cambodia


An entire day spent amidst Angkor Wat’s towering spires, Buddha’s enigmatic smiles and the flowing motion of Hindu deities carved out of stone can capture anyone’s imaginations and awe a person with Cambodia’s rich history. However, it imminently also sets people up for disappointment after they leave the temples to go back to modern day Siem Reap. Judging from the intricate temple carvings, ancient Cambodian artisans had considerable talents and their kings impeccable taste. But Siem Reap with an overtly touristy town center, and hastily put up, cookie cutter type hotels was quite charmless in comparison. There are exceptions of course, and Hotel de la paix, with its art-deco exteriors, cool interiors and first-class service is one. However, room rates are also top class and accomodation at the hotel is not a viable option for mere mortals like me. But Pak and I still found a way to enjoy the luxuries of the boutique hotel while we were in Siem Reap. We did so through a special Khmer dinner at Meric, its restaurant.
The 7 course, market centric meal has been written up by multiple international tourism and food magazines, and is justly famous for offering a slice of refined Cambodian food different from the fish amoks found along Pub St restaurants. The first course was a eggplant puree made crunchy with fragrant pork bits. Served between a fragrant basil leaf and a perfect slice of cucumber, this made for great textural contrast. Second came a pomelo and prawn salad that was cool, sweet and tangy at the same time. Third a shot glass of Prahok curry served with vegetable crudites. While prahok is supposed to be made of fermented fish, there was no tell tale signs of fishiness at all. Fourth came Pak’s favorite dish, a krill and water lily sour soup served in a hollow bamboo segment. While it tasted a little astringent in the beginning, the natural sweetness and crunch of the tiny shrimp shone through and the soup just got tastier and tastier as we chewed on the krill, shell and all. Dish 5 was a less memorable fish stir fry in the Chinese tradition, but the portions are so dainty that it lacked the gusto and perfume of wok you’d have gotten if you’d ordered it in a hawker stall instead. Number 6 was a sublime pork and coconut soup reminiscent of Thai curry but with less heat and less sweet. The meat literally fell of the ribs and I enthusiastically poured the sauce over rice to maximise my enjoyment of the curry. Last came an assortment of Cambodian desserts, again resembling Thai desserts with its use of glutinous rice, copious amounts of coconut milke and intensely sweet palm sugar but only perfunctory at best. Still, some sweets are always better than none, and having it in a beautiful room overlooking a lush Banyan tree further accentuates the sweet experience.
The good life comes at a cost of $28/pax. While it is a great sum of money in a town where an entree goes for less than $3, and cost more than all our other meals combined in the 4 days, everything is relative. When you think of the alternative as paying for a $300+/night room, the top notch dining experience becomes a steal.

The phrase “same same, but different”, commonly found on t-shirts sold in the Cambodian tourist outlets and street stalls can be applied to food found in Siem Reap. The stir fries taste a little Chinese, the lemongrass and spices in the curries evoke a little bit of Thai. But the stir fries taste a little more of pungent fish sauce than soy, and the curries are not quite spicy. The differences are subtle compared to food from its Southeast Asian neighbors, but distinctively present.
Even different renditions of the ubiquitous Fish Amok, available in every Westerner and local restaurant alike vary somewhat. Fish Amok is both cute sounding and mild and easily liked, so much so that the cynic in me wonder whether it is a recent invention to suit Western palates. But it was undeniably popular and mostly tasty.
At the all-time Pub Street favorite Khymer Kitchen (left), we celebrated having watched the magnificent sunset atop the Angkor Wat ruins by sharing a big bowl of its version of Amok, a light green curry chockful of fresh fish, fried morning glory (or kang kong in Singapore), a sweet red curry and some lukewarm but drinkable local beer.
In the foodcourt tucked in Central Market (top right), a modern emporium of Cambodian and even made in china souvenirs, the fish amok hawked by a smiley lady was a steamed, coconut-y custard served in a bowl fashioned by banana leaf. Another Siem Reap speciality we found at the central market foodcourt was cured sausages that tasted like a less smokey version of Chinese sausage that went well with rice. The final version was eaten at a road side stall along the stretch of road near the ultra-modern Hotel de la Paix, and was the least appealing brown gloop shown (right). Maybe we were suffering from amok-fatigue by then, but the stingy portion of fish and the excessive gunkiness of the dish did not help either.
After three days and many meals, we still did not know what a standard serving of Fish Amok should look and taste like. Well, while homogeneity has it merits, some same same but difference isn’t too bad.