Sunday, March 20, 2011

eating khmer

Let me tell you about our first lunch (but not our first meal) in Cambodia.

Since there are no direct flights from the Philippines to Cambodia, we had to fly to Vietnam first. Saigon, to be exact. Now, I am seriously addicted to Vietnamese food in all its noodle-ly, as well as non-noodle, incarnations, and I was definitely excited about eating in Saigon. In the 24 hours before our flight to Siem Reap, I ate and drank my way through a veritable smogasbord of Vietnamese culinary delights. More on that later.

But Cambodian food? Meh. There's not a lot of information about it. The few descriptions I could find on the interweb said: lots of rice, lots of veggies, filling, not bad OK lah. In fact, faced with the formidable cuisine of its neighbors Thailand and Vietnam, Cambodians seemed to be almost... apologetic... about their food.

On our second day of temple-hopping at Angkor, we asked our tuktuk driver Sok Cheat to take us to a restaurant that served Cambodian or Khmer food. He brought us to Neary Khmer.

Tourist trap, isdatchu?

At first, we thought it was a tourist trap. The way the restaurant was set up, it looked like they were waiting for a fleet of tour buses to disgorge legions of passengers at their doorstep. (We arrived early because we like to have lunch before noon, so the place was still empty. But as we were leaving, we did witness a great multitude of tourists of all colors and nationalities settle in for their meal.)

I looked through the menu and chose the items that said "with Cambodian/ Khmer spices" and "Cambodian-style/ Khmer-style". I don't remember the exact names of the dishes now, and they're not on Wiki, so the best I can do is just describe them.

Some kinda rice paper spring roll made with fresh veggies and a bit of meat inside. Thin dipping sauce with chopped peanuts.

Looks like some bean sprouts, string beans, white onion, lettuce, zucchini and ground pork in there.

Stir-fried... chicken ba yan? Bell peppers, beans, onions, lettuce and the mysterious "Khmer spices", whatever they are. 

I have no idea what was in this soup. Some veggies, some meat? Not spicy-hot, but definitely had a "Khmer spice" flavor.

Grilled beef kebabs. That's Sok Cheat our driver saying, "That one? I don't know what it is."

Verdict: This was our best meal in Cambodia! Everything was delicious! Nothing was left on our plates.

OK, at first I thought, "So boring naman Cambodian food." The truth is, it looked a bit too much like Filipino food. And it all tasted somewhat bland and unadventurous. But later when I thought about it, I realised that I had been comparing it to what I ate in Saigon previously. And that was immensely unfair. Cambodian cuisine is excellent in its own way. It's not vegetarian, but each dish is actually 50% vegetable and you get the sense that the meat is just there for flavor. Healthy! Everything we ordered was naked and unadorned-- not drowning in sauces-- and super fresh. The ingredients were cooked very simply and allowed to shine. 

My favorite was the beef kebab. It was completely different from any meat on a stick I'd ever had. Meat and vegetable were in nearly equal amounts. The veggies were sweet and crisp, and the beef was smoky, tender, moist and tasted like... It's hard to describe, and even harder to stop eating it. It must have been those enigmatic Khmer spices. And each meaty morsel was wrapped around a tiny cube of fat-- a luscious bell-ringer in the mouth.

I want to go back to Neary Khmer Restuarant in Siem Reap and eat some more. Soon.

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