Siem Reap: Sampling Khmer food, insects and all

Rachel ArandillaRachel Arandilla
Postcard Travels

YOU can’t say you’ve been to a country until you’ve sampled their local cuisine. Food tripping is always a major part on my itinerary, a way to immerse myself with the country’s culture and lifestyle.

At one of the ancient temples of Angkor Wat.At one of the ancient temples of Angkor Wat.
At one of the ancient temples of Angkor Wat.At one of the ancient temples of Angkor Wat.

Our visit to Cambodia wasn’t any more different. Khmer cuisine is wonderful. It shares many characteristics with its neighbor’s counterparts, infusing influences from Thailand, India, China and Vietnam. The Khmer palate is “subtle” in comparison to other neighboring cuisines. Neither as spicy as Thai nor as rich as Indian, Cambodian tastes are subtle, but the flavors feel purer and fresher.

What’s interesting to me is how Cambodian restaurants, even the humblest karenderia-types, display a complete array of condiments and accessories for their customers. In every table, you’ll see a dispenser with floral-scented napkins, hot water, utensils, chopsticks, and the condiments black pepper, salt, lime juice and their special Khmer fish sauce. Below our table is a small trash can where we can dispose of our rubbish conveniently.

Food in Siem Reap isn’t expensive and costs somewhere from $2 to $5 in restaurants. Popular dishes are the Fish Amok, a national dish made of fish, coconut milk and curry paste, and LokLak, stir-fried beef in brown sauce.

If you opt for something else, you can have a high time with their famed “happy pizza.” Basically it’s pizza garnished with cannabis. You get to choose on how “happy” you’ll want to be: from “miserable” to “extremely happy.”

And street food in Cambodia is cheap and delicious! My favorites include the Khmer banana pancakes, fried bananas and good ol’ stir fried noodles.

One of my favorites is the Coconut and Chives Rice Cakes or “Nom Khuok,” which you can get at Route 60 for only US25 cents.
One of my favorites is the Coconut and Chives Rice Cakes or “Nom Khuok,” which you can get at Route 60 for only US25 cents.
Silkworms
Silkworms

On several occasions, we asked our tuktuk driver to take us somewhere with good and cheap food. Kapouv led us away from Siem Reap central and into the outskirts of the city. He took us to Siem Reap’s local hangout called “Route 60” where we got to experience the local life. You’ll see the Khmer people having picnics and barbecues with family and friends.

There, you won’t find tourists gawking at the area. Since Filipinos and Cambodians look similar, we blended in easily. Route 60 is the best way to experience Cambodia the local way. But here’s the thing: authentic Khmer food was sold at US cents price!

At Route 60, we also got our first taste of fried insects. The street vendors sold juicy crickets, beetles, silkworm, red tree ants, snakes, frogs and tarantulas. Cambodian cuisine isn’t complete without their famed fried insects.

Khmer insect diet

Food and insects — you would never imagine using the two words together in a sentence — except when you’re in Cambodia. Today, you can see peddlers selling fried tarantulas, crickets, beetles, silkworms and crickets in Cambodia’s public markets and streets. It is a favorite snack among the locals — and a more exotic delicacy worthy of bragging rights for daring tourists like (ahem, ahem) me.

Insects and spiders started becoming a part of the Khmer diet during the terror years of the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot’s reign from 1975-1979.

The Pol Pot regime saw one of the worst human genocides in the history of mankind. An estimated two to three million civilians died due to mass killings committed by the Khmer Rouge. Those who did escape execution died of starvation and disease.

During the civil war, the insects provided the necessary protein and energy otherwise absent in their forced ration of six teaspoons of rice porridge a day. Imagine — to survive a day of imposed force labor under the sweltering heat with six teaspoons! They would eat anything they could get their hands on, like insects.


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