From Phnom Penh’s street food tuk tuk tours to South­east Asia’s fresh­est sal­ads

A Siem Reap-based food tour ex­pands to Phnom Penh to help first-time vis­i­tors and ex­pats alike un­lock the Cam­bo­dian cap­i­tal’s culi­nary se­crets by tuk tuk

Southeast Asia Globe - - Contents - by Tom O’Connell

The tour kicked off at sun­set at the top of the steps of Phnom Penh’s Olympic Sta­dium, with a salted duck egg and a thin plas­tic cup filled with ice and sug­ar­cane juice – in a plas­tic bag with a han­dle, ubiq­ui­tous on take­away bev­er­ages in the cap­i­tal. Then guests de­scended to the sta­dium mar­ket to sam­ple nom banh chok, a Kh­mer com­fort food of co­conut broth, turmeric, galan­gal, sliced ba­nana blos­som, cu­cum­ber and fresh herbs on a bed of rice noo­dles.

These and many more Cam­bo­dian sta­ples are fea­tured on the all-in­clu­sive tuk tuk food cruises of the Kh­mer cap­i­tal be­ing ar­ranged by the newly chris­tened Phnom Penh Food Tours, from the ex­pats who have run Siem Reap Food Tours since 2015.

Cam­bo­dian cui­sine is an enigma to the unini­ti­ated, and that’s partly be­cause of a fear of three words: fer­mented fish paste – or “pra­hok”, in Kh­mer. Be­cause pra­hok is the back­bone of the cui­sine, new­com­ers can be squea­mish, and lo­cals of­ten aren’t very help­ful in break­ing that fear.

“Cam­bo­di­ans are care­ful to shield vis­i­tors from fer­mented fish,” said Steven Hal­crow, the Scot­tish chef who de­vel­oped the tour along­side his part­ner, Amer­i­can writer Lina Gold­berg. “Foreigners have grav­i­tated away from [the cui­sine] be­cause they don’t like the phrase

fer­mented fish. Cam­bo­di­ans have seen that and said foreigners don’t like Kh­mer food. That’s led to a con­fu­sion about what Kh­mer food re­ally is. When tourists come here, they’re given a dumbed-down ver­sion of the food.”

But pra­hok is noth­ing to be feared, said Hal­crow, who al­ways points out the big buck­ets of gray goop to guests he takes into mar­kets.

“We al­ways show this to peo­ple. It is very palat­able,” said Hal­crow. “Very few peo­ple don’t like it. I al­ways use the com­par­i­son of a bouil­lon cube, and they’re not ad­verse to that. Pra­hok is do­ing the same thing, pro­vid­ing a base for the other flavours to ride on. With­out it, you have these bland in­gre­di­ents sit­ting in a bowl.”

Fer­mented fish is not the only thing that gives vis­i­tors the creepy-crawlies. Hal­crow and crew have plenty of myths to dis­pel – as­sur­ing guests they’re not try­ing out for a game show.

“We do not run a Fear Fac­tor-style food ex­pe­ri­ence,” he said. “Many peo­ple who visit Cam­bo­dia ex­pect ev­ery­one to be eat­ing taran­tu­las and crick­ets be­cause that is an­other ele­ment of the way Cam­bo­dian food is per­ceived around the world.”

The pair’s Siem Reap Food Tours has picked up ac­co­lades from the New York Times, Vogue and the British press, and they re­cently de­cided to ex­pand to the cap­i­tal, where they’ve been train­ing new bilin­gual Kh­mer staff and are con­tin­u­ally try­ing out new restau­rants and food stalls for their guests.

Hal­crow’s care­fully re­fined process of choos­ing which food ex­pe­ri­ences to in­clude on the tour sounds like a culi­nary ad­ven­ture in it­self. It helps that he is flu­ent in Kh­mer, which took him two years to learn. Even­tu­ally he was able to have con­ver­sa­tions with mar­ket ven­dors, food stall op­er­a­tors and restau­rant work­ers. That serves him and the busi­ness well as they take their show off the well-trod tourist paths.

When choos­ing food ex­pe­ri­ences, they look for a few key el­e­ments: food fresh­ness and flavour, ap­proach­a­bil­ity and friend­li­ness of a place, good ser­vice, and safe food prac­tices

“When tourists come here, they’re given a dumb­ed­down ver­sion of the food”

and clean­li­ness. Steam­ing pots are a good sign, some sort of heat source or a smok­ing-hot wok – “if your food’s com­ing straight out of that, it’s safe”, Hal­crow ad­vised. “Also, places with a lot of peo­ple sit­ting around them, the food is fresh.” They’ll visit a lo­ca­tion three or four times to make sure it hits all the right marks con­sis­tently be­fore adding it to the tour.

From Olympic Sta­dium, the in­ti­mate food tour’s two hired tuk tuks, each with its own guide – Jen, an Amer­i­can, and Sokha, a Cam­bo­dian-Amer­i­can – whisked two cou­ples across town for the sec­ond stop, a large out­door green space nes­tled in the shadow of a high­way over­pass. The lawn, sur­rounded by food carts, was filled with cou­ples, fam­i­lies and young peo­ple eat­ing street food and drink­ing so­das and beers on blan­kets pro­vided by the ven­dors.

Jen and Sokha put or­ders in at var­i­ous carts, and soon con­tain­ers filled with steam­ing lo­cal del­i­ca­cies were placed be­fore the guests. Dishes in­cluded easy-eat­ing com­forts like grilled dried beef, wa­ter buf­falo, chicken wing tips and dried squid, along with pa­paya salad and toasted baguette with which guests built sand­wiches. And then there was more ad­ven­tur­ous fare like skew­ered in­testines and other or­gan meats – and the de rigueur stuffed frogs.

The tour con­tin­ued to a quiet mar­ket to try the in­fa­mously stinky and off-putting durian fruit, a first sam­pling for most of the guests. Next up was an air-con­di­tioned bar­be­cue restau­rant where guests dipped suc­cu­lent pork and beef cuts into the de­cep­tively sim­ple tuk meric, a slurry made of salt, pep­per and lime, wash­ing it down with sev­eral iced bot­tles of Angkor and Cam­bo­dia lager.

Then it was back onto the tuk tuks, which whisked the din­ers to the fi­nal stop of the night, a lively late-night side­walk cafe where they shared heaps of tuk kak chhous, the tra­di­tional shaved-ice dessert. They savoured the treat, driz­zled with con­densed milk and co­conut milk, and topped with a va­ri­ety of tapi­oca noo­dles, cus­tards, jel­lies and sticky rice por­ridge, be­fore part­ing ways with full bel­lies and, per­haps, more coura­geous palates. Morn­ing and evening food tours in Phnom Penh are $65 per per­son and can be booked at

siem­reap­food­tours.com.

Noo­dle soup and banh chao (crepe)

Phnom Penh Food Tours tries out mar­ket stalls a few times be­fore bring­ing guests

All that’s miss­ing is a baguette

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