The Joy of Eating, part one

When you run into a Cambodian you know on the road or talk to one on the phone, they are likely going to ask you if you’ve eaten yet. But they won’t ask you, “Have you eaten yet?” or “Have you had lunch yet?” They will ask, “Have you eaten rice yet?”

When the K4s first arrived in Kampuchea, I recall many of them having a hard time adjusting to the food. Although they were all adventurous about trying new things, many of them were not taking kindly to eating rice for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I, myself, found the food delicious and entirely edible. Although much of the flavors were new to me, the ingredients were mostly familiar.

Six months later I am not so exuberant about eating rice every day, more or less three times a day. How Cambodians do it, I’m not sure. I guess when I think about it, I know an awful lot of people back home who eat the same things day in and day out, but I just can’t do it. I am craving things I can’t have unless I go to “the Big City” and pay an arm and a leg at a “Western” restaurant or supermarket: pasta, hummus, mashed potatoes, sushi, chocolate (GOOD chocolate), enchiladas, s’mores, crab rangoon, honey, Orangina, strawberries, poptarts, grilled cheese, cereal and MILK… Then there’s other things I’ve had weird cravings for lately (must be that time of the month) that simple don’t exist in Cambodia: Twizzlers, COCO Wheats, asparagus, Zebra Cakes… Hmm, one of those things is not like the others. Anyway.

On the other hand, there are countless foods here that when I return to the States, I’m not sure how I’ll cope without them! Before I get to them, though, here is a general idea of what Cambodians eat on a daily basis…
Breakfast: With rice: strips of pork or chicken with sliced cucumbers, often served with a side of pickled vegetables, a fried egg, and a small bowl of seasoned soup. Bo bo is rice porridge, and by itself it tastes like gruel (pray you don’t get sick because this is what they will feed you, which in my case did not revive my appetite), but served with green onions, bean sprouts, taro, and chicken, is very tasty and filling (and typically super cheap).
Without rice: mee cha are yellow noodles stir-fried with green onions and usually a green leafy vegetable, served with a sauce that is so delicious it can’t be good for you. Guoy Deuy is another kind of noodle, usually served in a soup with bean sprouts and beef. Plain mee, which is basically just ramen, is also popular.

Lunch: With rice: There are too many dishes to list, so I’ll just describe some of my favourites. Cha L’pao is fried pumpkin, and, if they can be had, the flower and vines of the pumpkin plant are fried along with it, too. Generally anything involving pumpkin in Cambodia is delightful, but the fried pumpkin greens are just plain awesome. An omelet with chives (maybe they’re chives?) with a salty fish sauce on the side is a pretty common lunch dish. Fried trah guon (a green tube-like vegetable) in a brown sauce is yummy. Somlah (soup you eat with rice) has many varieties, and I quite enjoy one with a popular white root vegetable that resembles a carrot, chicken, celery (I think it’s celery?), carrots, and mushrooms.
Without rice: If someone is working and/or doesn’t go home for lunch, they might settle for nhom pan (bread), which is basically a sandwich. It’s a baguette with a kind of gravy spread, slices of sausage (reminds me of branschweiger), and a sweet-sour mix of shredded carrots and mango (I think?). Then there’s nohm ban chayo, which basically a giant yellow rice pancake full of bean sprouts, green leafy veggies, and minced meat. Or sometimes this includes a plate of sliced green vegetables and you tear bits off, add extra veggies, and dip the whole thing in a kind of spicy-sweet peanut fish sauce. A good street food, just be sure to wash your hands, because you can’t use a fork for this one.

Dinner: With rice: Basically anything eaten for lunch that’s served with rice is eaten for dinner, too. I might dare say there tends to be more or “fancier” meat at dinner, like fried chicken or shrimp.
Without rice: “Soup” (maybe we stole this word from them?) is what it sounds like, and usually it’s served in a pot kept over heat right on the table, and you just help yourself from it. Usually you eat it with chopsticks and a spoon. And then there is nhom ban jow. Nhom ban jow comes in two kinds, red and yellow. I am extremely fond of the yellow variety. Nhom ban jow is the name for the noodles and the dish as a whole. The noodles are special, I guess, because people refer to them as the “Cambodian noodle”. I’m under the impression they are either unique to Cambodia or originated here. Anyhow, the noodles are served with a soup-sauce kind of deal that has hunks of chicken, peas, peanuts, and topped off with a mix of shredded taro and veggies.

Cambodia's National Noodle

Technically you can eat nhom ban jow any time, but nighttime is especially popular. When there is a festival like Pchum Behn, my sister makes it in HUGE batch and we eat it for breakfast, lunch and dinner for two straight days and I’m all right with that. The whole house smells like nhom ban jow and it makes me so hungry I can easily eat two bowls of it in one sitting.

Some other foods that the States should envy are: dtuk umpao (sugarcane juice), plai deup (I’m told in English it’s a “custard apple”, and my new favourite fruit; its seeds are beautiful, too), plai mean, plai dtuk dah kho (“milk fruit”, specifically the purple variety), plai mukuht (my second Kmai favourite fruit, and probably the reason I was so “regular” during PC training, I’m sure you’d want to know…), several desserts to which I will dedicate their own post later on, and countless “nhom”, or “cakes” (though not all of which Americans would define as cake), and these will be getting their own special post, too.

Phew, that’s a lot of food.

A note about utensils: Before I got here I was under the impression that Cambodians use chopsticks most of the time. Not so! They use them to eat basically all kinds of noodles and a few other things, and sometimes as an extra implement, but for the most part they use spoons. Forks are also used as an extra aid, but in Cambodia the spoon reigns. Makes sense to me, I always thought the spoon was by far the most practical instrument for eating!


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