To put it bluntly, food in Cambodia has been a bit of a struggle.
Last night, Jacque and I shared a noodle bowl from a street vendor for a light dinner. The guy was very friendly. He had a wood fire in his cart under a pot of boiling broth, and whipped us up a bowl of flat rice noodles in beef broth with carrots, a root veggie, some chicken, and three small spicy meatballs. The various herbs and spices turned it into a delicious dish; I would venture that it was as good as most Pho restaurants back home. It cost us 6000 Riel, or approximately $1.50, which is about on par with what we expected to spend on a meal here in Cambodia.
Last night was a lovely experience. Mostly, it has been much more frustrating and has not cost what we expected.
Our first attempt at eating street food in Phnom Penh failed miserably. We spied several food carts as we walked in front of our hostel and headed toward them. After looking at a few, we went up to one and asked how much. The lady who ran the cart told us that there was no more food, despite the fact that I could see the food in the cart. As we were talking, all the food carts in the area started their engines – the carts are motorcycles with sidecars – and moved across the street. After saying “no food” a few more times, she followed the rest across the street and continued selling her noodle bowls.
I’ve never felt like such an outsider in my life. If I were in Mexico and someone yelled “pinche gringo!” at me from across the street, I’d still feel more at home.
Other than our one street noodle bowl last night, we’ve been mostly eating at restaurants. The Khmer culture – that’s what Cambodians are called, Khmer, and it’s also the language they speak – has a few tasty dishes. Amok, a mild curry, can be made with chicken but is more often made with fish. (Fish Amok! What a great name.) Beef Lok Lak is a peppery dish with some spice behind it. Many restaurants serve Western food, but it’s never very good. There are also ethnic restaurants: we had amazing Chinese steamed dumplings (shrimp and wasabi was a good combo), and we’ve heard the Indian food is good but haven’t sampled it yet. The restaurants have been tasty almost across the board. Unfortunately, they have also been more expensive than we’d like; at $3-5 per person, we’re not breaking into our IRAs or anything, but a few dollars a day adds up quickly. Since we’re only one week into our trip, I’ll chalk that up to inexperience: either we don’t know the right places to go or we haven’t ventured far enough outside tourist areas, despite our best efforts to do so.
C’est la vie.
We’ve only scratched the surface, but we’re slowly learning how to navigate this alien world. In a few weeks or months, we’ll look back and laugh at how incompetent we were and our frustrations will simply be good stories as we navigate places that are stranger and more difficult than Cambodia with ease. For now, though, it has been a bit of a struggle, and it will continue to be a struggle for some time.