Siem Reap couple out to teach tourists that Khmer food is not just derivative fish curries
Cambodian cooking suffers from an image problem. Much misunderstood and little loved by foreigners, who believe it consists of little more than derivative fish curries and stinky fish paste, it is frequently, wrongly, dismissed as the bland cousin to Thai cuisine.
One food-obsessed couple working to address that is Lina Goldberg, a travel and food writer, and her fiancé, chef Steven Halcrow, who have started up Siem Reap Food Tours, intended to be an intelligent, informed and fun tour of Siem Reap’s food markets and lesser-known food outlets.
Along the way, they present a whole slew of ingredients, processes and dishes that even long-term visitors may be totally unaware of.
“It’s not one of those tours where people are going to eat spiders. We don’t want to do that. It’s informative, about what Cambodians really eat,” said Halcrow.
While Goldberg came to Cambodia more than four years ago, Halcrow – a 10-year veteran of kitchens in Glasgow, including Scotland’s only two-Michelin starred restaurant – only arrived in January.
However, he’s been spending his time since brushing up. Three months working with Joannès Rivière at the renowned Cuisine Wat Damnak gave him valuable insights into the finer details of Khmer cooking, which he has supplemented by spending hours scouring markets, testing recipes, grilling Goldberg and practising his Khmer.
On a tour recently, Halcrow took me first to Psar Krom, a local market just south of the city. Here we wended our way through low-set rows of fish, meat and fruits while stall holders cooked up all manner of snacks and treats from fish cakes, waffles, sausages, spring rolls, soups and noodle dishes, and, Halcrow’s favourite, little rice cakes made with coconut, rice flour and agar.
Halcrow’s Khmer is already at banter level, and the stall-holders clearly enjoyed the fact that someone was making an effort, reciprocating with lots of laughter and invitations to try out different things.
Our next stop took us for a trial of a proper noodle soup with pork and greens. The setting was an airport hangar-like place, where a gang of women stirred and gossiped above the din created by several televisions.
The soup had a rich broth that brimmed with meat and veg. A coffee with sweet milk perfected the deal.
The third stop was Psar Leu, which is mostly outside, where there is an even wider selection of everything and we come across great bowls of sago, resin, all kinds of beans, quail eggs and prahok.
I learned that there are different qualities of prahok, depending on the kind of fish used and how it is fermented. Halcrow told me that while there are a few things worse than prahok neat – and he once ate fermented shark meat in Iceland – he has yet to find a better flavour enhancer.
We moved on to the village of Pradak, near the East Mebon, tucking into some more cakes and fruits while addressing the great “which is the most real typical Khmer dish” debate. Opinions rage on whether it is fish amok, kuy teav – a flat noodle soup – or nom banh chok, a dish incorporating rice noodles, fish soup and curry, and topped with fresh herbs and greens.
Any thought that you might get away without having to eat prahok will be dashed at the last stop, a small restaurant on Sivatha Boulevard. Steven ordered a dish that was made of minced pork with prahok, baby aubergines, lumps of garlic, and chillies, accompanied by slices of green tomato, round aubergine and French beans.
It is deep, salty, and earthy, though not even remotely fishy. It tastes good. “You won’t find anything like it anywhere else,” said Steven. “It’s pretty unique to Cambodia.”
The three and a half to four hour tours cost $65 per person. For more information check siemreapfoodtours.com.