Our first foray to Siem Reap's Psar Loeu turned up much deliciousness with no negative digestive consequences, so we set aside a morning to return for breakfast(s).
The market is (unsurprisingly) hopping at dawn; out front, along a main road into town, and in alleys all around its perimeter primarily female vendors sell heaps of fresh vegetables, fragrant herbs, roots and rhizomes.
I counted tens of baskets of lemongrass with stalks so plump they could be used in entirety, and seven types of eggplant (small, round and white; tiny, round, and green; big, bulbous, and purple, golf ball-sized green and white striped ...).
Also abundant in the market's aisles is prahok, or fermented fish condiment, in various grades and states of fermentation.
For some varieties of prahok fish is fermented with red rice, for others, with white. Some are made with small whole fish and others with fillets or steaks of larger fish; some are sold early in the fermentation process, when the fish still holds its shape, others long after rot has broken the fish down into a challengingly fragrant mush of flesh. Perhaps I've been in Southeast Asia too long but the smell of prahok (or bplaa raa, or trassi or belacan or mam tom) doesn't put me off at all. On the contrary, it gets my stomach rumbling as thoughts of fishily fragrant soups, curries, and pounded salads fill my head.
In whatever form prahok is sold, there's one surefire way to determine its quality: lift a spoonful to your face and take a big sniff.
Appetites roused by the scent of rotten fish, we were easy marks for a vendor cooking up pork and veggie-filled egg omelettes. Had we been in 'danger-danger!' mode the copious fresh - and very wet - vegetables piled on her display might have put us off. But we'd chowed on fresh greens with our num ban-chok with no ill effect. And it was our last morning in Siem Reap, our last chance - for a few months, at least - to get a taste of Cambodia.
The vendor laid out a beautiful spread. Her crepes were superb, just out of the pan, crackly-crispy at the edges, their bean sprout-filled centers not overstuffed to the point of sogginess. Wrapped in lettuce with a few leaves - basil, mint, pegaga - and dipped in the a sauce made with prahok, chilies, a souring agent of some sort, and chopped garlic and peanuts, they made a fine breakfast appetizer. Her salad rolls, filled with nothing but chopped vegetables and herbs, were equally fine,
and when a woman selling cups of fresh iced sugarcane juice sauntered by, we didn't hesitate.
At this point the calculus goes something like this: We've already ingested what common wisdom says are most 'risky' - ice and wet, uncooked vegetables and herbs - in filthy surroundings. There's a whiff of freedom in the moment that we give voice to thoughts such as this. In this moment it seems insane not to explore further, and extensively.
So we proceeded to nosh around Psar Loeu. In truth not everything we ate was stellar. But a couple other foods were, including coconut milk-batter waffles cooked over charcoal,
and wrapped around moist and meaty gratings of fresh coconut. We declined the optional sprinkle of white sugar.
Absolutely brilliant - soft and chewy hot waffles, coconut two ways. Those averse to Asian savory stuff in the a.m. should still head to Psar Loeu in the morning, just for these treats.
Next up, a marvelous bowl of noodle soup, made with a variety of pork cuts, lots of vegetables and herbs, and num ban-chok.
We love the Cambodian and Vietnamese method of 'broth blanching', or softening and warming the ingredients with a wash of hot broth that's strained back into the soup pot. The result is so much more flavorful than when noodles and veggies are dunked into plain boiling water.
After vegetables and noodles are blanched meat is added
and then, finally, broth and a flurry of herbs.
This thin broth was so meaty, quite spicy, and every so lightly sour from small tomatoes.
A good thing to know is that in settings where dishes, such as noodle soups like this one, come packed with vegetables and herbs (Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, sometimes Thailand), it's perfectly acceptable to ask for more to be added to your bowl at some point in your meal. On this morning, after we'd eaten most all of the pork and vegetables but still had half a bowl of broth, we asked the vendor to add more shrubbery; she happily obliged, broth-blanching the veggies in another bowl before sliding them into our broth. The price was adjusted accordingly.
We ended this morning at Psar Loeu with a pate bread (known in Vietnam as banh mi). It wasn't the best version of our trip (we were, after all, heading to Vietnam, aka Southeast Asia's Sarnie Paradise), but it topped up the tank enough to hold us over till we could hit the streets of Saigon a few hours later.
There's lots more to be sampled at Psar Loeu (early morning is best). If you're heading to Siem Reap and are an adventurous eater, don't miss it.
Note: we had no ill effects from eating at Psar Loeu but of course can't guarantee the same thing for you.
Where to find the food: If you stand facing the market building, the crepes vendor is down the alley that is perpendicular to the alley that hugs its right wall; the waffle vendor sits near the junction of the two. The pork noodle soup vendor is on the alley running behind the market building. Her stall sits in front of a teeny coffee stall in the corner of an old wooden building.