We weren't wowed by the grub in central Siem Reap - too much of it has been blanded down for tourists, we suspect. (And, though we generally like to start our evenings off with a drink, heaven save us from the Disney-esque scene on Pub Street.) But for those willing to go a bit slack on hygiene standards (yes you read that right, and we'll be devoting a post to these kinds of concerns in the near future), there are treasures to be found in and around Psa Leur, a wonderfully messy jumble of a market about a 7 or 8-minute ride from the river.
Psa Leur is where we headed right after dropping our bags at our hotel. It was 3pm -- too late for a full-on lunch, but just the right time of day for mixing and matching a snack or three. We zeroed in on this vendor after spying the grated green papaya and shredded leaves and herbs in her cart.
She's whipping up Thai somtam, Khmer-ized via the exclusion of tomatoes and the addition of shredded morning glory (water spinach) stems, cabbage, and basil and polygonum leaves (daun kesom, for Malaysian readers). After pounding together palm sugar, lime wedges, chilies, long beans, dried shrimp, and peanuts - the classic Isaan-style somtam combo - she adds a fishy element. We passed on salted paddy crabs and opted instead for a healthy dose of paadek (super-fermented fish sauce similar to Vietnamese mam and Thai bplaa raa) mixed with chili sauce. Then, in goes the in the green papaya and finally, after a bit of pounding, the morning glory stem-herb mixture.
Once it's all mixed she dishes it up, but not before placing a small mound of unpounded herb mixture in the bottom of a dish, a nice crunchy touch.
The salad goes on top.
We adore Isaan-style somtam, but this jazzed up version takes it up a notch. The fragrant basil and peppery, astringent polygonum leaves lend a non-heaty spiciness to balance the chili, and the tightly coiled morning glory stems and strips of green cabbage add texture and just that much more crispiness. An exceptionally refreshing version of green papaya salad that we'll be recreating in our own kitchen.
Not to mention a telling intro to what would prove to be a surprisingly fine three days of eating.