This recent trip to Cambodia was primarily a sightseeing trip; it was definitely not long enough to be a serious food trip. And since it was our first time in the country, we had no clue what to expect from the cuisine. We had heard a lot of advice from friends that the food was substandard and overpriced, so our expectations were rather low. However, I had read up on several of Robyn’s posts on Eating Asia with respect to market dishes in Siem Reap and I knew that if I really had the time to explore the grittier marketplaces, I would likely get a very good introduction to Cambodian food. But with just a couple of days and a full schedule, food took a a subsidiary role on this adventure… But we still had to eat, so here are some of the things we tried…
The first night we arrived at our hotel rather late and we were travel weary, so we opted to eat in the hotel restaurant. Turns out Meric, the restaurant, is considered one of the most chi-chi dining spots in the city and all that meant to me was a pricey dinner tab. Meric was named after a famous peppercorn grown in the Kampot region of the the country. Mrs. MM and I both opted for a “Khmer Tasting Menu” that was interesting and nicely presented, but not impressive in the least. The impressive open kitchen is presided upon by Joannes Riviere, a french chef who moved to Cambodia to help teach locals how to cook. He fell in love with the country and is one of it’s most well known food advocates and supporters. He has taken french techniques and applied them to local cuisine to present authentic local flavors in a new light. Some of our dishes simply boring, other dishes arrived late, not hot, etc. It wasn’t a disaster, it just wasn’t something I would recommend to anyone else. A starter of shredded green mango with dried snake was good for shock value (Mrs. MM has a snake phobia), but it wasn’t anything to write home about. The dried snake had a uniquely off flavor that was not akin to the unusual flavors of shrimp paste or other fermented protein to most western palates… We had a prawn and seaweed salad that was okay, but I wondered where the seaweed came from since we weren’t too near the coast. Other dishes included grilled beef, a chicken and preserved lime soup and some calamari along with a few native desserts. What I did take away from the meal was a number of Cambodian flavor underpinnings… prahok or salted and fermented mud fish is the unique flavor that pervades a number of Cambodian dishes… they also use a lot of lemon grass, galangal, turmeric, kaffir limes, garlic, chillies, etc. Many of these ingredients are similar to Thai and Vietnamese food yet the Cambodian dishes are noticeably different.
We had several versions of fish amok, or what is billed as the “national dish” of cambodia, a sory of coconut curry served with shredded dark green leaves (from which plant, I never figured out). They use a curry paste, coconut milk, turmeric and freshwater fish. We tried it 3 different times, and one of the instances was a wonderful experience… a rich, flavorful well-balanced curry with perfectly cooked fish. Delicious with rice and other dishes. Not spicy at all.
On our second evening in Siem Reap, we went to Virot’s, a trendy open air restaurant specialising in Cambodian fare, also with a foreign twist (as the owners are foreign). A chic, wooden deck floor is covered by thatched roof and there is an open air garden with tables set amongst the foliage.
This place reminded me of several of the restaurants in Boracay… chic on a budget, creative and interesting, but would tire after more than a couple of visits.
We had a wonderful prawn and glass noodle salad here, redolent with lime and coriander. We also had chredded barbecued pork, a wonderful sour fish soup whose name we can’t recall, but it was so outstanding we ordered a second portion, and again, the amok. At about 1/3 the price of the hotel restaurant, this was by far a better value. But, I suspect, still not really “authentic”…
Overall, Cambodian food was registering a 7.0-7.5/10.0 scale, not because we didn’t like it, but more likely because we chose the wrong places to experience it. Siem Reap can be a bit touristy, so this food rating isn’t a surprise at all. I needed to get to a market, if possible!