A couple weeks ago a reader sent me an email asking about eating in Siem Reap (and Bangkok and Laos) which said, in part):
I really want to do some food exploration, but am concerned about eating fresh veggies and fruit. What are your thoughts on the matter?
It wasn't the first such email I've received. The food-focused traveler's conventional wisdom says: if it's not hot and cooked don't eat it, unless it's a fruit or vegetable with a peel you can remove yourself. We flout that rule wherever we go.
Fresh tropical fruits, peeled and cut into bite-sized pieces and sold from a cart are one of Southeast Asia's manyedible pleasures, as are blender drinks made with fresh fruit and ice. If you're eating in Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, or Thailand, staying away from fresh veggies means denying yourself a key component of the local cuisine. Room-temperature curries and other not-ot cooked foods eaten with rice are par for the course.
Do we get sick from street food? Not often at all, considering the amount of grazing we do. Is that because we've built up 'immunities' in our years in Asia? I tend to doubt it. We're both in excellent shape (according to the results of recent physicals) and try to stay that way when we travel, and I think that gives us a leg up to begin with (we've also had the requisite vaccinations).
On the rare occasion that we do get sick from food there's no pattern to it, no easily identifiable source. And when one of us gets sick the other never does, even though we eat from the same plates (even if we're not sharing he tastes mine, I taste his). To me this indicates that getting ill from street food often comes down to the luck of the draw. All it takes is one little speck of nasty matter, which might originate in the food you're eating or with the vendor who dishes it up. It might be lurking on the plate it's served on or the chopsticks or silverware you eat with. Or, it might just float in on a breeze and settle on your spoon right before it enters your mouth. A crap shoot, in other words.
Which is not to say practicing some common sense doesn't increase the odds of staying healthy. We look for crowds - locals get sick too, after all - and for vendors who strive to keep their tables clean and shoo away flies. We avoid the last dregs of anything (if something's obviously been sitting around for hours and hours, why tempt fate?) and try to do the same with hideously dirty surroundings.
Try. That's the operative word. After arriving in Siem Reap we headed straight for Psar Loeu, a big and, yes, awfully dirty wet market about 10-15 minutes by tuk-tuk from the center of town, in search of something to eat. Soaking rains had left its surrounding lanes a sea of mud. It was 3pm and the row of rickety food stalls out front were open but quiet, flies buzzing unimpeded around the ingredients on display. We went inside, where the only stalls still open were those dealing in gold, currency exchange, and dried meats and fish.
And exited at the rear, where we ran into a group of women cooking a kanom krok-alike coconut and rice flour treat.
Next to their table, a pile of reeking refuse - one of the market's binless 'dumpster' areas. It was mostly vegetal matter, but it stank to high heaven. The dishes looked dodgy.The ladies were serving their specialty with bowls of coconut milk seasoned with prahok, so getting a bag to go was out of the question. Dave and I looked at each other: 'Should we?' we asked each other, a couple of times, as we'd done in similar situations countless times before. The answer is always the same. I'd like to say that we perform some sort of logical calculus, carefully weighing pros and cons, risks versus rewards. But this is how it goes: here is an appetizing, unfamiliar food. Or a familiar food served in an unfamiliar way. A street food we might not see again.
How could we not? So we did.
It's an inspired combo, coconut milk and prahok (the Cambodian equivalent of bplaa raa, Thai super fermented fish sauce), rich sweetness playing off salty fishiness. A spoonful of garlic-laden chili sauce from the jar on the table jazzes things up a bit, and the lot is a fine accompaniment to the crispy-outside, chewy within coconut milk-rice flour balls. Unfortunately, as I discovered when I put one in my mouth, ours were cold - the vendor had chosen them from an old batch instead of taking them off the griddle. (I take full responsibility for inattentiveness. I know better.) Risky, perhaps, but the thing was already in my mouth, and scrumptious.
Emboldened - because that's how it works for us; once we've breached that Should I?-Shouldn't I? barrier we figure well, what the heck, if we're gonna get sick later anyway we might as well eat what we can before it happens - we munched our way through Psar Loeu's late-afternoon offerings, mud squelching into our sandals as we walked (that's what showers are for). There were thin crepes rolled around coconut-scented sticky rice into tubes the size of our forefingers, slices of fresh mango bagged in plastic, and the tastiest green papaya salad we've ever eaten.
By the time we'd traced a path back to the front of the market the previously sleepy stalls were hopping. We stopped in front of a crowded table where, on our way in, Dave had eyed a platter of what looked like snow-white earthworms. A few minutes later we were diving into a mound of fantastically chewy rice noodles char-fried with heaps of Chinese chives and bean sprouts and served with a Chinese chive-stuffed fried rice dumpling (deep-fried taro cake was also an optional accompaniment), as greasy (in a good way) as it was delicious, especially with a blob of vampire-chasing garlic-chili sauce on the side.
On our way out of the market we stopped for another brilliant snack food, long beans wrapped in fish paste and deep-fried.
Bagged with a splash of fish sauce, a dab of chili paste, and shredded fresh cucumber and herbs, these were reminiscent of Thai tod man bplaa (deep-fried fish cakes). The beans, shriveled from their bath in the hot oil, were intensely vegetal and the flavorful fish paste crispy and rubbery at the same time.
The bottom line here? In two hours at Psar Loeu we ate five delicious street foods that we probably never would have encountered if we'd limited our eating to Siem Reap shops and restaurants (we were on the ground only 3 days this trip). Were the surroundings dirty? No doubt. But we came through with no ill effects (though we certainly can't guarantee the same for others), spied a stall that would prove the source of a wonderful dinner later that night, and returned again another morning to sample more equally worthwhile market treats. Risk has its rewards.
More to come.