Janiqueel balances beer as she learns about the balance in Cambodian cuisine.
I think food, culture, people and landscape are all absolutely inseparable.Anthony Bourdain
When my tuk-tuk carriage arrived, I jumped in, grabbed an Angkor Beer from the cooler, met the guide, Leanna, and we were off!
The tour included stops at diverse restaurants and a bar in different areas of the city. Scheduled for 3.5 hours, Leanna kept things moving and munching. Each eating place was very different from the others. I’ll share a few words about each and the food they offered, but first a word about Leanna and the overall spirit of the tour. The tuk-tuk was the perfect vehicle for our roaming. It lent local down-to-earth tone to the experience. This was not a tour of the fanciest places; this was an introduction to authentic Cambodian flavors and cooking methods at street level.
Before and after each venue, Leanna talked about the balance of ingredients in the various dishes. Sweet and sour, acidic and neutral, salty and bland — BALANCE. This was Leanna’s message and the key to the savor of the foods we sampled. The theme of balance was one key to the tour. The other was chronology. I was on a historical odyssey and didn’t even know it. These themes are what made the tour come alive. I would have been quite satisfied romping from place to place, beer in hand, what I found was a premiere introduction to Khmer culture as well as cuisine.
Our first stop was near a large park by the Royal Palace. Leanna supplied the fun fact – the restaurant was older than the park. Pre Angkor dishes were served. Patrons sat at simple tables on basic chairs much as they had, I assumed, for centuries. We know that restaurants in any large city come and go like summer flowers. But, this one has lasted and deservedly so. The flavors were delicate and subtle yet the curry was rich and satisfying. Leanna pointed out in detail what made the meal balanced. I won’t try to repeat those details here, but suffice to say, that once we had been introduced to the concept, the premise of the tour took hold. Yes, the flavors complemented each other and left the aftertaste of pure pleasure.
Off to venue #2. Determined to keep to the timeline, Leanna was unafraid to urge us onward as soon as our plates (we never lost even one) were clean. The waiting tuk-tuk and its cargo of ice-cold beer were an inviting interlude as the shaky-shaky of the ride gently soothed tummies 25% full.
The Tonle Bassac area is named after the Bassac River which together with the Tonlé Sap and the Mekong form a myriad of shifting routes through and around the city. Eventually, the three waterways meet which is why Phnom Penh is where it is. Leanna supplied the historical context to this place as well as the others. It’s no exaggeration to say that Phnom Penh and greater Cambodia were, in the Medieval Age, the center of world culture, trade, and influence. Who knew? Not I. I named the curry here my favorite dish, but the competition was stiff, indeed.
Plates cleaned, post-prandial conversation dispensed with, it was “All
Dark age food like fermented fish, the kimchi of Cambodia, and other “low-and-slow stews and stir-fries with ancestral recipes from the deep country” (Leanna) made the table groan in our next stop. For 20 hours a day, busy servers supply thousands of plates in one of the busiest eateries in town. Balance of ingredients, flavors, and textures was on full display. Now 75% sated, our appetites urged us on to finish almost every delectable ort on the plate.
The centerpiece of the final restaurant was a giant ceramic urn some 500 years old. So old that the reliefs on the side have been worn almost indistinguishable from years of rain erosion. The bottom of the urn is missing. Way down deep is where the coals smolder and emit a mouth-watering aroma of wood charcoal. This is barbecuing with a past. Once a barber now a chef, the creator of this blend of the old with the new has found his niche. “It’s a once in a lifetime setting and experience, eating in his personal home in a table set up just for our tour.” I could smell the barbecue on my shirt when I returned to the hotel. I reveled in the memory.
Finishing in the Russian Market area, we strolled through the bustle to a roof-top bar serving craft beers and rum as well as (no, I’m not making this up) Cambodian doughnuts. “No,” I thought to myself. A rich doughnut after all that food and with beer? No. I took a bite and another and finished the whole thing with alacrity I would have not given myself credit for. I didn’t like it — I loved it! The bar itself was laid back, hip, and international. This is the new face of burgeoning entertainment culture in Cambodia’s capital.
Two words – “Balance” and “History” form
the spine of this unique food tour. I went in knowing precious little about Cambodian cuisine and left with a new respect for the complexities of this iteration of South East Asian food.
A woman on a mission, Leanna stated her goal early – to fill her patrons with food and drink in a pleasurable way. She met that goal. When in Phnom Penh, put this tour very high on the list of must-dos.
Back at the hotel, our door-to-door service ended with a toot, toot and fond farewells to an evening exceptionally well-spent.
With writing and research help from JKJ