Every day at 6am, 60-year-old Suon Sophet lights up his charcoal barbecue opposite the Chinese embassy on Mao Tse Tung Boulevard and starts to grill one of Cambodia’s favourite snacks: on som chek, or banana wrapped in sticky rice.
He stays here for most of the day, turning the food with tongs at just the right pace. The white, sausage-shaped snack is grilled along with the palm leaves in which it’s served, and Sophet – his wrinkled, kind face at first hidden by the shade umbrella under which he sits – has got cooking them down to a fine art.
Work doesn’t stop at sundown. After 6pm, Sophet will go home and get started on the next day’s batch, boiling the rice and mixing it with coconut, salt and sugar. By day there are too many customers to keep on top of this side of the operation. He stays up until at least midnight; sometimes he has as little as three hours sleep, he says.
Thought to have originated in Kampuchea Krom, the area in southern Vietnam that used to be a part of the Khmer Empire, on som chek is sold on roadsides all over Cambodia and is eaten as a snack or dessert throughout
Sophet has served it here on Mao Tse Tung for 12 years. He says that there were once more than 10 of these stalls, all serving up the same fare, opposite the Chinese embassy. But over the years, hikes in food prices have forced most of them away, and there are now only three left.
The snack costs just 500 riel a pop. As a breakfast food, it’s just the right size to justify two or three – and more are very welcome. The pieces are perfectly grilled so that the banana has melted somewhat, producing a soft, warm, gooey interior, supported by the hard, crispy rice exterior. The palm leaf in which it’s wrapped is perfect protection against the heat.
Served alongside the on som chek are square patties of sticky rice. The coconut gives them a bit of a kick, but there’s no gooey banana inside. They pale in comparison to the main snack, which is undeniably good.
Others clearly think so too: in no less than 10 minutes three big cars, one tuk-tuk and two motorbikes pull up specifically to pick up Sophet’s treats. For those in the know, it’s a local institution.
Suon Sophet’s on som chek is located opposite the Chinese embassy on Mao Tse Tung Boulevard.