A new street food tour introduces visitors to hidden corners of the capital, Phnom Penh Food Tours. Editor Marissa Carruthers samples the flavours of the morning outing.
Despite having lived in the capital for almost six years, Phnom Penh’s swathe of continental cuisine has got in the way of my experimenting too much with the even larger offering of street foods. These days, it’s even rarer that I jump off my well-worn track having fallen into the trap that comfort too often affords, routine.
Comfort and routine can also make it easy to fall into the misguided mindset of thinking there’s nothing left to discover in Phnom Penh. I mean a market’s a market and a back alley’s a back alley, right? Wrong. This couldn’t be further from the truth, as my morning adventure with Phnom Penh Food Tours taught me.
Meeting outside the Post Office in the capital’s cultural quarter at 7.30am sharp, I was met by my guide, Sokha. He dished out a brief history of the colonial architecture that characterises the area before leading us to a nearby corner overspilling with locals tucking into their first meal of the day.
The smell of barbecued meat wafts through the air as we jostle through the maze of plastic chairs and tables to the only free spot, dodging the nimble staff who dart from diner to diner to deliver fragrant dishes. Within seconds, an array of plates lands on our table in the form of one of Cambodia’s iconic breakfast dishes, pork and rice.
Thin and crispy shreds of barbecued pork and a fluffy fried egg sit atop a generous portion of rice, accompanied by sliced green and red tomato. A side bowl of refreshingly tangy lemon soup and a dish of pickled vegetables completes our breakfast meal.
Refuelled, we jump into our designated tuk tuk and head to Phsar Chas, or Old Market, where we’re led past trays of flapping fish, rogue crabs making their escape from baskets, chickens being plucked, slabs of meat being butchered, and rainbow displays of fruit and vegetables being sold.
While I’m no stranger to a Cambodian market, the next part of the tour is proof there are so many hidden pockets of Phnom Penh that are waiting to be discovered. We stop at Orussey Market, ignoring the market itself and instead heading for the network of back alleys that surround it.
Weaving through the crowds of early morning shoppers clamouring to buy the freshest ingredients of the day, we hit an area that, I’m told, is home to many Chinese immigrants. The result is a plethora of stalls making fresh food with its roots steeped deep in Chinese tradition. Stalls sell bottles of soya milk, flour flies in the air as noodles are pulled behind a street kitchen, rails of roast suckling pigs hang in the sun and vats of boiling oil spit and crackle as sellers fling in the Chinese doughnuts they have just rolled.
Next, we head a little further out of town to Phsar Damkor, the capital’s wholesale fruit and vegetable market. A hive of activity, vans overhanging with sugar cane, spring onions, coconuts and other tropical fruit and veg deliver their loads to the hundreds of stallholders that dot the sprawling site. Shouts dart through the air as deals are brokered and money exchanges hands at this spot, where the majority of the capital’s fruit and veg is imported from and exported to neighbouring countries.
With all five senses piqued, we head to our next and final stop, a local tea shop famous citywide for its upside-down tea – green tea served in a glass, you guessed it, placed upside down on a saucer. While I have no idea of the rationale behind this and there’s definitely a knack to transferring the tea from upside down glass to drinking glass without spilling it everywhere, it was an interesting way to round off an interesting morning eating and discovering off-the-beaten-path parts of Phnom Penh.
Having launched mid-May, Phnom Penh Food Tours is the sister adventure of the popular Siem Reap Food Tours. Co-founder Lina Goldberg aims to showcase the diversity of Cambodian food and help it secure the recognition it deserves on the global food map while putting it on a par with neighbouring Thailand and Vietnamese cuisine, which internationally overshadow Cambodia’s dishes.
“Cambodian food is very much a cuisine of terroir and is rooted in the country itself,” says, “Prahok, a type of fermented fish, is an integral part of the cuisine – it’s used where shrimp paste might be used in Thai food – but part of what makes it truly Cambodian is that it’s made with fish from the Tonle Sap. Cambodians say they can tell if it’s not. Cambodian cuisine just hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves.”
There are morning and evening tour options available for both Siem Reap and Phnom Penh. Tours are $65 with a $20 discount running for Phnom Penh adventures through June. Visit: phnompenhfoodtours.com for the coupon code and more information.