Cambodia has been a sort of feeding frenzy for me. Maybe because its tourist infrastructure is relatively new, Cambodia has a lot of restaurants that have updated traditional dishes in ways that make them less greasy, less salty, fresher, and healthier than food I have had anywhere else in Asia.
Traditional Cambodian dishes are already “fusion,” with influences from the cuisines of Thailand, Vietnam, China and France. Cambodian cuisine includes the coconut curries and barbecue of Thai food, the pho and tangy salads of Vietnam, French baguettes and frog legs, and Chinese-style stir fries. Best of all for me, Cambodia is a great for vegetarians, which was not my experience in Vietnam, China or Thailand.
I left the Anthony Bourdain street food trail when Mags left Thailand. Eating street food often means you actually eat on the street, which is fun with a friend but not that fun by myself. I have mostly been eating at restaurants that cater to tourists and ex-pats. This would not meet with Anthony’s approval but, as a vegan, even a fish-eating vegan, I am not going to get Anthony’s approval no matter where I eat. And I quote….
Vegetarians…and their Hezbollah-like splinter faction, the vegans…are the enemy of everything good and decent in the human spirit
Before I left Phnom Penh on Tuesday, I went back to Romdeng. This time, I tried the sea food stew, which is loaded with prawns, scallops and squid swimming in a curry coconut broth with chunks of garlic. The greens are morning glory vines, which are common in traditional Cambodian dishes — very mild with a texture of tender string beans. Then I had a coconut black pepper ice cream. Vegan. Good and decent. Way better than pig guts.
In Siem Reap, Marum is an NGO training establishment with excellent food. Because it is a jog from the touristy part of town, it is usually very quiet before peak dinner hours. I have enjoyed sitting in the shaded patio reading long after finishing a meal — in Cambodia, it is inhospitable to bring you the bill before you ask for it or to otherwise make a diner feel pressured to leave.
One of Siem Reap’s most popular restaurants is Haven, another NGO training restaurant. I have some quibbles with Haven. In six visits, I have always been seated at a communal table or on a couch even when I had reservations and even though the half of the private tables have been empty the entire time I am eating. I have politely addressed this with the Dutch management to no avail and I am suspicious. But I keep going back because the food is really good and inexpensive. Most of the menu is Asian but one of my favorites is the pumpkin burger. I skipped breakfast and lunch on Thursday so I could eat this high calorie, high carb wonderfulness guilt-free. In addition to the fat, herby vegetable patty, the pumpkin burger is piled high with cole slaw, onions and chutney. It’s served with the best french fries ever.
Another favorite is a tiny vegetarian restaurant called Chamkar. I didn’t expect much at Chamkar because it is just off of Siem Reap’s touristy Pub Street, where 50 cent beers are tonight’s dinner special. But Chamkar is fabulous. I had a dish of glass noodles and vegetables that had so many layers of rich flavors — guessing the usual curry ingredients with something umami, like mushroom broth or grilled onionis. The anonymous-looking blob of goosh is one of the most flavorful dishes I have had in Southeast Asia. I wouldn’t mention it to the chef, (jai yen is observed here too) but with a little heat and a little crunch, it would be almost perfect. Another time, I had a scrumptious green papaya salad with crushed peanuts, onions, tomatoes and a lime dressing.
On Wednesday night after our trip to the CCDO school site, I had the pleasure of dining at higher-end Chanry Tree with a table full of delightful new friends. My sea food green curry was all the better with the addition of laughter and stories and a really good Malbec.