Holiday in Cambodia

25 Jul

First, apologies for the long hiatus. I knew it had been a while since my last post, but…a whole month? Time flies when you’re, uh, flying, I guess. But never fear: I’ve been eating a lot of new and sometimes tasty things to share on the blog.

Thanks to my superhuman scheduling abilities, I found myself with back-to-back trips to Chicago and Cambodia. (Cue the Dead Kennedys.) Specifically, Siem Reap, a remarkably charming town most famous for its proximity to Angkor Wat and about a billion other ancient Hindu/Buddhist temples, some of which were featured in the movie Tomb Raider.

Ta Prohm, aka the "Tomb Raider temple," one of many, many temples we saw

Like all the SE Asian cities I’ve been to, Siem Reap is full of enterprising people with carts selling food. Some of this is as benign as grilled bananas with coconut milk; other snacks are a little more, shall we say, exotic. Here’s a sample, starting with the least challenging.

Clockwise from upper left: Mr. Sochet and the sticky rice vendor; demonstrating how to eat the sticky rice; sticky rice being grilled in bamboo

Mr. Sochet, our tuk tuk driver, wanted to make sure we partook in some authentic Cambodian delicacies, so he stopped by a row of ladies selling sticky rice by the road. The rice, which is mixed with beans and a little coconut milk, is stuffed into a length of bamboo and grilled. When it’s ready to eat, the green parts are whittled off, and you peel back the rest to eat the rice. It’s similar to the Malaysian lemang, except not savory and not saved for special occasions.

There’s a strong Chinese influence in Cambodian cuisine; stir-fries and noodles pop up on most menus (and not just for the sake of tourists), and I found this nice pao vendor outside the Old Market.

It's not just the weather that's steamy.

These were filled with seasoned ground pork (and half a hard-boiled egg) and topped with thin slices of Chinese sausage. I can’t say that they were significantly different from pao I’ve consumed in other countries — no lemongrass in the filling or anything.

Given what Cambodian cattle look like — and we saw a lot of them en route to temples — I was surprised at the popularity of beef. (The bovines of Cambodia, like the people, are quite a bit svelter than their North American counterparts, and surprisingly spry. We witnessed quite a few leaping over ditches, and I saw at least one cow sitting on the ground and scratching behind her ear like a dog.) The street our hotel was on was filled with places grilling satay and other cow bits. Since I’m a sucker for grilled things on sticks, especially when the grilling is occurring right in front of me, I got some satay to go with the pao.

Satay, in an eco-friendly takeout container

The meat was about as tender as I expected, which is to say not at all. But the sweet black pepper sauce flavoring the satay made up for the toughness. Bonus: sweet-and-salty pickles on the side.

As I mentioned earlier, there were more unusual offerings as well. I told Tom about a kettle of fried crickets I had seen at the Old Market; when we went there with our cooking class (which I’ll cover in a later post), the guy hadn’t opened up shop yet.

But we didn’t miss our opportunity for entomophagy: as we were leaving the class, our instructor ran up with a bag of crickets. And I’m ashamed to say that I couldn’t bring myself to eat one. I have a deep-seated phobia of cockroaches, and in their cooked state, crickets look awfully similar. So I made Tom do it.

“It tastes like a dog biscuit,” was his opinion. Then: “I think I have a leg stuck between my teeth.”(We found out after the fact that you’re supposed to remove the wings and legs before consumption.)

Out of focus, but still recognizable.

So that kind of clinched it for me. I mean, I’ll eat pretty much anything if it tastes good, but…dog biscuit isn’t much of an endorsement. I ended up giving the bag to a woman trying to tout her restaurant; she couldn’t believe I was just giving them away, although she did point out that larger specimens taste better.

I wasn’t about to get off so easy, as it turned out. The next day, I bought an innocuous-looking duck egg from a vendor outside of the Old Market. She seemed baffled that I was buying an egg from her, for reasons I was soon to discover. (Squeamish readers will want to meet me after the jump.)

Look, hard-boiled eggs! A tasty little snack, no?

She cracked it open for me, served it with a side of vinegar and garlic sauce and some herbs, and I tucked in…only to realize I’d ordered the Cambodian equivalent balut, much to the amusement of the T-shirt vendor (he was eating one, too). I can’t find any links for balut that don’t have horrifying images, so for those who don’t know what it is: it’s an egg (chicken or duck) with a partially developed embryo. I guess I should be grateful that the one I got hadn’t developed very much, certainly not to the point of having a beak or feathers.

The horrifying contents (look closely under the yolky bit)

Did I eat it? Well, yes, but I confess that if I’d gotten it to go, I probably would have chucked it away in horror. As it was, both the egg vendor and the T-shirt guy were looking at me expectantly, and I felt like it would have been rude not to. So I closed my eyes and swallowed the thing whole. It’s funny, because I eat animals regularly, and I’m not particularly squeamish about offal or spare bits, or seeing whole chickens stacked in the market. (Okay, it’s a little creepy, but I’ve gotten used to it.) Something about this, though, really pushed my “disgust” button — much like the crickets — and I still feel a little sick when I think about it. Such is social conditioning. Incidentally, the Cambodian name for this particular delicacy is “Pong tea khon,” so you know what to avoid should you find yourself in Cambodia.

And that’s it for the extreme eating! The next post will cover actual Cambodian cuisine, including a review of the cooking class we took after we got sick of clambering around temples.


3 Responses to “Holiday in Cambodia”

  1. ang July 25, 2011 at 11:28 am #

    oh wow…and all I did was have Nutella on pancakes today. love all the extreme eating–although you won’t likely find me ingesting anything partially developed out of an egg. 🙂

    • rgautz July 25, 2011 at 3:50 pm #

      I think Nutella qualifies as exotic for Cambodians! And trust me, I’m not looking to repeat the egg thing. I really had no idea what I was getting myself into at the time.


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    […] an obvious tourist, I wasn’t offered any of the latter, but given my earlier experience with Southeast Asian egg items, I wasn’t all that put out. Double, double, toil and […]

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