Street food is Southeast Asia’s original fast food, albeit with the added bonus of being able to monitor your meal or snacked as it is cooked fresh in front of your very eyes. In every urban destination, usually concentrated around local markets, you’ll find street food stalls selling all sorts of delectable, delightfully affordable, and sometimes quite adventurous items to savour. Don’t expect to pay more than a dollar for a single serving.
While neighbours Thailand and Vietnam already maintain sterling reputations for their street food on the international culinary scene, Cambodia is fast garnering a strong following of its own. And although concerns over standards of hygiene should never be ignored, there are many places that you can rely on for quick, clean and cheap eats.
Breakfast: noodle soup
Let’s start off with breakfast, arguably the most popular of meals for locals to grab off the street. Kuy teav is a tasty rice noodle soup dish, perfect to warm up on a brisk morning (yes, they can exist sometimes in Cambodia). The noodles are lightly coated with caramelised garlic oil, dressed with oyster sauce, soy sauce and a pinch of sugar, and then doused with a clear broth made from pork or beef bones. Meat toppings are then added, such as pork loaf, minced pork, and pork belly, with the classic Khmer triumvirate of garlic, lime juice and black pepper to flavor, along with some requisite garnishes of a few lettuce leaves, bean sprouts, and fresh herbs. Different types of chilli and chilli sauces should be available, as well as soy sauce, fish sauce and more sugar. Deep fried breadsticks too, if you’re feeling really famished.
Although various versions of kuy teav exist, Phnom Penh’s famous recipe contains the most ingredients and embellishments, mirroring the city’s own cultural and historical grandeur and diversity. The government are even trying to build up the brand name of Phnom Penh kuy teav by holding discussions with the private sector.
Another quintessential Khmer rice noodle dish is nom banh chok, consisting of noodles topped with a green fish gravy and plenty of bean sprouts, banana flower, cucumbers, green beans and fresh herbs. The noodles are lovingly and labouriously made in the provinces, before being delivered to the local markets early each morning. Nom banh chok is great for a light snack in the mid-afternoon, and can usually be purchased from women walking around carrying the ingredients, and bowls to eat off, via a yoke over their shoulders.
It should be easy as pie to find a fried noodle vendor outside local markets, or carting their mobile woks along nearby streets. Most will offer a choice of noodle types, from the standard yellow egg noodles and packets of ramen to the short, hand-crafted rice noodles known as lort. Upon stir-frying, these become lort cha, with the street chef throwing in a handful of bean sprouts, Chinese broccoli, chives, chopped beef, and topping with a fried egg and some sweet and mildly spicy red sauce. Most locals will request extra chilli for a spice kick.
Grilled meats are also a breakfast favourite for Khmers, especially marinated bbq pork served with steamed rice and a sweet pickled salad of shredded carrots, white radish, green papaya, and white cabbage in rice vinegar. Instead of pork, perhaps try the grilled sweet sausage known as kwah ko, made with beef or pork, Cambodian flavourings and spices, and lots of delicious fat.
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Filled baguettes are also ubiquitous on the city streets, a lasting legacy from the French colonisation of the Indochina region. In Vietnam, it’s banh mi, but in Cambodia they call it num pang – different names, same basic make up: a small crusty baguette stuffed with pate, ham or pork, cucumber, chives, pickled carrot, onion and green papaya, garnished with butter and, if you dare, fresh chilli paste. You can usually choose between a half or a full baguette, and there is sometimes the option of a hot and spicy tuna and tomato sauce. Also look out for vendors with small barbeques attached to their stands, which they can quickly grill meats skewers to fill baguettes with, topped with pickled veg.
Scrumptious streetside snacks include the Chinese-influenced chive cakes, or num k’chay in Khmer, made with glutinous rice flour dough fried in shallow pans accompanied by a sweet fish sauce with a touch of chilli. Deep-fried prawn cakes are also a tasty treat, and can come as a crispy disc or on top of a deep-fried split baguette. Not exactly healthy, but so delicious.
Now we come to the real local delicacies. Sun-baked cockles and snails can be found spread out on reflective flattops of hand-pushed carts around towns – a liberal coating of salt, chilli, garlic and MSG is the standard flavouring. Be aware that some are blood cockles, so don’t be surprised if your mouth turns red. And there are often questions over the amount of cooking they have undergone, so not advisable for anyone with health concerns.
Deep-fried insects, however, are always served well done. Many consider these simply unpalatable, but for the culinary curious they can be surprisingly enjoyable. Crunchy crickets are a favourite, especially when fried with lemongrass. Then there are water beetles, ants and maggots of various sizes, textures and tastes.
But Cambodia’s most notorious specialty snack is of course the deep-fried tarantula, or a-ping in the local language. Coated in a garlic marinade before frying, the spider legs come out stiff as crisps, while the abdomen contains delicate white flesh like crabmeat and a taste described as a cross between chicken and cod. The town of Skuon in Kampong Cham province has a long-standing reputation for selling the arachnid snacks to hungry road trippers stopping on the way between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, although you can usually find them on sale at the larger local markets of cities, and from vendors who walk around local restaurants, as well as along Phnom Penh’s Riverside in the evening. If you want them served in a Western restaurant setting, try Romdeng in Phnom Penh and Bugs Café in Siem Reap.
There are also barbequed or deep-fried frogs and snakes available to purchase from street carts, along with barbequed chicken eggs. But take special care, as some carts are actually selling fertilized duck eggs, known as pong tia koun in Khmer. These eggs have been incubated for around 18-20 days, with an embryo developed inside, before they are boiled and eaten directly from the shell with salt, pepper, lime and a bitter local herb. If you can stomach it, you’ll find the bones of the embryo to be firm but tender and you may be able to notice a beak or semi-developed wings.
Still got an appetite left for dessert? Good. For the really sweet-toothed there’s deep-fried donuts, which usually come with a basic caramel glaze and can be a little heavy and tough to bite, but certainly wont hurt your wallet.
A truly traditional dessert is kralan, a mixture of sticky rice, grated coconut, coconut milk, and black beans stuffed inside a section of bamboo and slow roasted over burning charcoal. Battambang and Kratie provinces produce the best known versions of this sweet, slightly salty and smokey-flavoured snack, especially for the Khmer New Year festival in April, although you can often find it sold by women on bicycles around tourist destinations – just look out for the bamboo sticks.
Another delicious Cambodian pudding is sangkhya lapov, which consists of coconut custard poured into a kabocha (winter squash or Japanese pumpkin) and steam-baked until the the custard is set and the flesh is soft enough to easily slice into segments.
Finally, why not keep your energy (and hydration) levels up with one of Cambodia’s renowned iced coffees. These tend to be on the sweet side, due to the fact that the beans are roasted after sundrying to preserve the sugars and oils, and are commonly served with sweet condensed milk that collects at the bottom of the glass. A pro tip is not to stir straight away, so you can adjust the sweetness to taste. Many Phnom Penh expats claim that vendors in the murky food section of Russian market make the city’s best iced coffee, although there’s an overwhelming amount of converted tuk-tuks that sell takeaway coffees on the streets around Cambodia to also choose from.