Travellers often grab a quick bite in between temple-hopping in the Cambodian city. But Siem Reap’s emerging food scene is now a draw in its own right.
I sit in an open-air shack about 20 minutes outside Siem Reap devouring num banh chok, toothsome thread-thin rice noodles doused with lush coconut-milk fish curry. On the table next to me is a metal can filled with an edible bouquet of fresh herbs and crisp lotus stems. They’re there for you to forage, coriander and laksa leaves to tear over noodles to add crunch and freshness.
These noodles taste all the better for having watched them made by hand in the garden of a house just up the road – an experience I wouldn’t have had without Siem Reap Food Tours. The venture was founded in late 2014 by two food-loving expats determined to lift the lid on South-east Asia’s least understood street-food culture.
Before my tutorial in num banh chok-making, the group’s co-founder and Khmer-speaking Scottish chef Steven Halcrow leads me through the city’s sprawling Phsar Leu market (7 Makara Street, Krong Preah Sihanouk). “There is great street food here, but it’s mostly inside morning markets, especially those most tourists don’t go to,” says Halcrow, as he weaves between stalls displaying bundles of salted and smoked fish. Vendors erupt in peals of laughter as Halcrow jokes with them in Khmer while ordering my multiple breakfasts: jujube (a berry-like fruit) stewed to stickiness in ginger-infused palm sugar, an impossibly rich pumpkin-soy milk smoothie and bobor (rice porridge). Then there are tart-sweet-salty pickles called j’ruah, which Halcrow wraps burrito style in prahet (fishcakes).
Not so long ago, visitors to Siem Reap had little opportunity to explore Cambodian food beyond buffets served up before cultural performances. That’s no longer the case. It’s fair to say the town Angkor Wat built is now a destination in its own right for food obsessives looking to deep-dive into the cuisine.
That was my mission, anyway, on a recent visit. I started at Cuisine Wat Damnak.
“Real Cambodian cuisine is something most average tourists, who see the same five dishes again and again, rarely experience,” says French chef Joannes Riviere. When he launched Cuisine Wat Damnak in 2011 with his wife Carole Salmon, Riviere was the only foreign chef in town using local ingredients like frogs, young green jackfruit, wild mango kernels and prahok (salted fermented fish boiled to make stock) to prepare dishes with authentic flavours, undiluted for foreign palates. A fair number of his customers are locals because, says Riviere, “My food is really Cambodian. I simply take local dishes apart and put them back together.”
Cambodian food is “foremost a cuisine of place”, he explains. It’s rooted in indigenous ingredients such as freshwater fish from the Tonle Sap, palm sugar, coconut milk, black pepper and foraged vegetables. On his weekly set menus, Riviere highlights seasonal items like mushrooms (poached with frog meat in a beer reduction) and croaker fish (pan-fried and served with spicy pounded wild eggplant). He also features true Cambodian flavours in dishes such as crispy beef tongue with fermented tomato sauce, house-made oyster sauce and baby cress, and black rice creme brulee. Last spring, Cuisine Wat Damnak was placed on Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list.