A Food and Market tour in Siem Reap, Cambodia

Just in time for Khmer New Year on April 14, 2015, I’ve finally got a post about Cambodia, the land of smiles. Happy New Year to the wonderfully kind, hard working and resourceful people of Cambodia!

2014 was a year for travel in Asia for my family. Three of us had already been to Japan earlier in the year, so for Christmas we took the plunge and spent a couple very adventurous weeks in Thailand and Cambodia. I had already spent time solo in Hong Kong and Bangkok and met my father in Penang, Malaysia before catching up with my mother and brother in Siem Reap. I would later continue on to southern and central Vietnam before heading home in January.

Looking for different, somewhat offbeat things to do, I looked into cooking classes and food tours for everyone while we were in the region. In Cambodia there was no shortage of great food, especially with the glut of incredible tropical fruit available and surprising number of restaurants of every type run by expats. Restaurants were cheap by Canadian standards. We didn’t do a lot of street food until we hit up the market tour I’m going to talk about below! I’m not being compensated in any way for reviewing this food tour– it just made such a positive impression on us and our trip that I want to share. Hope you enjoy!

Really friendly Khmer ladies preparing pineapple and mango fruit smoothies for us on our first day in Siem Reap. $1 USD was the going rate, and the smoothie was made from pure fruit peeled right in front of you and a little sugar syrup.
Really friendly Khmer ladies preparing pineapple and mango fruit smoothies for us on our first day in Siem Reap. $1 USD was the going rate, and the smoothie was made from pure fruit peeled right in front of you and a little sugar syrup.

Siem Reap is a tourist destination within Cambodia mostly as a result of Angkor Wat and other ancient ruins hailing from the Khmer empire being situated nearby. That isn’t to say the only thing to do in Siem Reap is play Indiana Jones and visit the awe inspiring temples! We had a couple of days in Siem Reap, so I dragged everyone out for a food tour of the local markets, led by the very knowledgeable Scottish expat and chef Steven Halcrow of Siem Reap Food Tours. I found out about the food tours he and American expat Lina Goldberg put on through Jodi at Legal Nomads, one of my favourite travel bloggers who offers food tours of her own in the Saigon, Vietnam area. It was a fantastic way to spend a morning/early afternoon, and I think the photos illustrate the experience best. Photo essay time!

Typical scene outside the market area (and frankly everywhere else in Siem Reap) - motorbikes everywhere, parked wherever their owners please.
Typical scene outside the market area (and frankly everywhere else in Siem Reap) – motorbikes everywhere, parked wherever their owners please.
Vegetables and shoes being sold side by side in the heart of the market.
Vegetables and shoes being sold side by side in the heart of the market in Siem Reap.

Women rule the roost in Cambodia’s markets. With few exceptions, the people selling food and manning the stalls were all female. The markets were a flurry of colour and activity, full of mystery vegetables, herbs, a million kinds of fish and stocking clad Khmer ladies sitting on tables with meat cleavers, cheerfully hacking away and chatting with one another.

Butchering meat to sell.
Women butchering meat to sell on their raised wooden cutting boards. It’s hot outside and the meat is not refrigerated, but it was all likely alive and moo/oink-ing earlier the same morning. These ladies are selling cuts of pork.
Another meat monger in the market perched before her cutting board.
Another meat monger in the market perched before her cutting board. As the proprietors in this photo are Muslim, the meat being sold is probably beef or lamb/mutton and not pork.
A very friendly stall operator scoops up some noodles and rice cakes for us to try.
A very friendly stall operator scoops up some noodles and green onion pancakes for us to try.
Yum!
Yum!

For a very reasonable fee (currently $65 USD/person), Steven spent several hours with my parents and I jumping in and out of a tuktuk, guiding us to various food stands in the city as well as two separate markets frequented by locals. He was a wealth of information not just on the food we were eating, but on daily life for Khmer and expat alike in Siem Reap.

Stalls at the markets were jam packed with merchandise, whether fresh or packaged. Not an inch of free space wasted.
Stalls at the markets were jam packed with merchandise, whether fresh or packaged. Not an inch of free space wasted.

As we strolled, Steven stopped us frequently to explain what we were looking at.

Towers upon towers of smoked, cured fish were a common sight in the market. The availability and high cost of refrigeration renders fermentation and smoking a necessity in sweltering Cambodia.
Towers upon towers of smoked, cured fish were a common sight in the market. The availability and high cost of refrigeration renders fermentation and smoking a necessity in sweltering Cambodia.
Selling fish with a smile!
Selling fish with a smile!
Salted and cured cockles being dried in the sun. Our guide suggested these were not worth taking the risk to eat. Bad shellfish are a very bad time.
Salted and cured cockles being dried in the sun. Our guide suggested these were not worth taking the risk to eat. Spoiled shellfish are a very bad time. I’ll take his word for it.
Mmm, squid-y squid. Calamari anyone?
Mmm, squid-y squid. Calamari anyone?
Perhaps you'd prefer the dried variety? Squid-y squid-y squid.
Perhaps you’d prefer the dried variety? Squid-y squid-y squid.
Dried (but not cured) beef sausage and dried fish hang from the roof in the market. Steven explained that because of how it is made, Khmer sausage doesn't quite taste like Western sausage.
Dried (but not cured) beef sausage and dried fish hang from the roof in the market. Steven explained that because of how it is made, Khmer sausage doesn’t quite taste like Western sausage.
Fish jerky! Maybe.
Fish jerky! Maybe.

Occasionally Steven would chat in impressively good Khmer with the ladies running a stall, asking if we could have a taste of what was being offered. I remember an incredible lattice noodle dish in particular that came with fresh greens, herbs, ground peanuts and a delicious fish sauce. As Mum and I shared a bowl, the lady running the stall helped correct Steven’s Khmer, explaining how to say ask for something properly.

Lattice noodles, fermented fish, herbs, greens and fish sauce. Delicious.
Lattice noodles, fermented fish, herbs, greens and fish sauce. Delicious.
The strange custard apple! Steven bought one of these for us to try during a tuktuk ride. It was very soft and had a delicate, creamy pear-like flavour.
The strange custard apple! Steven bought one of these for us to try during a tuktuk ride. It was very soft and had a delicate, creamy pear-like flavour.

He mentioned that he had been studying the language for some time, but I was full of admiration for his skill with such a different language than English. The Khmer script is very different from the Latin alphabet we’re used to in much of the West, not to mention the sound of the language.

Ladies selling peeled Jackfruit and a few other things in the market.
Ladies selling peeled Jackfruit (center), kumquats (little oranges) and a few greens in the market.
Different fruits on display.
Different fruits on display. The brown pods in the middle are tamarind fruit, an important ingredient in most S.E. Asian cooking – not just Cambodian! A cooking instructor I met previously in Bangkok referred to tamarind as “Thai vinegar”. I’m pretty sure the fruit on the left is green mango and on the right, despite the green rind, oranges.
Various oils for sale, secured in plastic bags like fish from a pet store!
Various oils for sale, secured in plastic bags like fish from a pet store!
Steven demonstrating the viscosity of palm sugar, sold bulk from buckets.
Steven demonstrating the viscosity of palm sugar, sold in bulk from buckets.
The chickens were pretty interesting... Never figured out why they were so yellow.
The chickens were pretty interesting… I forgot to ask why they were so yellow.

The marketplace is the heartbeat of Cambodian life. People shop, earn their money, eat and live in the narrow walkways and at the tiny kids tables with plastic stools. Plastic stools should be a siren to any serious street food enthusiast. That’s where the locals are.

Shop and grab a bite at the same time!
Shop and grab a bite at the same time!

I found out when I asked how the prime spots to sell were divvied out that many people simply set up shop in the narrow alleys and streets in front of where they live.

Oodles of noodles and beansprouts!
Oodles of noodles and beansprouts!
I was consistently impressed by the beauty of the peeled mini-pineapples. Potentially the most delicious Fibonacci fruit out there. This lady has some lemongrass for sale as well, something else I learned to love in Cambodia.
I was consistently impressed by the beauty of the peeled mini-pineapples. Potentially the most delicious Fibonacci fruit out there.
Eggs for sale!
Eggs for sale! Granny is looking a little shifty on the right there.

We stopped for some congee (the savory Asian equivalent to our oat based porridge back home in Canada) at one stall close to where some residences were popping up along the market route.

Savory congee dish. Takes some getting used to if you're not accustomed to eating organ meats (like chicken liver). It tastes a bit like chicken soup. Congee is essentially overcooked, watery rice turned into a porridge with whatever savory additions you want to add. I ate something similar from a street vendor in Bangkok earlier in the trip.
Savory congee dish. Takes some getting used to if you’re not accustomed to eating organ meats (like chicken liver). It tastes a bit like chicken soup. Congee is essentially overcooked, watery rice turned into a porridge with whatever savory additions you want to add. I ate something similar from a street vendor in Bangkok earlier in the trip.

A charming little boy entertained us while his mum made our congee. Steven got him to pose for a picture with him. He couldn’t have been more than 4 years old and already had really rotten out teeth. I felt badly that medical and dental care wasn’t within the reach of this little boy and his family. It is easy to take our access to healthcare for granted. He was sure a happy kid, though.

Steven with our cheerful little friend.
Steven with our cheerful little friend.
These kids were set up nearby, taking a break from peeling scales off fish for sale at their market stall.
These kids were set up nearby, taking a break from peeling scales off fish for sale at their market stall.

The hardest thing to get used to besides the wealth of strange meat everywhere was the lack of refrigeration, especially of cooked meat. It’s something I noticed to be quite common across S.E. Asia – street meat is cooked for consumption and then kept in non-refrigerated containers (think plexiglass boxes or a fish tank, often not covered). This is not so much a judgement as an observation of how important it is in terms of food safety to eat at a place with high turnover so the cooked meat isn’t sitting out all day. Raw meat being out on the sun and heat with flies around is less of an issue because it will still be cooked later, killing any pathogens that have found a cozy spot to hang out.

The first dish of the day featured meat (I believe it was beef) stored in a plexiglass box. It was early enough in the day that I wasn't too worried.
The first dish of the day featured meat (I believe it was beef) stored in a plexiglass box. It was early enough in the day that I wasn’t too worried about it being spoiled, but I’d think twice in the afternoon. The soup was tasty too.

As mentioned previously, fermentation and salting, smoking and/or curing meat is commonplace in Cambodia due to the high cost of refrigeration. It’s also what Cambodians have been doing for years, so it’s a cultural thing that much of the food contains something fermented. Fermentation can result in big flavour! One of the most important ingredients is fermented fish paste, which shows up in pretty well everything. It is sold in bulk from big buckets in the market, and you can smell it as you approach. Steven explained how it’s made, adding more and more fish and simply stirring the bucket over days until the fish has lost its integrity and begins breaking down into a paste. I believe the Cambodians call it Prahok.

Buckets of fish paste. I put on a brave face and had a taste. It is actually quite flavourful and tasty, but I couldn't convince anyone else to try it. Very salty with that Umami flavour you expect from a soy sauce but more intense.
Buckets of fish paste (Prahok). I put on a brave face and had a taste. It is actually quite flavourful and tasty, but I couldn’t convince anyone else to try it. Prahok is very salty, and has a umami flavour you’d expect from a soy sauce but much more intense.  
Easily one of the weirdest foods we encountered in the market- bags of crunch ants. There were plenty of insects for sale in the streets of Siem Reap, some with signs insisting a purchase be made before photos are allowed!
Easily one of the weirdest foods we encountered in the market- bags of crunch ants. There were plenty of insects for sale in the streets of Siem Reap, some with signs insisting a purchase be made before photos are allowed!

While we’re on the subject of taking gastronomic risks, I did get violently ill in Siem Reap. I am almost certain it was due to water borne illness, however, and not one of the many “weird” foods I sampled at the market. While Steven was explaining something further ahead, I stopped and bought a fateful baggie of sugarcane juice.

The likely culprit... bagged sugarcane juice with chipped ice.
The likely culprit… bagged sugarcane juice with chipped ice.

The juice had chipped ice in it, which Steven explained when I caught up was usually a bad idea. Of course, being invincible as I am, I had already had more than a sip and drank it all anyway. Chipped ice could come from any source and in Cambodia, it is important to make sure you’re consuming ice that has been manufactured from safe drinking water. Cubed or nothing – the shape should be uniform. I’m pretty sure I paid the price for that mistake and I only have myself to blame for it… No one else got sick in Cambodia but me, which really points to the chipped ice. After about two days in bed and a lot of Gatorade I was reasonably alright again, if a little green tinged. Certainly I was much more educated about making smart choices with drinks in the future.

Before the end of the tour, Steven instructed our tuktuk driver to take us on a quick trip to the countryside just beyond the reach of Siem Reap’s city limits.

Heading just outside the Siem Reap "city limits" to visit a local family.
Heading just outside the Siem Reap “city limits” to visit a local family.
Beautiful countryside with those characteristic palm trees you see in photos of Angkor Wat.
Beautiful countryside with those characteristic palm trees you see in photos of Angkor Wat.
Overloaded motorbikes are a common sight. Next to no one owns a car in Siem Reap, but there are hundreds of cheap, Chinese made motorbikes, often carrying 3 or more passengers!
Overloaded motorbikes are a common sight. Next to no one owns a car in Siem Reap, but there are hundreds of cheap, Chinese made motorbikes, often carrying 3 or more passengers!
We whizzed by workers in their fields as we putted along in our motorbike powered tuktuk. It was a dusty ride, like most rides in Cambodia.
We whizzed by workers in their fields as we putted along in our motorbike powered tuktuk. It was a dusty ride, like most rides in Cambodia.

We were lucky enough to meet with a Khmer family living in a house just outside of town. The whole family was busy making rice noodles, manually. The lever and hammer system they had set up to pound rice into a dough to make fresh noodles was both ingenious and eye opening.

The human powered lever and hammer system this entire family was using to pound rice into dough to make fresh noodles.
The human powered lever and hammer system this entire family was using to pound rice into dough to make fresh noodles.
The woman pictured arranged the dough between successive hammerings to make sure it was kneaded evenly. Not for the feint of heart! The hammer packed a lot of force.
The woman pictured arranged the dough between successive hammerings to make sure it was kneaded evenly. Not for the feint of heart! The hammer packed a lot of force.
Down goes the rice hammer!
Down goes the rice hammer!

Rice noodles are worth pennies back home and come in machine made packets as one of the cheapest foods available in an ethnic supermarket. This family was surviving on the noodles they made, probably among other things. Steven bought a little extra food in the market while we wandered and left it with the family as a gift for allowing us to come by. Their working relationship seems to be mutually beneficial, and I didn’t feel like we were exploiting anyone by paying a visit. During the windy tuktuk ride on the way there, he explained that families that owned their own houses and land like this one were doing really well. Like anywhere else, wealth is relative.

The family's home was raised on stilts, with a couple hammocks hanging from the support beams.
The family’s home was raised on stilts, with a couple hammocks hanging from the support beams.

With a final quick bite and a coconut to drink (and a nice, cold Angkor beer for Dad) it was time to head back to town. Once there, we were treated to one last dish at a place across the street from what would become our favourite massage spa in Siem Reap, Lemongrass. Off topic, but ~$20 USD for the best 90 minute massage of your life? Yes please. We returned 3 days in a row. I’ve had a couple of massages since returning to Canada and nothing even remotely compares to the Khmer massages there. Another great recommendation from Steven!

Our last dish; a sort of chili scooped onto raw vegetables (cucumber, green beans and eggplant). A little spicy and really tasty.
Our last dish; a sort of beef chili scooped onto raw vegetables (cucumber, green beans, green tomato and eggplant). A little spicy and really tasty.

I highly recommend making time for a Siem Reap Food Tour if you visit this part of Cambodia. It really diversified our holiday experience and took us to places we would never have seen or experienced without the tour. The tour is an authentic, comfortable way to see what real life looks like in Cambodia, and manages to get the traveler out of his or her comfort zone without making them feel like a stranger intruding on the exceptionally unfamiliar. Despite different tolerances for new food (and maybe being around so much butchered meat!), we all got something out of doing this tour. Food is an exceptionally good medium for getting to know a place. We all need to eat, and food can bring us together.

I look forward to making it back to the incredible Kingdom of Cambodia, the land of smiles – but maybe next time I’ll take a pass on the chipped ice and sugarcane juice and opt for a nice $1 Anchor beer instead.

Cheers.
Cheers.

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