It’s been mentioned in many other posts and blogs about Cambodia that the cost of food is really cheap over there. And that’s true. Whether you buy fresh produce at the local markets or you dine in one of the many fantastic restaurants the price you pay is much cheaper than food in more developed parts of the world.
But what is it actually like?
Pretty damn good! If you stick to a few basic rules, that is.
Firstly, it’s important to remember that food safety is very much a First World concern. In Cambodian markets you’ll see raw meat that’s been sitting uncovered on display in the open air. It’s often long past its prime and has even become dangerous.
The trick here is to make sure you get up early and shop around dawn. This is when the freshest meat is brought to market by farmers. You get the choicest cuts and it’s the coolest time of the day which is important to consider when there’s no refrigeration.
Other fresh produce is pretty safe. Fruits and vegetables are fairly hardy but they don’t sit around very long in the local markets. Most of the supply is bought within a few hours of arrival and regular deliveries by farmers throughout the day ensures displays are restocked frequently.
And the colours are fantastic! Bright green limes, deep red capsicums or bell peppers, chillies, yellow bananas, red hairy rambutans, mangoes that are bright yellow like the sun and others that are bright green, tomatoes, baby eggplant, lettuce – it’s like an explosion of colour! I love going to the market just to take photos of the tempting produce on display. It’s like a mini mardi gras.
The markets are often the central hub of local villages. Everybody visits each day to buy fresh food, update their wardrobe, meet friends, and gossip about someone else’s life. All cultures and people seem to be similar in this respect.
In the cities the markets have grown to enormous and crowded undercover trading venues where you can buy almost anything. Food is only the start of the adventure! Pots, pans, cooking utensils, hammocks, beds, sheets, curtains, silk, cotton, even tailors who can sew up a suit from the new material you just bought!
Wandering through local markets is a wonderfully eye opening activity that really shows you how the locals live. But, consider yourself warned, don’t venture into the seafood section! The smell can be so vile that unsuspecting tourists have had to run for the relief of fresh air or risk losing their breakfast.
So what about the end result? What if you don’t want to cook? Where can you find a great meal?
Luckily, there are numerous cooks and chefs throughout Cambodia. Many of them have established their own restaurants, cafés, or takeaway stalls. You’re pretty much spoilt for choice in Siem Reap or Phnom Penh when it comes to food.
The foodie scene throughout South East Asia has followed in the footsteps of the rest of the world to become an important part of tourism for the local economies. By attracting tourists who want to eat well, local businesses expand and offer more jobs which allows families to increase their standard of living. This, in turn, leads to more businesses and more restaurants and greater competition which drives higher quality.
A few years ago high quality restaurants simply didn’t exist. Today, there are a handful of really top quality establishments in Siem Reap that wouldn’t be out of place in London, New York, or Melbourne.
Consequently, the rest of the restaurant movement has had to increase their quality just to remain in the game. Which is a fantastic outcome for tourists, locals, and everyone connected to the food industry.
Now, you can easily find some of the best Cambodian food almost anywhere. I find it useful to judge a restaurant’s reputation on their ability to create a particular dish from the region. In Cambodia I always try to compare a traditional food called fish amok. It’s a mild curry that doesn’t have even a hint of sharpness to it. Made from lemongrass, garlic, galangal, and a delicate mix of other herbs and spices, when made correctly, fish amok is simply one of the best meals you’ll ever have. Anywhere. EVER!
Here’s a quick rundown of my favourite restaurants that serve authentic Cambodian cuisine and each has their own take on the fabulous fish amok: