Cambodians like food. They like to make great food (in my opinion, even better than that of their Thai and Vietnamese neighbours) and they like to eat great food and lots of it!
Last weekend I got my first real taste of the Cambodian obsession with food when I was invited to join Phirum, her husband, Dina, and their friend, Kim Leang, on a trip to Kampot.
We headed off at 730am and first stop was a breakfast of noodles at a roadside cafe. No sooner had we returned to the car and buckled up than Phirum got her phone out and informed me that she was ordering lunch. Obviously, sarcastic Sara had a field day with this information and we passed the first part of the journey laughing and joking about the absurdity of thinking about lunch as soon as you’ve finished breakfast.
A comfort break an hour or so later and an opportunity to buy food from a roadside fruit stall. Bananas purchased, one was pushed into my hand and we were back in the car and on our way again munching on bananas to stave off the (absent) hunger pangs.
On arrival in Kampot our first stop was the market where, yes you guessed it, we bought food. More fruit, jack fruit and mangoes, and a special treat for me, the Cambodian version of pickled onions. I’m a huge fan of pickled onions eating them by the jar back home in the UK and had been introduced to the Cambodian version at breakfast that morning. Phirum strutted her way through the market with Kim Leang and I trotting behind her until we reached the holy grail – the pickled foods area. And there they were – a huge juicy bowl full of shiny silver skinned onions bathing in a sugar and vinegar bath. Having sampled them (Phirum and Kim Leang also sampled every other pickled item on offer dipping in more than once!)a jar of onions was purchased for me and a bagful for us to have at lunch. We headed back to the car, stopping to pick up dessert as we did, and made our way to our lunchspot – a beautiful community tourism spot a few miles out of the town.
Not long after we’d arrived and settled into our picnic spot our food arrived – a large oval plate swamped with juicy pink shrimp (prawns to us Brits), rice, papaya salad and various dips. We tucked in with relish and after a short while had made significant headway into the shrimp mountain. It was then that the fish arrived, a whole fish stuffed with lemon grass and lime leaves which had been wrapped in foil and steamed. And we devoured that too – all the while dipping in to the copious bag of pickled onions.
I declined dessert, various rice and coconut concoctions and sliced mango instead choosing to lie back and bask in the sights, smells and sounds of the Cambodian countryside as the other 3 tucked in.
Phirum had chosen the location because of the existence of a waterfall that she wanted to swim in. And after our lunch that’s what we did. Kim Leang and I plodged and perched while Phirum splashed around having the time of her life. After a while Dina joined us and we left them happily lying in the flow of the river gazing up through the leaf canopy to the blue sky above and went back to base to relax.
On their return you can guess where their attention turned. Yep that’s right – food. The leftover dessert, jackfruit and mango were recovered from the bag and tucked into with relish despite it having only been an hour since consumption of the gargantuan lunch.
Our next destination was a women’s spa in Kampot that I had been dying to try out. Phirum, Kim Leang and I headed off for a gorgeous full body massage leaving Dina patiently waiting at the cafe by the roadside. I didn’t ask him if he ate anything but chances are he did, whereas we experienced a whole 2 hours without talking about food as we were pampered like royalty.
However, within minutes of our emergence from the bliss of the spa food was on the agenda again – this time dinner. I actually forgot to mention that we had discussed dinner whilst having lunch, Phirum asking if it was ok for us to have street food and all of us muttering our consent. We headed to our guesthouse to checkin with a remit to rendezvous 15 minutes later to go get some much needed (not) food.
Dina and I decided to forgo the chosen street food of rice porridge (all too vivid memories of a bout of post porridge food poisoning whilst in China mean I very much doubt the stuff will ever pass my lips again) instead opting for nompang pate (a Cambodian french bread sandwich containing bizarre but tasty spam like meat, salad veg and pickles).
Finally sated after a day of excessive consumption we headed for bed.
meeting up the next day I casually asked what was on the agenda, to be informed that after breakfast we would head to the market to buy more onions and other food before heading to another picnic spot to eat lunch. Yep you read that right – a whole new day devoted to the purchase and consumption of food.
As it turned out we went for a slight variation to the plan by including in the day a lovely non food related visit to the train tracks. Trains in Cambodia have only recently started running again on this the only open line in the Kingdom and so we were all more than a little bit excited as we arrived at the bridge just in time to stand and watch the train pass.
On our way once more, more fruit purchasing and sampling was engaged in on the way to the picnic spot when we stopped at a roadside stall to buy freshly harvested guava (lots of discussion and sampling obviously) and also slurp the water from lovely fresh coconuts with my travelling companions also going in for the juicy flesh once the coconut was empty.
Sadly, picnic food on day 2 was not up to the standard of day one but we ate the over oily seafood fried rice and octopus and peppercorns heartily none the less whilst vociferously complaining both about the price and quality of said food. Our bumpy ride back to the town was broken up by a stop to buy bubble tea for us all (a kind of slush puppie with jelly concoction) and we made one final stop for a last visit to the market to buy yet more pickled onions, other pickled stuff for Phirum and chilli dipping sauce and incense for me (the only non food purchase of the whole trip).
Surprisingly, the journey back to Phnom Penh was bereft of food but normal service was resumed as we returned home only for Phirum to declare that it was time to start preparing dinner.
Unsurprisingly, I didn’t feel the need to prepare dinner when I returned homeand if I remember correctly breakfast the following day didn’t happen until about 11am either!
Boy can these people eat!