“Where should we go to lunch?” we asked our guide. It was almost 1:00 in the afternoon, and the hot, dusty afternoon sun was beating down on us.
“Well,” said Kurthia, our guide. “Angkor has many fine tourist cafes and restaurants serving Khmer food or Western food.”
The hubby and I shook our heads. Earlier that morning, we’d had a discussion with Kurthia about the restaurant the hubby and I had visited for dinner the night before. While we’d enjoyed our meal and discovered that we really like Khmer food, we also wondered how authentic our experience was. We were, after all, sitting in a quaint little candlelit cafe while group after group of tourists wandered up the sidewalk toward us. “No, no,” we’d said, almost in unison. “Where would you eat for lunch?”
Kurthia paused, and perhaps due to his halting English language skills, chose his words carefully. “I think maybe you might think where I eat is … er … not so hygienic.”
Grilled whole village chickens skewered on sugar cane stalks, which were removed shortly before serving
Not to be deterred, the hubby and I pressed Kurthia. “It’s okay. Let’s just go look at what you would eat. Maybe we’ll like it.”
Kurthia was dubious, and he turned to our tuk-tuk driver, uttering rapid-fire Khmer. They looked back at both of us, like they were sizing us up, and after further deliberation, nodded.
So, off we went. We drove past the temples we’d visited and into the countryside. Past Bayon, the temple of many faces. Past Ta Phrom, with its overgrown trees. We breezed past a couple of restaurants with tour buses in the parking lot. The road narrowed, the traffic grew sparse, and finally we spotted a strip of hawker stalls on the side of the road.
Above: outside every hawker stall and market, clams marinated in chili and salt dry in the sun; below, the hubby cracks one open to reveal a shimmery white, delicate meat
I leaned forward to shout above the dull whirr of the tuk-tuk motor. “Is this the place, Kurthia? Is this it?”
He shook his head and pointed at a sign mounted in front of the hawker stalls. These stalls, as it turned out, were affiliated with the opposition political party, and he and our driver belonged to another. We wouldn’t be frequenting that stall on philosophical grounds. Fair enough. We all have our reasons.
A few more minutes passed, and soon we started to slow down. In front of us was a strip of food stalls almost identical to the one we’d passed earlier, except for the political affiliation, of course. We clamored out of the tuk-tuk, and immediately a weathered lady came out to greet us with a tray full of dried, marinated clams.
A snake catfish blackens on a makeshift charcoal grill
The hubby gestured towards our lunchtime companions. We’d told them that we wanted to eat together, so we could watch them like the open-mouthed gawkers we are. They hovered behind us, unsure what to do.
“Please join us,” the hubby insisted. “Order whatever you’d like — we don’t know this food, so we’ll take your advice.”
Again, they hesitated, eyes darting back and forth between the lady food hawker and us. The hubby insisted again, for the third time, and it took like a charm. Three grilled snake catfish immediately appeared on the table, along with two village chickens, five plates of rice, a steaming hot bowl of Khmer fish soup with winter melon and five plates of shredded pickled mango relish. Kurthia relished in showing us how to take a spoonful of spicy, sour mango and a bite of rice before flaking off a chunk of fish with a fork.
Pickled mango relish really set the meal apart; I immediately came home and am trying to duplicate it
The food was delicious. The snake catfish had a nice char on the outside, with delicate white meat on the inside. With the vinegary pickled mango, the smokiness of the fish made for a tasty flavor profile. Our Khmer fish soup was also a little sour, flavored with lime and made lighter with chunks of winter melon. The chicken had a nice caramelized skin, and the meat was tangy sweet from the juices of the sugar cane.
Our Cambodian tuk-tuk driver, guide and our chariot awaits us
It didn’t take long for us to finish our massive meal, and just nine dollars later, we were off to see more temples. But I knew that while our Cambodian friends had enjoyed just another lunch, the hubby and I had already had our unique experience for the weekend. Besides the Old Market in Siem Reap (more on that later), we hadn’t seen many opportunities for trying true local Khmer food. By letting us take a peek into their everyday lunch scene and political party affiliation, our new friends had given us that chance. And since I’ve learned that I’m a huge fan of sugar cane village chicken, I’d say that’s pretty special.