The man on the moto on Street 136 stops in front of me with a tray full of goodies foods on his lap: cockroaches, snakes, and frogs “You got no spiders?”, I ask him.
“Sorry, no spiders, sir”.
Apparently fried spiders are sparse these days.
Chan, the vendor, shows me how to eat cockroaches by pulling out the wings from under the carapace. The insect is crunchy and tastes like a peanut flavoured with barbecue sauce. The snake on the stick tastes of the same delicious marinade. Chan smiles at me:
“You are Cambodian now.”
As much as I am enjoying my little snacks, there’s also something functional involved in their consumption. The snake still has all its backbones in it. All what matters is that my teeth can crush them. Insects have also been a source of protein in times of famine – not only in Cambodia. With spices and marinades, creative chefs managed to turn the vermin into crispy delicacies.
Now there is even a shortage of spiders. The traders in Skun, a village in Kampong Cham where spiders are traditionally raised, are having difficulties meeting demand. When I finally find a crispy tarantula further down on Sisowath Quay, I have to pay 2000 riel for a single one.
Where Street 130 crosses Street 5, I am drawn to a cookshop. Behind an acrylic glass window three different soup ingredients pile up. Fried fish, fried chicken legs, and what appear to be mushrooms. I see big yellow boletuses, chanterelles and morels – I didn’t think they even existed in Cambodia. I ask the chef what kind of mushroom they are.
“Pig”, he replies.
These mushrooms are actually boiled and chopped up pig bowels; black-brownish liver, yellow milt and a lot more I cannot remotely define.
“I’ll have chicken, please.”
It is around nine in the evening and the tables have almost emptied. Yet, the place radiates a bustling atmosphere, especially around the charcoal stove. Perhaps it’s a hereditary fascination for open fireplaces and men’s need to gather around it.
I sit down on a ramshackle plastic chair at a shiny stainless steel table that has been polished by countless peoples’ sleeves sitting and spooning soup before me.
Close by the charcoal stove I watch the man scooping soup into a bowl. He adds a few bean sprouts, scallions and rice noodles. The soup’s stock has a strong essence of vegetables and chicken, it must have simmered over a slow fire all day.
Charcoal and used wooden chopsticks feed the fire. Even the tea tastes of charcoal. I don’t know if it’s intentional or a quirk of the environment – it’s surprisingly tasty anyway.
A few nights later, I head down a busy lane near the Russian Market. Colourful fruits in baskets reflect the bright light from neon bulbs that illuminate every market stand. Dragon fruits, durians, rambutans, mangosteens and melons look like flowers in the bright, surreal light.
There is also a fish section in the lane. A box full of giant crabs and a cowering man catch my attention. The man’s job is to throw escaping crabs back in the box. A few centimetres near him two other gentlemen are having a barbecue; a metal bucket and platter serve as a grill. The two are busy flipping over small square packets of banana leaves, called braho. I order one.
“You eat here?” the man in charge of the barbecue tongs asks me. There is nowhere to sit down.
“Yes, I eat here”.
I notice a mother, who is rocking her baby and filling a plastic bag with steamed rice. The crab warden shouts something in Khmer to a young boy around fifteen who then disappears. The mother also shouts into the direction of a nearby house.
Another boy who is slightly older gives me a sign to follow him to to a gate where a man comes out carrying a rusty bistro table and chair. He arranges it on the pavement, the boy who was sent away reappears, a styrofoam plate in his hands filled with my braho and rice.
A little girl comes out of the open front door next to the gateway and is carrying soy sauce and mashed chilli for me. She places that on the table. I sit down; the table carrier asks me if I wanted to have a drink. I ask for a beer, as it goes best this with style of food. There is no wine list.
“Yes, I eat here,” I am asked a minute after I first said I did.
The braho is delicious, a slow-cooked paste of crabmeat, fish and pork, spiced with chilli, lemongrass and possibly coriander seeds.
While eating I realise that I have melted into a small family universe that is defined by a certain strip of the pavement. In here I feel so much at home that I have not noticed the group of boys sitting in a circle of plastic chairs behind me listening to music from a small pink cubic stereo.
“Is this Cambodian techno?” I ask them.
“Yes, Cambodian techno.” They smile at me and seem to feel as relaxed as I do.
The mother comes to my table and makes sure that I like and know how to eat the braho.
I earn a smile from her and the rest of the family as well when they look at me from time to time.
I did had bought a meal and a beer for 5200 Riel. I have been warmly welcomed by the friendly family that does business on a small strip of pavement where the box of crabs first caught my attention.
It is not only hospitality and creativity with scarce resources that is so fascinating about street food in Phnom Penh.
Srey and her son Rith run a crepe stand which is just around the corner from the the Russian Market. Srey pours egg in a wok from a dipper in circular movements without even looking at it.
A perfectly shaped crepe is about to form under the lid of her wok. Without breaking the thin crepe, she manoeuvres it on a banana leaf, fills it with crabmeat and bean sprouts, and folds it delicately.
Rith hands it to me and as soon as it touches my fingers, this delicacy falls into pieces. I have a hard time fumbling the mess I made into my mouth.
Even more so, that I am watching Sray and Rith. The speed and dexterity in their teamwork is fascinating. They are baking, filling, folding, and handing over the crepe, then collecting cash in a cycle of two minutes. I ask Rith how many crepes they sell a day.
“Maybe 40”, he replies.
This is clearly an understatement. In the 20 minutes I have been sitting at their small table I have seen at least 10 crepes being handed to passersby on motos or on foot. Now even a little queue has formed.
Street food in general is dynamic, sometimes nameless and improvised, fresh and ready to be eaten within a few minutes. Street food is the fuel of everyday life for Cambodians, and Phnom Penh’s heart beats in the streets around the countless charcoal stoves.
Around there you get to know and like Phnom Penh’s people in a way vastly different from the usual cursory interactions of day-to-day life, and if you are lucky, you may feel as one of them, even if just for a little while.
To contact the reporter on this story: Julius Thiemann at [email protected]