On the spur of the moment, I decided to seize the opportunity and go on Siem Reap Food Tours. I was tossing it up for a while being put off by the price of the tour. In Cambodia, $65 USD for a food tour is a lot of money with all the cooking classes being priced well below that. I decided to do it because I love food and understanding stuff about the food culture of the place I’m in. The tour is also in a very small group and run by a chef. I knew it was the right decision once I’d committed because I was super excited (in a way I never am when it’s time to go see another museum, monument or temple!)
It was just 3 of us and the chef/tour guide in the tuk tuk for the food tour. We did four stops and the whole duration was about 4 hours. Sounds like a long time but it passed quickly and was very enjoyable.
The four stops are as follows;
- Local restaurant for some prahok dishes;
- BBQ Beef with Prahok Dip restaurant;
- Duck Hot Pot restaurant; and
- Night market.
Prahok is a very Cambodian ingredient. It’s fermented fish. The fish is fermented for preservation purposes. They use it often in their dishes instead of eating it on its own. The first stop was at a local restaurant where some dishes were ordered.
- Prahok curry with green pea eggplant;
- Omelette fried with prahok; and
- Green mango salad with smoked fish.
This prahok curry was dry-style without loads of gravy and done with pork mince. It came with a plate of fresh crudites or raw vegetables to accompany it. It was tasty with the prahok giving it a salty, slightly fishy taste. I’m not a big fan of those green pea eggplants as they are quite bitter when you bite into them. I’m not sure what they add to the dish except colour. I’m a big fan of omelettes done like this and this was no exception. For me, it’s comforting home style cooking with the prahok adding some texture, saltiness and fishy taste to the egg. The mango salad was very refreshing and I like the addition of fresh herbs. The smoked fish was nice but I don’t think it made this mango salad any better than a mango salad without it.
Back into the tuk tuk and onwards through the bustling Siem Reap to the next stop which is a BBQ beef place. The cuts of beef were on the coals at the front of the store and we were brought various ingredients to personalise our prahok dip as well as some fresh salad ingredients to accompany the meal. This dipping sauce is made with boiling fish stock and mushed, sieved prahok. You can then personalise your dip with some crushed, roasted peanuts, chopped lemongrass, chillies and lime. The dip is then eaten with fresh vegetables like cabbage, cucumber and green banana or with the BBQ beef. The green banana tastes quite starchy and leaves a weird sensation in your mouth.
Clockwise from front – Personalised prahok dip, raw vegetables to accompany dip, stuff to add to the dip
Although it’s counter-intuitive to eat beef with fish at the same time, this BBQ beef with salty prahok dip combination works really well!
Onwards to the next stop!! More delicious food is waiting to be savoured. The next stop specializes in duck soup. It’s run by a Cambodian family and it’s their secret family recipe. We had a gas powered hot pot at the centre of the table with the duck soup. To this, tofu, duck meat, greens and other things were added including a duck embryo! This is a fertilised duck egg which is cracked open and the developing embryo is dropped in to gently poach in the soup. The pictures show the embryo before and after cooking.
Poached Duck Embryo – yellow part is the yolk and the other part is the curled up developing duckling
I have long maintained that even though I will try just about any food, I will not try the fertilised eggs. It’s a specialty in the Philippines where they eat it raw. These fertilised eggs can be eaten at various states of development so obviously the closer to hatching, the more obvious the features of the baby bird are. I was very curious to see if I could recognise any parts of the bird either before or after it was cooked. In the picture of the cooked embryo, the yellow section is the yolk and the other bit is the curled up developing duckling which feeds off the yolk to grow. I didn’t eat the embryo. One for my tour companions was game enough to try it. I’m told that it’s really tender and tasty and the person who did eat it said that it was nice and there were no suspicious hard bits e.g. beak, feet or bones. Even though I still refused to eat it, I think having the embryo a little younger and therefore less recognisable and having it poached makes it far more approachable. I was told in some cases, the embryo unfurls and separates from the yolk and then ends up sitting in the soup uncurled looking like a baby duckling.
OK enough on my fixation on fertilised eggs and baby birds! The hot pot was delicious. It had a beautiful duck flavour which intensified as the hot pot continued to boil and reduced. To make it more indulgent, a can of milk was added to the soup. This is a strange addition for an Asian soup but who cares?! The soup was delicious and duck flavoured and getting sweeter with every bowl. I think I had about 4 or 5 bowls of this hot pot!
By now, I’m getting quite full as we tuk tuk onto the night market. Here we saw a lady selling insects. They were fried and seasoned. The crickets were salty, sweet and crunchy. I’d be happy to munch through a pack of these watching TV. The silkworms were mushy on the inside and the taste was a little reminiscent of boiled peanuts. To eat the black shiny waterbugs, first you have to rip off the hard wings and hard head. These initially didn’t taste like much, a little crunchy but at the end you get a hit of surprising shellfish flavour. How strange! Eating insects is not a central part of the Cambodian diet. They may eat them like a snack like peanuts but it’s not exactly a coveted delicacy or a daily necessity.
Crickets or grasshoppers all fried up ready for eating.
We freshened our palate after the insects with some slices of mango covered in chilli salt followed by a piece of jackfruit. Then we tried a rice pancake. These looked like large prawn crackers but tasted totally different. They were thinner than a prawn cracker hence a totally different texture and slightly sweet in taste. Not at all like a prawn cracker! More like the crispy part of an Indian thosai pancake. These were made by an old lady who then puffed up the rice crackers over the open fire using her metal rakes to hold the cracker over the fire.
We picked up some Cambodian dessert for later on at a stall with lots to choose from!
We then progressed to a BBQ stall where a number of BBQ items were chosen.
The tour guide chose;
- Deep fried tiny frogs;
- BBQ Prahok in banana leaf;
- BBQ pork ribs;
- Skewer of baby chicken; and
- BBQ large frogs stuffed with curry paste.
Clockwise from front – BBQ prahok in banana leaf, stuffed frogs, baby chicken on skewer and BBQ pork ribs
The tiny frogs were surprisingly tasty even though it is a little weird eating these little creatures which had died in these various poses. They tasted like chicken but they were crunchy in texture from being deep fried.
The BBQ prahok had a strong salty and fishy flavour. Not bad but not my favourite. The pork ribs were yum. How can you go wrong with a good marinade and a BBQ? The skewer of baby chicken was strange. I couldn’t work out what part of the chicken these kidney shaped pieces were. I was told, it is baby chicken but not the embryo. They were lovely and tender and had that lovely smoky, charred BBQ flavour which is always good with meat.
The highlight was the juicy, tender BBQ frogs stuffed with the fragrant curry paste. The curry paste had Kaffir lime leaves in it so you can imagine that classic Kaffir lime leaf curry smell. The frog legs were very tender and came away easily from the body. The meat tastes like chicken and the frog leg experience is not unlike chicken wings. Somehow, the bones have been removed from the frog body and the cavity filled with curry paste. The curry filling seemed to have a sausage like texture. It was just delicious – spicy, fragrant, juicy and tender!
Now somehow, I have to find room for dessert. First we sampled balls of flour dusted, rice flour balls filled with desiccated coconut and sugar. There were pretty average and would have been vastly improved if they had used palm sugar instead of white sugar.
The second and final dessert was glutinous rice balls with a liquid palm sugar syrup filling and eaten with toasted coconut flakes. This was delicious and similar to Malaysian Ondeh-Ondeh.
What a great night! This is my way of learning about a country and their culture. Much more fun then visiting temples or museums.
A word of warning, even though I am an adventurous eater, the fear of having tummy issues on holiday is a real deterrent to eating freely whilst on holiday especially in countries where food hygiene is not regulated. A yucky tummy makes for a pretty miserable holiday experience! For me, this is a real driver to seek out these food tours and having an expert take me to places which I would not dare try by myself. As they feed lots of tourists, it minimizes the risk of getting the sick whilst still giving me an opportunity to try some amazing food.