Go down to Phnom Penh’s Central Market at 8am and you’ll find that the food court on the west side is crowded with diners. Stalls offer the usual fare: pork and rice, borbor rice porridge, kuy taev or rice noodle soup. Market vendors fuel up for the day ahead.
Tucked in the middle of the stalls is a stand adorned with the usual unidentifiable meat products. In a glass case, enormous shrimp are for sale. But behind the display a harried young woman prepares a vibrantly yellow dish on a metal tray: cha knyay sach moan, or chicken with ginger. Every morning, she opens her stall at 6am.
On the Sunday I visited, the place was packed. Men sitting at our table were eating Khmer noodles, and a woman was eating pork and rice.
Cha knyay sach moan isn’t strictly for the morning: it can be eaten throughout the day, and comes in various styles. Cambodians often swap the chicken for pork or beef. The ginger can come either raw or cooked, and chili is sometimes added to provide an extra kick. The dish is made by frying chicken with salt and sugar, before adding the ginger. When the ginger is cooked, it’s fried along with the other ingredients.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, my helping of cha knyay sach moan was served atop a mound of white rice, and although I was given a generous portion it was the yellow zing that caught the eye, making for an attractive plate and a more exciting breakfast than murky grey borbor porridge. The ginger was grated in thin strips, adding some elegance to the lumps of on-the-bone chicken. Sprinkled on top were thinly-sliced green slivers of spring onion.
We ordered iced coffees, but there wasn’t much need: like with many street food stalls, cold tea comes with every dish.
Although the raw ginger overpowered the subtle taste of the chicken, it wasn’t such a bad thing given the dryness of the meat. Like many Cambodian dishes, there’s a lot of bone. For people used to gnawing on close-cuts, this might suit. I prefer fleshier cuts of meat, and became self-conscious of constantly raising my hand to my mouth to take out bits of cartilage. Eventually I gave up on the meat altogether, but happily ate the rest of the ginger and rice.
If you’re not averse to meat on the bone, cha knyay sach moan is an attractive dish. Even if it’s not your thing, the taste is extremely pungent, and just the thing to wake you up in the morning. Just make sure you like ginger.