I'm almost ashamed that this is the first proper Cambodian meal we've had since arriving in Siem Reap almost a week ago.
We can't help but view time in this tourist town as an opportunity to partake of food and drink we don't get much of at home in Penang: reasonably priced, creative and really delicious cocktails in cool bars (Miss Wong), decent pizza accompanied by a good barbera d'Asti that doesn't break the bank (Il Forno), contemporary French bistro fare in a sleek setting (Abacus), wonderful homestyle Korean dishes highlighting spices we're new to (like crushed perilla seeds, in gamjatang; Happy Restaurant), good cheese and ice cream and mangoes at a ridiculously low price per kilo. Plus we've been working, and doing vacation-y things (what a concept!) like staying out late and sleeping in
So Cambodian food hasn't been high on the agenda. Oh sure, we've managed a bit of street food -- fresh rice rolls, noodles and grilled pork rice and, of course, iced coffee -- but we haven't burrowed into the local food scene with nearly as much gusto as we usually do.
That changes today. After a wonderful meal at a little place we would never have looked twice at were it not for the recommendation of a local chef, we're eager for more. The restaurant is called Chanrea Dom Makara, and it's a gem. The staff is friendly, the vibe relaxed and the food -- for us Cambodian cuisine neophytes anyway -- remarkably delicious. After our first lunch there (there have been two in as many days) we floated out the door, high on whatever chemicals the brain releases into the blood stream after an especially fine feast. I expect we'll further mine the menu over several visits before we depart Siem Reap next week.
It's your typical local joint -- long and narrow, no aircon, tables covered in patterned plastic cloth, a kitten or two scurrying from table to table and a tiny kitchen where most everything is prepared to order. On weekdays the place is packed out at lunchtime -- it's best to arrive before noon lest you be turned away for lack of seats. Don't sit at the two tables just inside across from the kitchen and the pass-through window unless you want to leave smelling like fried fish paste.
Here's what floated our boat on the first visit:
Prahok ktih, a dip of prahok (a fermented fish condiment similar to Thai bplaa raa) cooked with minced pork and coconut milk, flavored with a pounded paste that includes turmeric, lemongrass and galangal. The prahok's assertive pungency is tamed by the pork fat and the tiny pea eggplants give occasional bursts of bitterness, shaking up taste buds that might otherwise be lulled into a stupor by rich coconut cream. The raw vegetable plate served alongside included thin slices of sour green tomato -- a nice touch.
This cloudy sour fish soup -- listed on the English menu as "Vietnamese sour soup" -- was just as puckery as we like it, lightly fishy, bright and intensely herbal from the inclusion of paddy herb and Vietnamese mint. A perfect palate cleanser between mouthfuls of other dishes.
If non-Cambodians know amok it's often as a kind-of fish custard steamed in a banana leaf similar to Thai hawmok or Penang-style otak-otak. This version is deconstructed: slices of fish and noni leaf (noh in Khmer) in a lovely Indian mango-orange coconut curry. This dish was our favorite for the noh leaf most of all. Meaty and with the heft and texture of collard greens, it has a pleasant ever so light bitter edge that beautifully complements coconut milk anything. I'd happily eat this dish sans fish, all noh.
A quick google search turns up plenty of links for Cambodian green mango salad with dried shrimp but hardly any for this green mango dish made with dried beef. When I saw it on the menu I immediately thought of the dried beef-green papaya salads we used to eat in Saigon, but this one is different: dominated by the flavor of fresh herbs, less sweet, less wet, not really spicy, the beef less salty than Vietnamese died beef and in the form of the thinnest shavings rather than thickish matchsticks. This dish was difficult to share; it's light and refreshing and I could eat it by the bucketful, for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Fried salt fish and watermelon, a dish of two ingredients served on separate plates, didn't quite work. I was expecting a buzzy salty-sweet/protein-fruit marriage-in-the-mouth along the lines of watermelon and Turkish feta-like beyaz peynir, but it wasn't there. Of course it wasn't -- fried salt fish doesn't coat the tongue as milk-rich feta cheese does so unlike watermelon and cheese, watermelon and fish just don't conjugate. But, but ... the salt fish is truly fine, the tastiest I've ever eaten -- not very salty, "young" enough that the fish's flesh separates into moist shreds rather than breaking into dry sticks. It's dusted with a bit of chili and has hardly a hint of grease. I'd order it again on its own and might even consider packing a bag or two away, to snack on later with beer or cocktails.
Update: After a second visit, we can also recommend the spicy sour soup, a folden, not-very-spicy coconut milk-enriched puckery broth with fish and water spinach/kangkong; and the deep-fried Tonle Sap fish with quick pickle-ish sour green mango and green tomato relish. The fish are about 9 inches long, not very bony (the spine lifts out easily) and fried to a perfect crisp, really lovely eaten with the mango.
Chanrea Dom Makara, Sivatha Road a block or so north of the former Hotel de la Paix (as you're heading in the direction of Highway 6), on your left. Look for a green-and-white awning with a couple outdoor tables beneath. Tel. 012-925-530. The kitchen is just to your right as you enter, with a wall of dish photos and names in English. Our lunch for three cost U$12.