We arrived in Phnom Penh early one afternoon after a relatively short bus ride compared to some of the 18 hour overnight trips we had previously taken but never the less, even though it was only 4 hours, it was equally as arduous. As soon as you cross the boarder into Cambodia from Vietnam the quality of the roads takes a nose dive, right into the mud... literally. The dirt roads act as the main transport routes between Ho Chi Minh and Phnom Penh where mopeds carrying coconuts, buses full of chickens and massive transport trucks, simultaneously weave, dodging pot holes and massive puddles at speeds unfit for the road conditions.
When we finally reached the bus stop in Phnom Penh we grabbed our bags (which were covered in mud) hopped in a tuk tuk and headed straight for the hostel. Not surprisingly we were very hungry and eager to try some authentic Cambodian Khmer food. During the tuk tuk ride we passed a restaurant called Tom Yum Kung, named after a very famous spicy shrimp soup flavored with galangal, kaffir lime leaves, mushroom and lemongrass. As it turned out the restaurant was right around the corner from where we were staying, so we dropped our bags and headed there for a bite to eat. Our main agenda in Cambodia was to try Khmer food, the regional cuisine which focuses a great deal on freshness and simplicity, using what is available and in season. Evan though Tom Yum Kung is traditionally from Thailand, I figured the Khmer food could wait, I was eager to try an authentic version of this delicious soup we serve at my restaurant Mizu in the Cayman Islands. When we sat down we were presented with a menu, half of which was Thai food, the other half, Khmer… we were in luck.
We knew right away we were in a good spot because when we arrived around 3:30, the place was still busy with a lunch crowd, and we were the only westerners in the joint. The restaurant wasn’t much to write home about, maybe 40 seats, all solid natural wooden tables with solid wooden chairs. A little on the higher end than some of the dodgy eateries we had been visiting in Vietnam but we figured we’d give it a shot. The furniture was so heavy it scraped the concrete floor as you pulled out the chairs. The tables had so much lacquer on them the aroma was still faint in the air, even though they looked as though they hadn’t been coated in decades.
We peruse the menu and pick a couple sure fire winners for an appetizer, tom yum kung soup and pomelo salad with poached prawns, then for the mains we decided get a bit more adventurous… fish amok and stir fried beef with lemongrass and wood ants. That's right, ants. We joked momentarily about ordering the fried tarantulas with coconut rice, but decided against it… for the welfare of the spiders, of course. By the time we had finished grimacing at the thought of stuffing crispy arachnids into our mouths our first appetizer arrived, it was a welcomed distraction. The bowl of soup was about the size of a bathroom sink, easily enough for a group of 12. The aroma was divine, and I noticed right away it was creamy, not like any other tom yum I had ever had. As soon as I brought a spoonful of the broth to my lips the flavour was instantly recognizable… coconut milk. It was amazing! The creaminess of the coconut milk coated your mouth and balanced out the inherent spice of the broth. The lemongrass and kaffir lime so fresh and vibrant, and when mixed with culantro (a close cousin of cilantro) and oyster mushrooms it created a perfect balance of hot, fresh and sour.
The pomelo salad arrives next and the flavour was so vibrant it surprised me. Pomelo is much like a grapefruit but quite a bit larger, with larger pulp that is slightly less sweet. When segmented the pulp breaks apart easily into thousands of small locules bursting with flavour. The pulp is tossed with fish sauce, sugar and lime and mixed with poached prawns, fresh herbs, chilies and crushed peanuts. A great example of the four pillars of Asian cuisine; hot from the chilies, sour from the lime, salty from the fish sauce, sweet from the pomelo. Perfection.
We devour the salad and pass the ludicrously large bowl of soup back and forth until our mains arrive. The amok arrives first. Amok is a very traditional Khmer dish consisting of a thick coconut curry steamed in banana leaf. Any number of ingredients can be the main component of amok including, but not limited to; chicken, egg, tofu, fish, pork and shrimp. It was presented in 3 banana leaf cups, and in the bottom of the cups was some finely shredded cabbage, topped with the curry and crowned with thinly sliced chili and julienne of kaffir lime leaves. The fish, in our case, was light, flaky and incredibly moist, with a rich coconut and light curry taste. The crunch from the raw cabbage adding the perfect counter texture as the fish was so soft and delicate. The chili on top wasn’t very spicy, its bright red flesh more for aesthetics than flavour. Our main course of ants arrived shortly after we tucked into the curry and wasn’t nearly as intimidating as I had expected. It looked like a normal beef stir fry with chunks of bell pepper, onion and topped with fried basil, however it was also studded with large tree ants just shy of an inch long. Their segmented bodies, legs and antennae all still intact, like brown sprinkles on an ice cream sundae. I look up at Luc who is also dissecting the dish with his eyes, then he looks up at me, shrugs his shoulders and says “when in Cambodia” and digs in.
I watched his expression for a few seconds while he chewed away, trying to avoid my eye contact. I was half expecting him to gag, or spit it out and gargle his beer as if it was Listerine, but he didn’t. He didn’t even flinch. He finished chewing, had a sip of beer and declared “its actually pretty good! The ants are a bit crunchy” I was not stoked about this, but one can’t do a food tour through southeast Asia and not expect to eat a few insects, so I grabbed a big bite. As it turns out he wasn’t kidding, it was pretty good! Lemongrass was definitely a dominant flavour, with beef and garlic following right behind. The ants didn’t have any flavour, or if they did it was overpowered by the lemongrass, but they certainly had a texture, one I was having a bit of trouble with on the first bite, but by bite 3 and 4 I forgot they were even there.
We happily finished the amok and stir fried ants, stopping periodically to revisit the massive bowl of tom yum kung, and by the time we had finished we were ready to be rolled out of there like Violet Beaurigard. We paid for our meal which came to $12 for both of us, including a half dozen beers and wandered back into the afternoon sun ready to explore this new city. We got wind during our meal that there was a cool fish market down by the water, so naturally that was to be our next stop.