Food plays a major part in a lot of cultures around the world, varying from family to family, person to person. Some love cooking, whilst others can’t stand the idea of putting hours into a meal that takes minutes to devour. Some will spend exorbitant amounts on a dish at a fancy restaurant whereas others just want to consume enough calories to stave off hunger in the most convenient way possible until the next time they feel hungry. I fall into that first category; I adore cooking tremendously and think nothing of spending the best part of an afternoon in the kitchen, provided I have people to cook for and that they enjoy my culinary efforts. On my travels so far, I’ve had the pleasure of attending cooking classes in both Hoi An and Chiang Mai and I can’t wait to try the recipes out on friends and family back home!
Khmer culture is no different; there are a plethora of eateries in Siem Reap, and you can pretty much get any kind of food you could possibly want (but I’ve yet to find a good pie and chip-shop chips), and the hot climate means you’re always thinking about your next drink. Ice cold coconuts are great for all round rehydration and a quick snack and so much better for you than ice cream milkshakes (even thought ice cream milkshakes are pretty awesome… check out that one at the top of this post!). The general rule that I’ve found is the younger the coconut, the sweeter the taste but you don’t get much flesh to eat or water to drink. Older coconuts might not be as sweet but still taste great, have more water and are much bigger and better to munch on after you’re done slurping. It’s all in the luck of the draw, and I’ve been in situations where a friend and I have ordered coconuts and one is half the size of the other… but the same price, of course! Most restaurants will happily cut open a coconut for you if you ask nicely, else the edge of a straw can make a pretty good scoop.
So, what are the signature Khmer dishes you should try if you ever have the great fortune to visit the Kingdom of Wonder? My personal favourite is the amok curry. I prefer chicken, but there is a fair amount of fish sauce in the traditional recipe, so you can choose fish, occasionally shrimp/prawn might be on the menu and there’s also a vegetarian option at most places. Depending on where you order, it can range from being quite a soupy dish, with chunks of carrot and shallots swimming in the broth, to a thicker and more concentrated sauce, which is how I prefer it. Amok is always served with rice, and is always creamy and warming with notes of ginger, galangal and kaffir lime, often garnished with fresh red chillies, but it isn’t a terribly spicy dish, like Thai green curry is. In fact, I’d go so far as to say it’s better than Thai green curry, and that is saying something, coming from me! Amok is traditionally steamed in a banana leaf and often served in one too:
The other dish you should definitely try is the beef lok lak. Whilst I don’t generally choose beef off of a menu, I did try a traditional lok lak when I first came to Cambodia at the very beginning of my trip, and I was not disappointed. I’ve ordered chicken lok lak since then and that has the same fantastic flavours. The recipe calls for as much sugar as salt, plus pepper and lime juice, with caramelised onions and both soy and oyster sauces, which gives the dish its characteristic molten brown colour. Honestly, though coconuts are awesome, sometimes it’s great to eat a meal without that distinctive flavour.
Living in SE Asia, you’re bound to have the odd stomach bug and when one of these hits all you really want to do is stay home (where you know there is a decent bathroom) and drink plenty of fluids. Then when you’re back to normal and feeling hungry (because you haven’t eaten properly for the best part of three days) you just want to treat yourself to some home-style comforts, and the foods you’ve been avoiding on your dodgy tummy. For me, that means a decent unsweetened coffee with fresh milk and an overpriced sandwich/panini/pastry from Costa. And maybe pizza.