By my third trip to Cambodia I was convinced that I loved Khmer food. Amok, lok lak, Khmer curry and stir-fried morning glory; I’d sing the praises of Cambodia’s lesser known but more refined cuisine. I thought I knew all about what real Cambodian food was about.
That was until we joined Owen and Sreyda of Paleriders for a motor biking tour of Cambodia. I didn’t see any locals eating amok.
So what did I eat? And what did I politely decline? And what should I have known better than to ingest?
Everywhere I’ve travelled in Cambodia I’ve seen pots of eggs cooking over an open flame. Slightly larger than the average chicken egg, during my last few trips I have to admit that I hadn’t paid much attention to them. But theses aren’t a normal boiled chicken egg. These eggs have a duck foetus developing inside. Served with a squeeze of lime and maybe a bit of chilli they are happily devoured by young and old who believe that eating them endows them with strength. I saw one kid scoff down 3 for dinner at the market like they were cheeseburgers in a happy meal. Actually what’s in a foetus egg is probably less disturbing than what is in your average cheeseburger but I couldn’t bring myself to give them a go.
At the same market I finally tried a dish that I’d wanted to order for years but was never game, congee or chicken rice porridge soup. I’d always been afraid that the texture would be a turn off but I actually quite enjoyed it. So while I couldn’t face the foetus eggs I was quite happy to chow down on the soup.
It’s impossible to talk about Khmer food without mentioning prahok; a salted and fermented fish paste that is a staple of traditional diets. On the second day of the tour Owen warned us off the prahok firmly promising, “I guarantee if you eat it you will get sick”. Sreyda then spent most meals trying to get us to give it a try.
She finally wore me down a few days later although I have to say that it was probably my curiosity that got the better of me. Safe when cooked, I of course first tried it raw as a dipping paste on an uncooked green bean. Its pungency reminded me of salami and I would have happily carried on eating it if not for Owen’s warning rattling about in my head. By sheer coincidence (or exceptional data analysis) Facebook then delivered a timely warning about a similar Thai dish of raw fish causing liver cancer to my newsfeed. I spent the next few days worried that I’d ingested a cancer-causing parasite while munching down on GastroStops because yes I did get sick but I kept it quiet because it was completely my own fault.
We did try prahok fried up with eggs back at Owen’s house but it didn’t have the same zest when cooked. In fact I thought the cooked version tasted like cat food. So I tried to feed a little of it to the cat. She wasn’t into it either.
Then there were the slices of raw fish wrapped in banana leaves and hung up under umbrellas. I couldn’t get a straight answer about exactly how long it was left hanging in the humid heat of South East Asia. I couldn’t even contemplate going there.
Of course this isn’t all I ate – Part 2 coming soon