The Wizardess of Oz

An American's Adventures in Australia and Beyond

Tag: Cambodian Cuisine

Welcome to Cambodia

Cambodia has become synonymous with the 400+ square-kilometer temple compound of Angkor, found just outside of Siem Reap. And it is stunning. But Cambodia is so much more than that, and is worth a lot more time than most visitors give it.

In addition to a few days touring the temples, here are a few of the other places and things worth doing:

  1. Volunteer: I spent a week with children at the Missionaries of Charity in Siem Reap, and it was one of the most heartbreaking and fulfilling experiences of my travels. There is so much need in Cambodia, and so much opportunity to help. I was lucky to spend time with a big group of volunteers from the UK and Australia, who assisted with anything from teaching English to providing legal assistance to an NGO focused on preventing spousal abuse in rural villages. The Cambodians are such beautiful, kind people that it’s almost impossible not to help.
  2. Go Island Hopping: Cambodia’s coast has islands to rival those of Thailand, with easily 1/3 the traffic. Still relatively undiscovered but with enough amenities to be comfortable, Rabbit Island, Koh Rong, and Koh Rong Sanloem are well worth a few days stay. Or you can park yourself in the sleepy Otres Beach or party-town Sihanoukville and take day trips that will hop amongst the smaller islands just off the coast.
  3. See a Different Side of Khmer Rouge Atrocities in Battambang: Phnom Penh is the most famous for it’s killing fields, where millions of innocent Cambodians were ruthlessly slaughtered by the army led by Pol Pot. Because of an increase in petty theft crimes in Phnom Penh, I opted to avoid the city as much as possible. However, I still wanted to experience and understand the history of the country. In Battambang, we took a day tour, which included a stop at a Killing Cave, where Cambodians were tossed 50+ feet to their deaths. It’s a chilling experience, and hiring one of the local students is well worth the cash for the history lesson.
  4. Get a Taste of Local Life in Kampot: This largely rural area isn’t a top ranker for tourists (other than the French), but it is a charming city with heaps of waterfront accommodation options along the Kampot River. Plus, the best pepper in the world is grown in plantations just outside of town, and one of the oldest temples is nestled in a cave in a national park. I had one of the best days of my life on the back of a motorbike zipping through the village roads outside of Kampot.
  5. Learn to Cook Cambodian Cuisine: Thai food is an old staple, and anyone can whip up a curry without much skill. But how many people can say they know how to cook Fish Amok or Beef Lok Lak? These are two typical Cambodian dishes that are really delicious. Unlike Thai food, Cambodian food isn’t spicy, so you don’t need to worry about alienating your capsaicin-fearing friends.

And here are some practical details for a visit to Cambodia.

Getting Around: 

  1. Bus Companies: There are many bus companies that will take you almost anywhere you want to go. The best of these, without a doubt, is Giant IbisEspecially if you’re traveling overnight anywhere, like I did from Siem Reap to Sihanoukville, you will not regret spending the extra money on a sleeper bus ticket with GI. The beds fully recline, there is an outlet and lamp for each individual bed, and your own air conditioning vent that you can adjust at will. If you have to sleep on a bus, this is the way to do it. Pro Tip: Get a top bunk, because full buses mean that sometimes someone will stretch out in the aisle… directly next to you.
  2. Share Taxis: If you find yourself in jam, like I did when I wasn’t switched onto the right bus just before Khmer New Year, there is a share taxi option. This is faster, but very tight, and usually a little more expensive than a bus. A typical sedan will cram four people in the back seat, and sometimes two in the front, so get ready to get cozy with the Cambodians! You can try to get more space by purchasing two seats. Recommended for shorter trips only.
  3. Private Taxis/Tuk Tuks/Motorbikes: Jumping on the back of a motorbike is by far the cheapest option to get from A to B, provided you are traveling solo. It’s a fantastic way to really take in everything around you, and it’s the most direct and quickest way to get wherever you want to go. Just be cautious, the drivers don’t always have extra helmets for passengers. Because of the lack of paved roads in many parts of Cambodia, grab a surgeon’s mask from one of the kiosks on the side of the road that sells gasoline.

Money:

  • They use the US Dollar! This makes things so easy for us Americans, since no currency exchanging is necessary at all. However, many merchants will not accept bills manufactured before 1975, and if the bill is ripped or overly creased, it will be denied. I learned this the hard way trying to buy my pass to Angkor with a bill that didn’t pass muster. If a merchant tries to give you shoddy bills as change, hand it back and ask for a new one. It’s a common practice in Cambodia and not considered rude.

Accommodation:

  • I started off staying at the highly-recommended Mad Monkey in Siem Reap, and ended up with the worst case of bedbugs I’d ever had in my life. Because of this, it was the last time I used a dorm room in all of Southeast Asia. Because of my intense reaction to bedbug bites, it wasn’t worth saving a few bucks. In fact, I spent any savings I would have had on medicine and getting my bags and clothing cleaned and treated. Thumbs down.
  • However, I was able to negotiate my way into a hotel room, with air conditioning, a nice shower, and included breakfast, for $15/night. Online, the price was double! It never hurts to walk in and negotiate.

Cooking Khmer

I wasn’t sure what to expect from Cambodian food. I was intimately familiar with the cuisine of Cambodia’s neighbors, Thailand and Vietnam. But I had yet to be acquainted with the flavors of the small country sandwiched in between.

So when we decided to take a cooking class while visiting Battambang, I was looking forward to trying things I’d never tried before, and silently crossed my fingers that it wouldn’t involved any insects.

After a morning shop at the large open-air market for some ingredients, we set up shop at Nary Kitchen. Our menu: Fish Amok, Beef Lok Lak, fried spring rolls, and a sweet banana coconut dessert. No insects! Score!

Produce-hunting at the market in Battambang.

Produce-hunting at the market in Battambang.

I can’t say enough about the freshness of the meat and produce in Southeast Asia. One stroll through any market will be evidence of enough: fish are still wiggling, vegetables have just been picked, and meat is still in the process of being butchered. So although replicating these dishes may be difficult, I’ve put a recipe for Fish Amok and Beef Lok Lak below, if you’d like to sample the flavors yourself. I particularly love the Beef – the sauce and marinade are a delicious, earthy treatment that’s sure to be a crowd-pleaser.

Fish Amok
Serves 4

The heart of this dish is a lemongrass-based paste, which includes many ingredients that can only be found in specialty asian food stores. It’s worth the search! The flavors in this paste will knock your socks off, and you’re guaranteed to find other ways to use this paste as a marinade for other dishes. 

Fish Amok is traditionally placed in banana-leaf bowls and steamed for 15 - 20 mins.

Fish Amok is traditionally placed in banana-leaf bowls and steamed for 15 – 20 mins.

Ingredients:
Lemongrass Paste:
4 stalks of fresh lemongrass*
4 kaffir lime leaves*
1 inch chunk of galangal or ginger*
1 inch chunk of fresh turmeric or 1 tsp powder*
1.5 inch chunk finger root, or Chinese ginger*
6 cloves garlic
2 Tbsp paprika
2 Tbsp Prahok (Khmer Fish Paste) or shrimp paste*

Fish:
3/4 lb. of freshwater white fish
2 tsp chicken stock powder
2/3 cup coconut milk, divided in half
3 tsp sugar
1 tsp salt
Pinch of cornstarch

 Directions:
1. Slice the lemongrass, kaffir leaves, galangal, turmeric (if using fresh), ginger, and garlic.
2. Place sliced fresh ingredients with paprika (and turmeric if not using fresh) and fish paste into a mortar and pestle,
and pound until all ingredients become a very fine paste, 8 – 10 minutes.
3. Thinly slice the fish, then place in a bowl and add chicken stock powder, salt, sugar, half of the coconut milk, and the lemongrass paste. Set aside and allow to marinate for 15 minutes.
4. Take the remaining coconut milk and add a pinch of cornstarch. Bring to a simmer, stirring constantly until it thickens to a cream, about 2 mins. Add more cornstarch if needed.
5. Place the marinated fish into a saucepan and heat over medium heat until it starts to bubble and the fish is no longer translucent. Serve in bowls with a side of steamed rice.

*Many of the ingredients listed are readily available at Asian specialty markets. If you can’t find something, ask the grocer for an appropriate substitute. 

Beef Lok Lak
Serves 4

The marinade on the beef really makes the meat sing, and the dipping sauce gives the perfect acidic twang to an otherwise earthy dish. With ingredients found in most kitchens, this is an easy foray into the world of Cambodian cuisine. 

Ingredients:
Beef:
1 lb. beef, cut into 1-inch cubes
2 Tbsp vegetable oil
2 tsp chicken stock powder
2 tsp sugar
1 tsp salt
2 Tbsp soy sauce
2 Tbsp oyster sauce
2 Tbsp mild hot chili sauce, or sweet chili sauce
2 Tbsp ketchup
2 tsp black pepper
6 cloves garlic, chopped

Dipping Sauce:
3 – 4 limes, juiced
1 tsp salt
2 tsp sugar
2 tsp ground black pepper

Garnish (Optional):
4 eggs (optional)
6 leaves lettuce
2 tomatoes, sliced
1/2 onion, sliced

Directions:
1. Place the cubed beef in a large bowl, and mix in all ingredients listed under “Beef,” except the garlic. Set aside.
2. Combine all ingredients listed for the dipping sauce, set aside.
3. Heat a skillet on high heat with approx. 3 Tbsp vegetable oil. Add garlic when pan is hot. Saute until aromatic, about 15 seconds.
4. Add the marinated beef to the pan and stir-fry until the beef is cooked through, about 2 – 4 minutes. Place onto four plates to serve.
5. Pour the dipping sauce into the pan used to cook the beef to deglaze, stirring to lift all remaining marinade from the pan. Pour into a bowl to serve with the meat.
6. Optional: Fry an egg until cooked to medium, and place on top of each serving of beef. Garnish each serving with 2 leaves of lettuce, a 2 -3 slices of tomato, and 1 slice of onion.

Beef Lok Lak is typically eaten by spearing a chunk of meat, egg, and vegetable onto your fork, dipping in the sauce, and shoveling the whole mess into your mouth. It’s usually served with steamed rice.

I hope you’ll give one of these a try — happy eating!

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