven’t tried the treasure of Cambodia – the Kampot pepper. How about some seafood? The grains of pepper wonderfully pop between your teeth and burn the palate.
If you’re too full to have dessert, don’t panic. The night is still young and you can grab something on the way back. Near the Central Market (and surely in other places too) you can find a lady smiling from behind rows of glass bowls filled with red sticky rice, mung bean, red bean, balls of taro and tapioca, agar jellies, dried fruit and unidentified pastes. Instead of guessing what suits your tastes, order the mix. Topped up with coconut milk and crushed ice, it will raise your glucose level and quench any thirst.
End the day on a tipsy note – get a beer or a few drinks in one of the hostel terraces. or heck, do it your own way an tell us what’s there to try.