Maybe my praise of Khmer food was a little premature. Here’s the breakdown of a recent meal at a roadside restaurant in Kampong Cham province. This is authentic Khmer food, not tailored at all to Western tastes.
Only Khmer language with no English menu. According to the server it included such delicacies as roasted frog and fried pig’s groin. Sensing danger, I played it safe and ordered chicken and rice (coincidentally the only two food words I know in Khmer). It’s hard to go wrong with chicken and rice.
The meal (from top to bottom)
Mr. Tong ordered the first two dishes. Prahok and beef. Sounded decent enough. Prahok is one of Cambodia’s national dishes, a noxious paste made from fermented mudfish. This was hands down the saltiest, fishiest thing I’ve ever had, like a mouthful of spoiled sardines, and bore a startling olfactory resemblance to lutefisk. The beef had the durability of a bicycle tire. After a few polite bites I let Mr. Tong enjoy this dish by himself. The second dish was “special salad”, and tasted like a freshly mown lawn.
My chicken dish looked pretty appetizing, actually. Things went downhill after that. The first bite was all bone and gristle, and then I discovered that the whole plate was smothered in cilantro. I can’t handle cilantro. A few bites actually had chicken meat, and they weren’t bad. But there were also kidneys and hearts and entrails mixed in, and everything was fried black so I couldn’t tell what was what. I’d have to shovel a piece into my mouth and chew on it for a bit, then discreetly toss the scraps to the feral dogs that prowled beneath the table. I had to break out the old childhood tactic of rearranging the plate to make it look like I’d actually eaten some of it. Thankfully, the rice was steamy and soft and endless. I wound up eating basically nothing but rice and beer and a few pieces of carrot that were buried the chicken. It was also the third meal of the day where I ate primarily rice (rice & chicken for breakfast, rice & pork for lunch, and rice & chicken again for dinner). No shortage of carbs here in Cambodia.