Some serious stuff first

When it comes to travel, I think the best way to get a feel for the local culture is to actually eat the food that the local folks eat. But one thing that you start to notice after several days in Phnom Penh is that there are three different worlds here at minimum: there are the locals, the tuktuk drivers, moto drivers and service workers; there are the NGO and embassy workers and tourists; and then there are The Rich.

The local workers don’t necessarily go to the Western-style establishments that NGO workers go to, and the NGO workers don’t necessarily go to the primarily Khmer-speaking food joints that the native folks frequent. And The Rich, well they have their own high-end restaurants that aren’t within a law school student’s budget. Money and how much of it you have separates your world from the other ones, but there are times when the different worlds brush up – sometimes uncomfortably and jarringly – against the other.

This is most obvious when a child – no older than six or seven, straining under the weight of a tray full of copied travelers’ guides, or bracelets and necklaces of jasmine – walks up to you while you’re having dinner and asks you to buy their wares or, at the very least, give them a dollar for food or for school books. They are obviously tired – one had red, puffy eyes as if he had been crying and reminded me of my youngest brother when he was just a kid, another tiny girl no older than four shyly waited for rejection even as she pressed me to buy her flowers – and one can’t help but feel guilty for shoveling food down when all you want to do is take them home, give them a puppy, give them a video game to play, get them super excited about a trading card game like Yu-Gi-Oh!, and get them amped on candy and soft drinks.

The travelers guides and websites caution against giving money to these children or even buying something from them, as they don’t necessarily get to keep what they get because their handlers will take their earnings at the end of the day. Folks passing through have taken these disclaimers to heart and are used to the intrusion, sometimes just waving their hands and going back to their conversations, ignoring the little person standing right next to them. I fear becoming so desensitized that the children become part of the scenery, and I hope I don’t.

That said, because of the sometimes oppressive heat here and seeing the children that have way less than some domesticated pets back in the U.S., I haven’t really had much of an appetite here. But I have faithfully taken pictures of the meals I have had, just in case some of y’all were interested in food porn.

nompenh_nmNom Penh

The oddest meals I’ve had so far were at the Night Market and at an eatery called Good Dream Restaurant (I think).

At Night Market, you get to pick your plate from a selection of skewered and deep-fried food. I decided to be adventurous and got the whole fried quail, barbecued chicken hearts, barbecued beef tongue and fried cauliflower with fish paste, washed down with pressed sugar cane juice with lime. The quail tasted like fried chicken, and the barbecued chicken hearts and beef tongue just seemed like the chicken and beef flavors were concentrated into a protein with a chewier texture. My favorite thing on the plate was the fried cauliflower, which tasted like tempura with salt in the batter.

The meal at Good Dream Restaurant was more about the company than it was about the food, which consisted of traditional Khmer-style dishes. I had graciously been invited to dinner by another NGO that OSJI is working with to join the co-directors, a staffer, and two other interns – very smart young ladies – for dinner.

The dinner was something of an introduction to Cambodian-style steak, fish paste and beer. The steak was fairly basic: grilled with sliced, raw garlic on top. The flavoring of the steak came from dipping the sliced meat into pepper, and prahok, a salty, somewhat sour fish dip that is part of many Cambodian dishes. It sounds a bit unusual, but the food was pretty good washed down with several glasses of beer. Or that could have just been the beer talking.

nompenh_cricketsPerhaps the highlight of the night, however, was the appetizer selected by one of the co-directors: deep-fried crickets. He happily noshed on the little critters, saying that they tasted like almonds. Based on the review, one of the more adventurous interns, who is also a first-year law student, decided to try one of the bugs. Not to be outdone by a former Ivy Leaguer and another girl, I decided to dive in. The hardest part about eating a cricket is contemplating the fact that it has a face and was possibly hopping about doing bug-like things. Once you get past that, however, the flavor is very mild, and both the texture and flavor is similar to soft-shell crab. I just had one, though, and, again, that could just be the beer talking.

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2 Responses to Nom Penh (with crickets!)

  1. Mama says:

    Does it taste good? crunchy?

  2. […] like the cricket I ate several weeks ago, this arthropod was similar to a soft-shell crab in both flavor and texture, which makes sense […]