Going from the civilized melting pot of Singapore to Siem Reap, Cambodia, was something of a culture shock. It’s easy for Americans to forget that the fighting there raged on even after the US left Vietnam, and didn’t end until 1991. It’s still a very poor country, so the ride in to Siem Reap from its large airport rolled by cattle roaming, five goats grazing at the roadside and various types of poultry wandering on the outskirts of the city of around 110,000.
I didn’t come to Siem Reap for the food. I came to see Angkor Wat. It seemed a shame to be in that part of the world and not drop by, you know? However, I spent as much or more more time prowling the markets than prowling the temples. Yes, temples plural; there are quite a number of them in easy distance. And I’m glad I did. I learned a lot, ate some very good food, and met some great people. No downside there.
There is food at Angkor Wat, a long line of tents, but I passed on that. At Bayon temple, the one with the huge faces, I found a banquet being served, in the carvings of what’s clearly a kitchen in full feast mode.
The foodstuffs produced by the country are intriguing. Visitors will find lots of curries that are closer in style to the Thai than the Indian, utilizing lots of coconut but seldom very hot-spicy.
One of the best things I did was an evening with Siem Reap Food tours. Glaswegian Steven Halcrow picks folks up in a tuk-tuk, one of the motorbike-carriage vehicles ubiquitous in Siem Reap, and off five of us, plus Steve, went.
It was a great learning experience, including a small restaurant that is next to the garden where much of its food is grown.
We ended up at the night market, where we sat on the platforms to eat the kebabs and other things he purchased from the stalls.
Siem Reap Food Tours
Two restaurants, each very different, stood out. Cuisine Wat Damnak is owned and run by Joannes Riviere, a French chef, and his wife, Carol Salmon. He uses local ingredients to create tasting menus, 5 courses for $24 or 6 courses for $28. (Please note that the US dollar is the unofficial currency in Cambodia. Even the ATMs give dollars. You may get small change in Cambodian riel, though.)
The food is fabulous. Riviere makes his own creations, combining French technique, local Khmer traditions and ingredients with his own imagination. Mekong River shellfish and black sticky ride porridge with mushrooms and glazed turnip? Right here. And take a look at this dessert, a jack fruit cookie with meringue sweetened with palm sugar and pandan whipped cream.
Three of us (Hi, Zakia! Hi, Kathryn!) debauched our way through the two alternative tasting menus with wine and cocktails. Advance reservations are pretty much a necessity and can be made through their website. It’s in a roomy rehabbed home, and while we were in the un-air conditioned part, it was quite comfortable. And, no, no problems with flying insects at all – in fact, I saw or felt few of them the entire trip.
The other restaurant is Marum, a lovely place on a side street that is run by an organization helping street children. One of their projects is training young people for the hospitality industry. English may be a little slow here, but everything else is shining.
There was a killer pineapple-mango frozen daiquiri to start out with, a proper antidote to tropical travel, and a prawn and pork curry that was meant to be served as a dip but was good enough to eat with a spoon.The high point of the meal, however, was a one-layer chocolate cake, moist and slightly brownie-ish, that was made with the local Kampot pepper and served with a sauce of passion fruit and green Kampot peppercorns, an unforgettable combination.
Lunch and Dinner daily
Credit cards: Yes
And on a totally not-food topic, a few notes on shopping. The Old Market downtown is better than the Central Market, although the Central Market is less overwhelming. Visitors are beset on all sides by greetings of “Madame, madame!” by vendors, but no one’s feelings seem to be hurt by ignoring them, hard as it is to do at first. The Old Market is for both food and non-food things, so you can buy vegetables, a pot to cook them in, and silk scarves for gifts to take home.
In a totally different vein is a nearby shopping street called Hup Guan. Lovely little old buildings and some more sophisticated wares.I particularly loved a place called Trunkh http://www.trunkh.com/, with home accessories, jewelry and some clothing. It’s run by a Californian (and his cat Pepper), and has lots of distinctive items. I ended up with a large denim tote bag with a zippered pocket and an impressionistic design of the shutters so common here.
When I came home, I thought I was Asia-ed out. Now with a few weeks to catch my breath, I want to see (and taste) more of Cambodia.