Every year during Tet, the entire city of Saigon shuts down. Businesses and restaurants close their doors so that workers can spend the holiday celebrating with friends and family.
To take advantage of the godsend 10-day vacation the Times gave me (and to avoid starvation), The Astronomer, Lush (my lovely gal pal from college), Zach, Thomas and Olivia (Thomas’ lovely gal pal from college), and I packed up our bags and headed to Cambodia for the Lunar New Year.
Our first stop was Phnom Penh, where we stayed with my mom’s friend Sue. Sue lives in a ginormous house with three people on staff, including a very talented cook. For our first meal in the city, we enjoyed a home cooked Cambodian dinner.
The bill of fare included Fish Amok, a vegetable and lemongrass curry, and enchiladas. Sue wasn’t sure if we wanted Cambodian or Mexican food, so she asked her cook to make both. Super! The highlight of the evening (and the best thing we put into our mouths in Cambodia) was the freshly prepared fish amok. Amok is a Cambodian curry that is steamed in banana leaf cups and light on the liquid. Eaten with steamed white rice, the amok unleashed such intense flavors that it tickled us pink. Chilies, lemongrass, coconut and curry melded with the meaty and tender fish.
I was infatuated with the amok this evening and hardly touched any of the other offerings. The curry was brimming with pumpkins and milder than the amok, while the enchiladas’ cheesy and tortilla goodness brought a slew of different flavors to the table, like chipotle! After dinner, we took a long walk around the ‘hood and saw the National Monument and the riverfront.
The following day was spent exploring Wat Phnom, the Central and Old Markets, and the National Museum. Zach and The Astronomer ducked into BB World for their first meal of the day, while Lush and I opted to hold out for some real Khmer cuisine.
BB World is a non-descript fast food eatery decorated in a red and yellow color scheme much like Mickey D’s. Zach ordered a cheeseburger value meal, while The Astronomer got a fish sandwich. Zach thought that the fries at BB World were phenomenal—seasoned well and crispy. The burger and fish sandwich met expectations, but were unmemorable.
To thank Sue for her hospitality, we treated her to dinner that night at a restaurant of her choice; she chose the Foreign Correspondent’s Club for its history and ambiance. The restaurant was packed when we arrived, so we had to sit on the third floor, which wasn’t as lively as the second where the bar and woodfire oven were housed.
The bulk of the menu at the FCC is Western, but it includes some Khmer offerings. Liana and I decided to stick to the Khmer side of the menu and shared the Nhoam Kra Ao Chhouk—lotus root salad with caramelized pork, smoked shrimps, fried shallots, hot and sour dressing ($6) and the Kari Kroeung Sach Moan–spicy chicken curry with pea eggplants, coconut rice and cucumber relish ($7.50).
From the fried shallots to the fish sauce dressing, the lotus root salad tasted exactly like Vietnamese goi. I like goi very much, but was hoping for a Cambodian twist. The chicken curry was bland and the pea eggplants were bitter little things. The Astronomer hoped to relive the glory of our first dinner and ordered the Fish Amok—classic steamed fish curry served with steamed rice, spiced coconut milk & tamarind chutney ($7). Much like the curry, the amok was boring and flavorless, but the tamarind chutney did add an interesting touch. Needless to say, we were disappointed in the FCC’s Khmer preparations. We should’ve just ordered pizza.
On the walk back from the FCC, we stopped by an ice cream shop on Samdech Sothearos Street, located across from the Vietnam Friendship Memorial. The place was sort of like The Max, but in Cambodia. I ordered a scoop of pandan, Lush ordered a scoop of soursop, and The Astronomer ordered a papaya smoothie and crab sandwich. Although they were a little less frozen than we would’ve liked, Lush and I were impressed with our selections. The light and fresh flavor of pandan was captured well. And even though we have yet to eat fresh soursop, we found the ice cream version just lovely. Unfortunately, the Astronomer’s papaya shake turned out awful and his sandwich was tasteless. Poor guy.
Sue’s cook prepared our final meal in Phnom Penh—grilled fish served with lettuce, herbs, and a green mango relish and stir-fried pork with vegetables. The fish was prepared simply and deliciously. The moist flesh of the “river fish” was highlighted by the sour green mango relish. I didn’t have much of the actual pork, but the vegetables were tender and hearty.
From Phnom Penh, we headed to Siem Reap to experience Angkor Wat. While seeing the temples at Angkor, we ate mangoes, purple milk fruit and sticky rice. Unlike the vu sua in Vietnam, the purple milk fruit is cut into slices rather than slurped through a hole. The taste is similar to that of ripened persimmons. The sticky rice with black beans were grilled in hollowed-out bamboo and served as a filling snack. Our tour guide taught us to use strips of bamboo to eat the rice to avoid sticky fingers. Genius.