Let me be the first to point out that I am hardly an authority on Khmer food — or on anything else in Cambodia, for that matter. Compared to, say, Vietnam, I dedicated very little time and very few calories to Cambodia, hitting only Phnom Penh and Siem Reap before high-tailing it back into Thailand to spend the last days of my trip climbing rocks on the beach. I didn’t make it to Battambang or to Sihanoukville; I didn’t delve into the rural areas of the country or make a point of getting off the beaten path. Unfortunately I was running low on time and funds by the time I finally made it to Cambodia — I had to cut out a few stops, to be a bit less ambitious.
So what I have to say about vegetarian food options in Cambodia is, admittedly, limited by the fact that I have eaten only in the country’s big cities. Not only that, but I spent the bulk of my time in Cambodia with friends who’d actually done research into which cloth-napkin, sit-down, air-conditioned restaurants they wanted to try out during their stay.
An hey, I ate fantastically well at these restaurants: pumpkin burgers with aioli, fresh basil spring rolls, earthy-spicy-sweet bowls of tofu amok with coconut and lemongrass. But going to a sit-down place in a major city is a no-brainer for traveling vegetarians: big cities mean more variety of offerings; thicker menus mean better odds of finding something you can eat; higher price tags mean the kitchen’s more likely to customize a dish for you. So I’m not going to point out the obvious and tell you about the great meatless meals I had on china by candle light in Cambodia. Instead, I’ll tell you what I found when I went deliciously out of my way looking for cheap, fresh, veggie-friendly fare that actually held a few surprises.
Starting off with salad — what a cop out, right? I can imagine that this wouldn’t look all that exciting to anyone who lives within 20 miles of a Whole Foods. But after several months in Southeast Asia, after countless curries and plates of fried rice, I was jonesing for a salad big time. When I saw this sign in Phnom Penh, I stopped dead in my tracks, thinking it might be some sort of vitamin-deficiency-induced mirage. I’m pretty sure I actually rubbed my eyes with my fists like a cartoon character to make sure I was seeing clearly.
I stepped inside inside and was greeted by row upon row of little metal bowls containing wine-red beets, creamy chunks of avocado, julienned carrots, ripe cherry tomatos, brined chick peas — walnuts, for God’s sake. I had my choice of lettuces, half a dozen dressings to mull over, and a chipper, tong-wielding guy waiting to toss everything together to my exact specifications. Was it authentically local? Did it make me feel as if I were experiencing a new culture? No way. And at US $5, it was one of the most expensive meals I purchased in Southeast Asia. But without a doubt, it was worth every penny.
Full disclosure: whenever a sudden snack craving would hit me in Southeast Asia, I’d often head straight for the nearest corner store and grab a Magnum ice cream bar. (What can I say? It was probably for the best: Low blood sugar and drawn-out searches for food don’t usually combine to make me a nicer person.) Luckily, upon arriving in Cambodia, one of the first street foods I noticed wasn’t just snack-sized and vegetarian-friendly — it readily available on almost every block for about 25 cents.
Bananas on a skewer, left to roast on a metal grill atop a little bowl of coals — sounds simple enough, right? So how do they get it to taste so damn good? My guess is, it starts with the bananas. Bananas in Southeast Asia aren’t those green-to-brown-in-a-day, elegant, curving, gummy things we’re used to in the States. Instead, they’re only a few inches long, sublimely sweet, slightly starchy, straight and pudgy and lopped off in fanned-out bunches of a dozen. Starting with these, you’d be hard pressed to go wrong. Bringing out their inherent sweetness with the help of an open fire only makes them better. Putting them on a stick makes them genius.
Spinach-and-Chive Rice Cakes
Again, this probably sounds not-so-appetizing — the real name of these little babies is probably a lot more likely to induce lip-smacking. Sadly, I can’t remember what that real name is. Not because I didn’t enquire, because I did — right before asking the guy making them if I could take his picture. He answered with something very Khmer-sounding, I repeated it twice, told myself not to forget it, and promptly did so anyway.
The key to understanding these little pucks of chewy, fried goodness is forgetting those “rice cakes” you eat nine of trying in vain to subdue diet-induced hunger pangs. They have nothing in common except the rice — which, in this case, is made into dough, wrapped around sauteed spinach and chives, and then double-side fried in about seven ladlefuls of oil. For good measure, the guy serving them up will douse them in chili-garlic sauce before letting you figure out how to attack them with a pair of chopsticks. (Hint: poke at them until you manage to perforate a section off, then shovel it into your mouth. Repeat.) Cost: about 50 cents.
Again, this may not be what they’re called. But, I mean, come on: this is a doughnut.
I am not usually a huge doughnut fan: I’ll eat them if they’re around, but I always have a nauseated, “that wasn’t really worth it” feeling in my stomach afterwards. But this doughnut? This was worth it. It was denser and chewier than American doughnuts — almost tougher, more yeasty. It was glazed in caramel, in the truest sense of what carmel actually is: borderline-burnt sugar. It was smoky and sweet and dusted with sesame seeds, and it glued my molars together as I chomped happily away on it. Best of all, it was deep-fried at a little street-side cart while I watched, and, paired with a Khmer-style doughnut hole, set me back a whopping 25 cents. (Side note: I did not know until a Google search five minutes ago that apparently, Cambodians and doughnuts have a fairly enduring relationship).
Any veggie-friendly Cambodian street foods I missed?