Few things are more satisfying in life than plunking down on a red plastic stool, pointing to whatever looks good and walking away stuffed for less than $2. While street food seems to constantly be under threat in hubs like Bangkok, Singapore and Hong Kong, the culture is still very much alive in Cambodia.
Cambodian cuisine isn’t as vast as its Thai or Vietnamese neighbors, but it’s got style and spunk both in restaurants and on sidewalks. Generally, the flavor profile seeks out a perfect balance of sweet, sour, salty and bitter notes. If it’s spicy, it’s usually only enough to assert its presence, not smack you across the head. You see this subtle push-and-pull even in the street food, which, by the way, you can easily find inside or around any local market in any Cambodian city. While you’re there, look for these five great dishes:
1. Bai Sach Chrouk
This classic combination of pork and rice is a staple that fuels Cambodia every morning. Pork gets grilled slowly over charcoal until it’s succulent and sweet. Slices arrive on a pile of rice with a fish sauce-based dipping sauce and crisp, pickled vegetables on the side. Persuade each element to fit on a fork for a perfect, multi-textured bite.
2. Num Banh Chok, Kampot Style
Num banh chok is often simply called “Khmer noodles,” a beloved and ubiquitous breakfast dish based on slippery, fresh noodles pounded from rice. The classic version features a green fish gravy, but I love a style originating from sleepy, seaside town Kampot. Here, a tangle of noodles sits on bean sprouts, cucumber and lots of herbs, while a sweet fish sauce dressing and creamy coconut sauce get spooned on top. Pounded dried shrimp, chopped peanuts and crispy spring roll slices are the final flourishes.
3. Sach Ko Jajak
This dish delightfully translates to “beef stick.” You’ll see grilled things-on-sticks all over Cambodia, but the beef ones get preferential treatment because they’re rubbed down in kroeung, a Cambodian spice mix that defines the flavors of many traditional dishes you’ll find in sit-down restaurants. The combination of galangal, lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, shallots and turmeric imparts a gorgeous flavor—and even better, these skewers often get tucked into a toasty baguette with a vinegary, green papaya slaw.
4. Num Krok
These popular street snacks are essentially coconut rice pancakes, but what makes these sweet-or-savory orbs special are their texture: crispy on the outside, impossibly gooey on the inside. You’ll spot them via their unique, cast iron pans resting over coals. Though they sound like prime morning fare, you’ll usually see them magically appear in the afternoons.
Perhaps the most intimidating of all Cambodian street stalls are the sweets stands, equipped with giant metal bowls brimming with beans, rice, tapioca-like sago and brightly colored jellies. Simply point to what looks good, and it’ll get loaded into a plastic baggy with shaved ice and coconut milk for a light and refreshing treat made for combatting Cambodia’s brutal heat. Bonus: this refuge will only cost you $0.25.
Photo by ND Strupler, CC BY 2.0