Deep-fried tarantulas were an adventure too far for me, so I ordered prahok instead. The waiter tried to warn me off.
It is a popular ingredient in Khmer cooking, but the pungent, sewagey smell often revolts barangs (Westerners). Fresh fish is crushed, dried in the sun, salted and left to ferment in a jar for weeks, months and anything up to three years. It is added to all sorts of dishes as a thickener or condiment, and eaten on its own as a dip for raw vegetables in the style of anchoïade in the South of France. The taste is fine, as long as you stay upwind of it and take shallow breaths.
But there is more to Cambodian food than stinky fish and spiders. Meals are put together as they are in neighbouring Thailand with rice at the heart of them and a balance of textures and flavours: soups, salads, curries and pickles; something fried, something grilled, something sour, something bitter. But – prahok notwithstanding – Khmer food tends to be subtler than Thai with herbs more prominent and chilli restrained.
Take papaya salad. It is broadly the same dish whether you order it in Phnom Penh and call it bok lahong or order it in Bangkok and call it som tam; but in Cambodia the chillis are sliced and served on the side so you can add as many or as few as you like, or none at all if you please: in Thailand they are bashed up with the salad and it as hot as the cook decides.
The Thais have their own take on amok trey, which the guidebooks call the national dish of Cambodia; but theirs, ho mok pla, is spicier. In the Khmer version, flaked catfish is mixed with coconut milk and a delicate curry of turmeric, lemongrass, galangal and shallots, and steamed and served in a banana leaf, then garnished with a sliver of red chilli.
There is crossover, too, with the neighbours to the east. Street food vendors in Phnom Penh sell a crusty baguette stuffed with slices of pork, slabs of pâté, coriander and pickled vegetables. They call it num pang but it is a rebadged version of the well-known Vietnamese bánh mì. Then again, every noodle shop in Saigon sells hủ tiếu Nam Vang, or Phnom Penh noodle soup. It is called kuy teav in Khmer and half of Phnom Penh slurps down a bowl of it for breakfast each morning.
Lok lak, the best-known Khmer dish after amok, is much the same thing as the Vietnamese bò lúc lắ (shaking beef). Strips of marinated beef are quickly stir-fried and served with sliced salad vegetables, lettuce and a dipping sauce. The idea is to parcel up a mouthful of beef and vegetables in a lettuce leaf and dunk it in the sauce.
I had it at the Foreign Correspondent’s Club in Phnom Penh, a lovely colonial villa on the riverfront. The shutters were open and the bamboo blinds rolled right up and the fans on the roof lazily revolved and the breeze from the Tonle Sap River wafted through the windows and cut the stifling air. Illuminated boats glided past as I sat and sipped an Angkor beer and ate the lok lak and unseen scooters snarled somewhere below.
© Richard Senior 2015