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Sunday, January 10, 2010

Adventure Eating in Cambodia

The real adventures in Khmer cuisine won't take you just into the kitchens of restaurants. For adventurous eating, Cambodia is without parallel and its street foods push the limits like nothing else.

There are also "rules" to eating street food if you don't want to spend the rest of your vacation in bed or on the toilet. The first rule is eat where locals are eating. While they have a much hardier immunity to some of the potential local food pathogens, even they get food sick from eating bad food. The second rule is eat hot and never raw. Foods that have grown cold have a much more likely chance of doing something nasty to you, and raw foods may be washed with unsanitary water. Having said that, I do break all of these rules, sometimes simultaneously, for the pursuit of something that might just be delicious.
Perhaps the cuisine of street food is also a testament to the hard history of the Khmer people, the blackest period of course being in the late seventies when famine claimed thousands of lives under the oppressive regime of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. With many of the members of the regime now on trial for genocide and crimes against humanity, Cambodia seems ready to face its dark past and face a brighter future of wider prosperity. While poverty is still rife in the kingdom, today for those who can afford it there is an abundance of food ranging from buttery baguettes to what the Western palate would find exotic and perhaps even unpalatable.

Frogs feature prominently in street vendors smörgåsbords from small whole fried ones to chunks of hot roasted frog flesh. Duck eggs are also common sights as well as catfish roasted on a splint. Snack foods include a variety of roasted meats as well as fried arthropods like grasshoppers, water beetles, and even enormous spiders. Fortunately or not, most of these treats simply taste like crispy (or gooey) bursts of oil. The snakes pictured (like the chicken legs and organ meats) are not meant to be eaten as is, but are used in a variety of Khmer dishes from curry to soups. More heartier street food includes a seemingly numberless range of soups, fried rice and noodle dishes, as well as curries and even fish head souffle. Many of the vendors go through some lengths to make their food displays appealing such as the carefully arranged platter of tongue and other organ meat pictured below.


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