Stuffed frog legs, rice wine and noodles good enough to knock pho right off the table — these are but a few delights of this Southeast Asian kingdom.
The lines in the cavernous ticket hall at Cambodia’s Angkor Wat were already lengthy when we joined them at 5 a.m. Thankfully, the service was efficient, and we obtained our tickets in plenty of time to snag a prime space to see the sunrise over the main temple. As it rose, the sun’s morning light revealed the building’s immense beauty. And in the reflection ponds, its shimmering sister image gave us a once-in-a-lifetime photographic opportunity.
It was hard to imagine, as we looked at all the hundreds of people surrounding us, that in the 1990s, this site — the world’s largest religious complex — was relatively unknown and only attracted a few thousand visitors every year. That’s all changed now. In 2017, the 500-acre site attracted more than 2.5 million people. They come from all over Europe, Southeast Asia, Mainland China and other parts of the world. As well as seeing the sites, these visitors need places to stay, eat and drink.
In the same period, the population of Siem Reap, the town closest to Angkor Wat, has increased exponentially as well. From a small village situated on the edge of a jungle, it now hosts a population exceeding 1 million, which can double or triple depending on the tourist season.
This growth certainly has its economic benefits for the locals and those who have chosen to make the city their home in recent years. However, for travelers intending on seeking out more authentic food, the rapid growth presents considerable challenges— especially when you intend on finding the best things to eat and drink. ( This, in any case, is a priority for my wife and me.)
Eating well in Siem Reap definitely takes an amount of effort. While the restaurants that surround the raucous Pub Street — the epicenter for tourist activity — can provide a fun atmosphere to sip on a cold Cambodian beer, the food they offer is, on the whole, unexciting and an ersatz version of the delights of traditional Cambodian food.
There is great food on offer over in Siem Reap, nonetheless. Just leave the tourist-dense area and head across the narrow river, and the increase in the number of mopeds will give evidence that you have a better chance of finding restaurants with more appeal. Better still, rather than eating where the locals eat, why not use the locals, or at least someone who has made Siem Reap his home, to show you the best dining delights of the city?
On our journeys around the globe, we’ve found that taking a short, guided food tour can be a great way to meet people, eat well and explore the city, and also glean tips for the rest of the time in that location. After a bit of research, we booked a morning tour with Siem Reap Food Tours (siemreapfoodtours.com). The reviews for the tours were excellent, and the respect previous visitors declared the owners was evident to all the vendors they visited.
Cambodian food is a cuisine varied enough to deliver at a fine-dining level, but this tour was all about the street food. It began, as all mornings in Cambodia should, at a stall serving a breakfast favorite: bai sach chrouk, a perfect combination of thinly sliced pork marinated in a mixture of pungent fish sauce, coconut milk and palm sugar before being grilled over charcoal, and served with steamed rice and pickled vegetables. It was the perfect way to start the day, with the sugary char of the grilled meat working perfectly against the tang of the pickles to open up our palate for the rest of the tour.
Our guide took us to a small but bustling market called Psar Leu near the outskirts of the city. While we munched on nom ka chai — soft rice flour cakes stuffed with garlic chives — and drank iced tea, we strolled around the market and watched people collecting their supplies for the day: baskets of fresh herbs, glisteningly fresh fruits and vegetables, salted dried fish, aromatic rice, eels and fish flopping in tanks ready to be dispatched to order, and sides of pork ready to be butchered. A wise person once said that you can find anything you need to know about a country from its markets. And, from our short time at Psar Leu, it’s clear that the Cambodians take their food very seriously, indeed.
The next stop really was all about the fact that Cambodians love grilling their food. Our tuk tuk — a three-wheeled motorcycle designed to carry passengers — drove through the villages located on the outskirts of the Angkor temple complex and pulled up at a small table on the side of the road. The surface of the table had been laid with banana leaves (pictured above), and on it were three styles of street food: fresh pickles of young papaya; prahok krisang, a slab of salted and fermented minced fish flavored with sour seeds; and one of the best bites from all of our stay in Cambodia, kang kae baok, a dish of meaty frogs about the size of a small Cornish game hen that have been cleaned and then stuffed with a mixture of minced pork, lemongrass, galangal, peanuts and turmeric. Cambodians spear the frogs on skewers and grill them over an open fire until the outside takes on a juicy golden char.
While the thought of stuffed frogs might make some people turn away, it’s definitely worth persevering. The meat of the frogs tastes almost inevitably like chicken. However, once you break through the outer casing of meat, the stuffing lets out an aroma that is unlike anything I’ve ever tried before and long to try again.
The tour finished with two more equally enjoyable stops. The first was at a small farm where the family fermented and distilled rice to make wine. The elderly lady who had been making it most of her life assured us it was mainly used for medicinal purposes. I rather enjoyed the shot-glass serving she offered me. Although, I must note that travelers should be aware: The Cambodian government recently issued a warning against drinking rice wine when a number of people died after drinking adulterated versions.
Finally, on our way back into Siem Reap, we stopped at one more restaurant to sample a rice noodle dish that Cambodians have been making the same way for centuries: nom ban chok. The rice noodles are added to a broth seasoned with fermented fish, turmeric and galangal, and then laced with banana flowers and herbs. It results in a soup that could easily give global noodle souper-stars (See what I did there?) ramen and pho a run for their money.
It was a perfect way to finish off a terrific tour involving the many uses of rice and the Cambodians’ love for grilling. It was also enough to convince me that, even in a town as dedicated to tourist delights such as Siem Reap, there is still great food to be found.