Culture and local flavors

A country’s culture is often displayed in their cuisine, especially that found among the locals. What better way to experience a country than through the local food?

In Cambodia, every road is lined with mom & pop shops. Some are selling gasoline in recycled plastic soda bottles (now you know where your recyclables go). Others may provide laundry service where cleaning dirty laundry is priced by the kilo. The going rate is $1/kilo (clean, dried and folded), which is cheaper than a scoop of laundry detergent. 

Most of these road side stands specialize in local foods. Some provide a dining option with small blue or red plastic seats (think preschool classroom) and a large umbrella, while others are set up for take-away. This is akin to our fast food (e.g., McDonalds’) “drive through”, best suited for motorbikes.  (Keep in mind, most Cambodians travel by motorbike.) Often there are 3-4 people on a bike, making storage for a picnic lunch nearly impossible, and getting off the bike for a quick pickup makes the cramped seating a little more bearable.

For us in the US, this is a very different experience, full of surprises.

Small chickens with tails?

Many stands serve grilled chicken or whole fish, grilled very flat in a large, paperclip type contraption. The contraption looks like a prison where the animal was probably stored until ready for cooking. I’m pretty sure there is no escape for them. Hungry, Ale’ picked a roadside stand for a chicken skewer.  As we got closer we noticed these were no ordinary chickens. They were small and they had tails. They were RATs! We decided to go hungry. Ale’ winked on the way back to the car.

Jeff overcoming his fear of Rats.

Now that you have experienced the rat ordeal, here are some delicacies(?) that are unfamiliar to us less open-minded Americans. See if you recognize these.

A large vat of steaming calamari, looked great. Both Jeff and took photos of this and were contemplating a sample, until we were informed it was “cow eyes”.  Upon our utter disbelief, we were quickly corrected. The vendor with imperceptibly better English said, “Cow insides”.

Cow eyes really scared me. On the other hand, so did cow insides!

Do you recognize these?

Hard to tell, but these are tiny deep fried frogs (not legs, the whole frog). Its the legs that are sticking out all over.

My swamp friends, frogs, deep fried. These are eaten whole as they are too tiny to make it worthwhile to dine on just the legs.

Check out this man and his homemade “food truck” from a night market!

Not quite sure what kind of sedan this use to be, but it does look good as a food truck.

Here’s an easy one, but did you know they came in traffic light colors?  If a banana stand had just green bananas, it was obvious what to do.

Green, Yellow and Red bananas. The red ones were especially tasty.

Cruising between Siem Reap and Battambang, I kept seeing pockets of large pink flowers in ponds – lilies I asked? Can we photograph them? Sure thing. While Jeff and I were shooting the flowers, we noticed our driver in the swampy field picking the dead flowers.  We thought he was helping us take a better flower photo by doing some pruning.  Instead, he was picking a roadside treat for us. Little did we know that lotus blossoms have a tasty fruit.

Lotus Blossom Flower – stunning in a sea of huge green leaves.

The fruit is about the size of a hazelnut and tasted something between a hazelnut and a chickpea with a hint of sweetness. 

Jeff, breaking open the fruit and then peeling the pods for the fruit.

Any ideas on this one:

Percussion instruments? Much better, sticky rice!

I kept seeing sticks in baskets. They were too big for straws, maybe percussion instruments?  Nope, wrong again, it was bamboo with sticky rice inside. Would I like to try it? This sounded safe, so why not? 

Sophal demonstrating how to peel the bamboo to reach the sticky rice. Ale’ looks on from behind.

Our driver, Saphol, was kind enough to open up the bamboo holder – peeling it until it looked like a flower with the middle being a sausage of sticky rice mixed with fresh shredded coconut and black beans.  How they got the concoction into the bamboo tube is one another of life’s mysteries, but they were tasty enough to go for a second.

Did you know that this popular health food drink had it’s origins in Cambodia?  Almost any roadside stand has a chopping block. It looked like a beheading station for chickens. Luckily for them (and us) the owner wields the large axe-sized knife on a coconut, bringing you fresh coconut juice. Thirsty? Jeff certainly was as he had many. 

Most popular natural drink? Yummy, but has some side effects!

This market stand won the prize. How many delicacies can you identify? Just because it isn’t in the photo, doesn’t mean it wasn’t available.

Bug stand at night market. Locusts on the left, scorpions on the right, tarantulas in black in back.

This stand had all the creepy crawlies you can imagine (larvae, beetles, roaches, locusts, crickets, etc.). We briefly pondered if they may be gluten free, but decided not to risk it as we learned they may be deep fried with other glutinous items. Too bad, as we later learned that the tarantula bodies taste like chicken liver and the bigger they are, the better they taste. Tarantula pate’ anyone?

It may not be the most sanitary, but it tastes so good we didn’t care.

Our favorite delicacy from our last visit, only offered in a small section of road between two of the more remote temples, is that of palm tree sugar. The locals cook down the sap of the Sugar Palm fruit in a large wok like pan until it thickens (similar to the making of maple syrup in the northeast), then the mixture is kneaded with a wooden stick until it is hard. We are offered samples of palm sugar that has been kneaded into candy. We can purchase the palm sugar as granulated sugar, butter, or candy. We chose the candy.

We enjoyed these so much last year, that this time we bought 10 times as much. Was it worth the extra luggage charge for overweight luggage? You betcha! (Good thing we put them in the checked luggage, otherwise they may not have lasted the 13 hour flight).  If you live locally, stop by the house to try some, but hurry, they won’t last long.

Remember, it’s all about the light and the local experience!