Crispy spiders, insects fried in garlic and spices, stuffed frogs and barbecued snakes. These were just a few of the snacks being sold along the streets of Cambodia.
Some people might feel squeamish about eating assorted insects, arachnids and small reptiles, which are widely sold as street food in Asian countries like Cambodia. A diet perhaps born out of necessity during their years of hardship, now these remain a staple in the local cuisine, as well as a tourist draw for foreign travelers. Eating exotic food was at the top of my list of things to do here, so we made sure to try a sample some on the nights we ate out after visiting temples.
The most famous of Cambodia’s street food is the deep fried tarantula. I got to play with one of the live arachnids in one of the food stalls during a bus ride from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap. There was a weird tickling sensation as the furry legs crawled on my arm and tried to go up my neck. Despite being fried, the crispy tarantulas still looked unmistakably like a spider with all the protruding legs. You get a crunchy texture and a subtle seafood taste. If you can get past the fact that it’s a spider, it’s not that bad. It actually tasted a bit like crispy crablet to me. (Sorry, PETA!)
The silkworm grubs tasted like a cross between chickpeas and slightly foul shrimp. There was a slight crunch at first bite, than just a burst of juices and a wormy aftertaste in my mouth. Though we purchased a plastic bag of the grubs for a dollar, I couldn’t bring myself to eat the rest after popping a few pieces in my mouth. It didn’t help that some of the grubs had already burst, so picking up one involved getting a coasting of sticky bug juices all over your fingers.
I regret that I chickened out eating the barbecued snake. I’ve tried grilled eels before with no problem. If it was disguised a bit, I might have tried it, but these just looked too snakey all coiled on the skewer with the scales and lines of the underbelly still visible. There were also large river beetles and insects that looked too similar to cockroaches to look even the least bit bit appetizing.
Aside from street food, some restaurants along Pub Street also offer exotic delights like meat in frog stew or crocodile meat served on pizzas, burgers, pastas or just plain grilled.
Anyway, if exotic food isn’t your thing, there’s plenty of “safe” food to eat in Cambodia. In terms of flavor, Cambodian cuisine is more subtle compared to the traditional dishes of neighboring Asian Countries. Traditional Khmer dishes are more delicately spiced and are rarely spicy hot. We got our fill of Khmer dishes during the complimentary breakfasts at our different guesthouse and lunch while biking around Angkor Archaeological Park.
For breakfast there was usually a choice of noodle soup called kui-teo, a mild broth with meat and vegetables or french bread and scrambled egg. Lunch was usually a variation of fried noodles or fried rice with meat and vegetables. Other Khmer dishes we tried out were Lok Lak, a meat dish served with rice and egg (similar to our tapsilog) and amok curry, a yellow curry with coconut and fish cooked and served in fresh coconut. You can get these dishes in most eateries around Siem Reap and Phnom Penh.
We were also guzzling down fruit shakes like there was no tomorrow. The combination of fresh fruits, condensed milk and crushed ice was just heavenly. Most places sell shakes (with tropical flavors like dragon fruit, mango, watermelon, avocado and coconut) for $1 each. This stall in Pub Street had some of the best shakes we’ve tried. Number 14 looks a little questionable though 😉
The best places to eat were the Old Market and Pub Street area, where you can sample a range of food from inexpensive local fare to upscale fine dining. Here are a few of my top picks of where to eat.
ANGKOR WHAT? BAR
The very first bar on Pub Street, which has been “promoting irresponsible drinking since 1998”. They don’t serve food here, but prices for beer and other alcoholic beverages are reasonable. Very popular hangout so it can get crowded at night. We didn’t actually get to drink here since they were really crowded most nights we passed by, but it looked like a fun hangout especially for big groups. I like the glow in the dark graffiti they have decorating the whole space.
Three words. Tomb Raider cocktail. This establishment serves a cocktail in honor of Angelina Jolie, who filmed Tomb Raider in Cambodia. Every 10th person who orders this gets in on the house, while every 500th person who orders it gets a free t-shirt and $100 in cash (pretty good deal).
It’s one of the more popular restaurants in town, with interiors decorated in an eclectic fusion of modern and traditional Cambodian decor. They serve Western fare including pastas, steaks and Asian dishes. Extensive Belgian beers and cocktails. Their steak (which can be shared by 2) was pretty good. Price range: $3.75 for the Tomb Raider cocktail, $6 for steak.
The Yellow Sub is a four-story building filled with Beatles memorabilia from old records, figurines, playing cards, and copies of records. Burgers here are named after members of The Beatles and some significant others. We ate both John Lennon and Paul McCartney. Couldn’t resist. They also serve a few Cambodian dishes. The Yellow Sub is hiddden in an alley in a building complex (not on the main Pub Street), so it doesn’t get as crowded. Very nice roofdeck at the top floor. Price range: $6 for burgers, $1 for draft beer
BBQ and KHMER FOOD LOVER
A street side barbecue joint that serves kebabs, grilled seafood, grilled meat and cheap beer. Though I wanted to sample as many restaurants during our stay, we ended up eating here twice because the food was really good. Tried the grilled beef, pork ribs and kebabs. All good. Ordered a pitcher of draft to make the meal last longer. Price range: $1.25 for kebabs, $3 for grilled beef and pork, $3 for a pitcher/jar of draft beer
HAPPY HERB PIZZA
A famous pizza/pasta joint in Phnom Penh (where we tried it), though there is a branch in Pub Street. Happy Herb Pizza serves tasty wood-fired pizzas including the classics like pepperoni and margherita as well as Cambodian Pizzas (with egg). Other pizza joints up the ante by calling themselves “Happy Special Pizza” and Ecstatic Pizza” (why just be happy when you can be ecstatic?) Price range: $7 for pizzas, $0.50 for draft beer.
THE BLUE PUMPKIN
A cozy cafe with several branches around Siem Reap and Phnom Penh that serves salads, sandwiches and Asian fare. They are best known for their ice cream which comes in traditional and tropical flavors. Aside from the usual Rocky Road, Mango and Dark Chocolate, they have flavors like Passionfruit, Green Lemon and Kaffir Lime, Ginger and Black Sesame Nougatine, and Cinammon & Speculoos. If you missed it in the old market in Pub Street, you can try it out in their branch at the airport, though prices are slightly more expensive. Price range: $1.50/scoop of ice cream
A biker-themed bar on Pub Street, with a Harley Davidson prominently displayed and lots of beer quotes and road signs. They serve a good selection of German beers aside from the local brew. Like most bars, the food takes a back seat to the beers. Stick to the bar chow instead of the main meals when you stop for a drink or two. Price range: $4 for German beers, $3 for Pad Thai
What is food without beer? Will be writing a separate beer review of all the Cambodian beers we sampled during our trip.