Our Foray into Street Food

To round out our first week in Phnom Penh we took a plunge into some serious street food.

Staying on Riverside it was hard to find street stalls, except for the ones selling spiders, roaches, and scorpions. Unwilling to be novelty tourists we stuck to restaurants, but at $5 per meal, our budget wasn't going to last long if we lived on fish stir fries from fancy restaurants.

Moving a little closer to Central Market we found ourselves in a street community inhabited by local Khmers, a nice change from the expats and touts. The street food smells leave a trail down the street, exciting our appetite at every corner.

But what to choose? We're savvy enough to know not to sit down in front of an empty vendor. It's much safer to find one that is busy, customers vouching for the quality and hygiene of a place just by eating there.

So on the way back from a morning at the markets, Lee and I found a corner stall selling soup. We scanned what the locals were eating and discerned two types - one with rice noodles and one with ramen style noodles. The soup itself looked similar but there were a range of condiments on the tables, from the recognisable to the obscure, that people were adding to taste.

Kuy Teav on a Cambodian Street Corner. Photo © Lee Nutter.

Holding up two fingers and indicating towards the rice noodle dish, we clumsily ordered our lunch.

Watching the lady prepare the food we could see the fresh ingredients and swift processes that keep it clean, hot, and hygienic. Cooked and served within a matter of moments, we felt reassured that our noodle soup was a good choice, following advice from others,

"The safest street foods are those that are cooked in front of you and served hot, which kills off bacteria."

Later research revealed that our soup was what is known as "kuy teav", a common street dish that locals even eat for breakfast. The bone broth was nourishing and delicious, and was matched perfectly with the crunchy bean sprouts and mint leaves. Although some of the meat looked curious it was all tender and hot, our taste buds treated to pork, beef, fish balls, and even a trotter, each flavour adding to the synergy of the entire dish. All to the tune of $1.50 each!

We retired to our hotel for the afternoon, escaping the rain and heat. As dinner time rolled around the lure of the street was too hard to resist. We strolled the wet roads and lanes and scoped out our next stop. Less noodles stalls at this hour, and the rain had already extinguished the BBQ meat stands. Around a corner we see a Nompang stall serving several customers on tiny plastic stools under branded umbrellas.

I have done a lot of reading about Nompang, the Cambodian equivalent of Banh Mi, one our favourite dishes from Vietnam and a frequent lunch in Sydney. People have mixed reviews about Nompang. Some suggesting they are too heavy on the meat, and lack a lot of the fresh textures that you find in a Banh Mi. By nature it is a processed meat product and this turns many people away too.

But this stall was busy and the locals looked welcoming, and at 6000 Riel it was an offer we couldn't refuse!

The serving lady checked if we wanted a whole baguette or half. Unsure of what a regular serving was we said whole, and were served one each, cut in half. Each baguette was spread with pate, and filled with pieces of processed white meat, most likely chicken. We were given a side plate with a slaw of spiralled carrots and cabbage oozing with vinegar. A few slices of cucumber and some spring onions, and the option of soy or chilli sauces rounded out the dish.

We alerted the attention of the stall owners as we added the oily chilli paste to our sandwiches. Thankfully Lee and I are well versed on spice, and it was more fragrant than overpowering. The ladies copied our thumbs up gesture and it was smiles all round as we gave them the seal of approval.

Unlike most of the reviews we'd read online our Nompang was very well balanced in terms of meat and vegetables. The bun could have been a little softer but that's just our own taste, but to us everything else was on the money.

The only thing missing from our evening was a few beers. Rather than head to one of the many western style "Marts" we followed our intuition to a local store, marked only by cigarettes and slabs of drink at the door.

"Sues-Day" we said to greet the elderly lady behind the counter.

Lee asked, "Do you have beer?" but this was met with a confused glance. We studied the slabs, stacked in precarious piles around the walls, but only spotted Coke and soft drinks. "Beer? Angkor?" Lee persisted.

A young man poked his head over the side of the loft. His English was a little better, but the elderly lady was keen to complete the transaction on her own. He relayed to her what we were after and then made his way downstairs as she dug through the fridge, emerging with a smile as she revealed one can of Angkor.

"Just one?" the man asked. "Six please" Lee said, inspiring me to remember my only decent Khmer so far, "bram muay".

The lady continued to dig around in the back of the fridge for six cans as the man offered a price, 2500 Riel per can.

The next few minutes resulted in a hilarious exchange as Lee and I attempted to mix currencies to reach the right price while the elderly lady and the man had their own debate about the best way to add up the notes.

The initial conversion of dollars to Riel is relatively simple, 4000 Riel is $1USD. Therefore each can of beer cost about 65 cents. A fair price, but we also felt we owed the couple a tip for assisting us in finding the right amount using an assortment of Riel and USD.

If you were wondering, we woke up this morning and do not have food poisoning, just deep gratitude to the locals that offered such generosity and patience last night.

A deep bow "aokun".

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