Siem Reap: Street food

Adventurous and intrepid doesn't always extend to the palate. I realised this when I declined a handful of deep-fried silkworms, the garlicky aroma not quite persuasive enough

By Meera Dattani
Published 7 May 2013, 11:00 BST, Updated 30 Jun 2021, 13:37 BST

Siem Reap's biggest street food hang-out isn't widely known to tourists, but this crowded nightly roadside market is where the locals go. And where anything goes — from fried chicken and whole catfish to blood cake wrapped in intestines and unfertilised duck embryos.

I'm with Deborah Saunders, an Australian who calls Cambodia home and runs The RiverGarden Hotel Siem Reap. Her latest venture is guided street food tours. "It can look daunting," she says, as we hop into a tuk-tuk. "It's hard to know what's what, so I hope people will feel more confident."

The tour begins at the smaller Psar Wat Po market, where we gorge on hot-off-the-griddle coconut waffles, freshly made from glutinous rice flour, coconut milk and shredded coconut. Washing them down with her neighbouring vendor's iced sugarcane juice. I realise this is just the warm-up. Minutes later, we're onto crispy shrimp cakes, sprinkled with lime, salt and Kampot pepper. From Kampot in the south, it's one of the highest grades of pepper in the world.

We hotfoot it to Siem Reap's largest wholesale market to try "the best nom kachay in Siem Reap," according to Deborah. Certainly, these deep-fried chive patties are tasty enough to eat three in a row. Around us, the aroma of just-baked baguettes (a legacy from the days of French occupation) is intoxicating. The Khmer people still love bread, often filling baguettes with pork or terrine. The French also left them ice cream, crepes and coffee — an impressive gastronomic inheritance.

For sweet-toothed foodies, there are deep-fried crispy bananas, lurid pink-and-green rice cakes and sticky palm-sugar toffee cakes. The smiling roti man whips up banana and chocolate pancakes for under a dollar and the tinkle of the ice cream man and boombox of the peanut nougat seller signal more sugary wares. Apparently, diabetes is common, even among the slimmest Cambodians.

Most memorable is the locals' roadside market. We walk past chickens split in half, stuffed frogs, snails on sticks and fried spiders. There are hearts, livers, gizzards, intestines, wing tips, duck embryos with lime, chilli and salt, and barbecued duck necks. If any body parts are discarded, it's hard to work out which. "It's a cuisine borne of starvation," says Deborah. "They ate whatever they found — bugs, rats, snakes, dog…"

Meanwhile, the silkworm vendor's friend gestures to her own bucket of water beetles and cicadas. Politely backing away, I join my group for sticky rice — smoked and served in bamboo — and just-grilled banana leaf parcels filled with prahok fish sauce, lemongrass, garlic, chilli and coriander.

It's some feast. We share fresh lotus flower heads, chewy white sweetcorn and green mango with sugar, salt and chilli. We buy wacky-looking dragonfruit, spiky pink rambutan and infamously stinky durian, as if collecting pieces of surrealist art. The fruit is delicious, although the durian is passed around like a bomb. I try it. It tastes of leeks, blue cheese and a hint of feet. Maybe the silkworms wouldn't have been so bad after all.

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