About a half hour outside of Siem Reap by tuk-tuk, at a four-way intersection from which one road leads to Banteay Srei, another to Banteay Samre, still another back to the main Angkor temples, and the last to, well, nowhere in particular,
sits a row of eateries serving num banh-chok, a dish of fermented rice noodles topped with 'curry' that's nearly identical to Thai kanom jeen (note the similarity between the words 'kanom' and 'num'). They're all but empty when we whiz by at 630am on our way to watch a family make palm sugar, but the big metal pots stuffed with all sorts of interesting edible greens sitting on each table immediately catch our eye.
Ever since we first sampled kanom jeen in Bangkok we've been obsessed with the dish. In our estimation it makes for the perfect tropical-weather meal: cool noodles topped with a warm but not-steaming-hot gravy, served with all sorts of fresh (and, in Thailand, cooked) vegetables on the side that one can add at will to tailor the dish to his or her own liking. We tend to add so many veggies to our kanom jeen that we end up with something resembling a wet noodle salad.
When we return to the intersection at 9:30 the num banh-chok huts are doing a brisk business. The one we choose offers a selection of two gravies, one soupy, made with fish and lots of coconut milk (up top) and the other a thicker spicy-sweet-salty sauce made with chilies and dried prawns. (Actually all seem to offer the same thing.)
Before ladeling sauce onto noodles the vendor adds bean sprouts and a mix of chopped herbs; fresh chilies, coarse salt, and lime slices are offered alongside. The selection of add-ins displayed in the veg-herb pot is amazing: lotus stems, long beans, and wild herbs such as the flat-leaf parsley-like Oenanthe javanica (rau can or can ong in Vietnamese), sourish Garcinia oliveri Pierre (bua nui in Vietnamese), and strangely drying Lagerstroemia speciosa (bang lang nuoc in Vietnamese).*
A bit of this and a bit of that, leaves torn and long beans and lotus stems snapped, a spritz of lime and a pinch of salt ... soon enough we're feasting on what must be one of the tastiest items on offer in and around Siem Reap. It's so good we consider returning the next morning before our flight to Saigon. Now I wish that we had.
After breakfast we wander up to the tiny market - just a couple of rows of streetside vendors, really - across the road. Many are selling num banh-chok, and we ask our tuk-tuk driver why.
'Because many families in this village make num banh-chok,' he replies.
Ah!! Well, can we come back later today and watch? we ask. Which leads us here ....
Num banh-chok, morning to evening at the Angkor Wat-Banteay Srei-Banteay Samre crossroads.