What is street food?
I found myself mildly debating this question with a chef in Siem Reap, after his recommendation led us to these wonderful skewers of BBQ'd beef on the quiet side of the river. That particular specialty isn't one that he'd call "street food", he said, because the beef (and its accompanying green papaya pickle) are prepped off-site and are cooked off the street at a stationary location, a shop (of sorts).
For me the definition of street food is less about a dish being prepared and eaten literally in the street (or in an alley or on a sidewalk) than it is about immediacy, proximity and specialization. If it's not prepared or at least plated pretty much to order, in plain view of the diner, it's not street food. And most street foods are served by vendors (not restaurateurs, not cafe operators) who specialize in one, two or a few dishes. (That's why I feel comfortable talking about "street food" in Malaysia even though much of it is no longer served from carts that are literally on the street, but from carts parked inside or just on the edge of kopitiam / coffee shops.)
It's these elements that make street food so special and, so often, delicious. They're why street food doesn't translate well to a restaurant setting and why, contrary to the assertions of some that Asian street food isn't all that great, it often really and truly is. I don't doubt that you can find char koay teow, asam laksa, banh da and Thai-style grilled pork neck in a restaurant. But I'd bet my last dollar that the restaurant versions won't be half as tasty as the best version prepared and served "on the street", because they would be missing those elements of immediacy, proximity and -- especially -- specialization.
I got to thinking about this after the post I wrote about those Siem Reap beef skewers elicited comments on Twitter to the effect that street food in Cambodia is disgusting. Wow, I thought, that's a pretty broad generalization to make about any food, anywhere. Then it occurred to me that maybe those comments came from folks who define the term "street food" as narrowly as our chef friend. To be sure, Cambodia isn't an easy place to do the street food thing. It's a poor country and hygiene is lax. Often, as I wrote a few years ago, the general environment in Cambodia is just not street food eating-friendly.
Yet Bangkok is sometimes touted as a comparative street food paradise by Cambodian street food naysayers -- because in Bangkok street food is everywhere, all the time. In fact a good portion of the food served on Bangkok's streets has declined in quality over the decade that's passed since I lived there. What's served on the city's streets does not generally dazzle, and you really have to pick and choose carefully; I think many Thais and farang familiar with Bangkok's street food scene would agree. And yet Bangkok is often held up as the gold standard (and Cambodia compared unfavorably to it). Just because it's on the street and looks good doesn't mean that it is good.
There is often a sort of tendency among street food enthusiasts to give food a pass just because it is street food, and it's cheap -- along the lines of "Wow, I'm loving this experience of eating on the street, and even cooler is the fact that my amazing bowl of noodles costs less than a dollar! So this is a great bowl of noodles! And street food is great!"
But that's an approach that's as off-the-mark as the reverse-reverse snobbery of the street food naysayers, the ones who imply that writers and travelers who espouse eating street food are living in a La-La Land not occupied by the the majority of Asians, and are willfully ignorant of the way the majority of Asians would really prefer to eat: in an air-conditioned restaurant, not at curbside. (My answer: come to Penang, observe the diners at hawker stalls, and then tell me how many are eating street food because it's the only food they can afford to eat. And the same might be said of Hanoi.)
I am a big fan of street food for a number of reasons, but I'm as particular about my street food as I am about other food. I don't like -- and I won't tout -- a mediocre dish prepared with sub-par ingredients by a cook who doesn't care, whether it costs $100 and is served in a 5-star setting, or whether it costs 50 cents and requires my sitting on a tiny stool inches above the sidewalk to eat it. For me the worthy by-products of eating street food -- mingling with locals, being part of a lively dining scene, seeing facets of unfamiliar cultures you'd never otherwise see and, in some cases, having the opportunity to try a dish that just isn't available elsewhere, off the street -- should be the bonus of a great street snack or meal, not its raison d'etre.
What am I getting at? First, that the definition of "street food" should be broad. Second, that just because it's cheap and on the street doesn't mean it's worth the calories. Third, that street food eaters don't enjoy any kind of superiority over non-street food eaters -- eat street food or don't, I make no judgement either way -- but that they may gain insights that non-street food eaters don't. Street food eaters are privvy to experiences -- and sometimes dishes -- that simply aren't had off the street.
And fourth ... Cambodia's got some great, tasty street food, even if it isn't always served in the most appetizing of settings.
To whit, in Siem Reap: Psar Chas, the old market in the center of town. It's hot, it's untidy, it's a wet wet market. Psar Chas can be uncomfortably crowded. You may not find the odors that waft about its aisles -- a heady combination of dried and fermented fish and fresh meat, wet herbs, sliced lemongrass and pounded garlic and shallots, chopped fresh turmeric and grated coconut -- as appetizing as I do. But, especially in the early mornings and again in the mid-late afternoons it's central food stall area features some excellent eats.
(As an aside, I've always found morning markets to be a great source of good street eats, often better than night markets. As I wrote in this post from Taiwan, night markets are about the scene, while non tourist-oriented morning food markets are about, well, food.)
Like the pork-rice, chicken-rice and congee/noodle stall at one corner -- always packed, usually selling out of pork by 8am or so. Like every other stall in the market it's stationery but make no mistake, this is the definition of street food. Behind the counter pots of thick rice porridge and water for boiling noodles are kept warm over braziers, and the ingredients for each dish are lined up on the counter. Foods are assembled -- and cooked, to varying degrees -- to order. Every step, except the long cooking of the porridge and the roasting of the bird and pig, is done in front of you.
This lady serves a congee fine enough to convert the most diehard anti-rice porridge-ist (you're out there, I know, and I'm betting most of you have never eaten a properly made rice porridge), thick and creamy and meaty tasting. There's bean sprouts in there, and lots of Cambodian black pepper, and before it's served the congee is drizzled with a little oil flavored with scallion greens.There's taucu (fermented bean paste) and prahok, a super odiferous fermented fish condiment, on the counter with which to season your porridge as you wish. Don't forget the fresh pounded chili sauce.
Then there's the pork rice -- sliced pork over rice, essentially -- which on this morning became chicken rice because by the time we arrived the pork was sold out (Dave, who spent many early mornings in Psar Chas and became a pork rice regular here, gives it a thumbs-up). No matter though, because the chicken is moist and flavorful, it's drizzled with that not-overpoweringly garlic-oniony scallion oil and the lot is served witha delicious sweet-sour quick pickle of carrots and cucumber and a sweet-hot-tangy dipping sauce.
Behind this stall is a vendor of sweet treats. Look for a steamer full of pale yellow cakes in banana leaf cups. Made with palmyra palm fruits and coconut milk, they're moist and spongy with a lovely hint of banana-ish tartness.
Where else for street food in Siem Reap? A row of shops on a side street way down the river; you might need to hire a tuk-tuk or ride a bike to get there (or be willing to walk 15 to 20 minutes from the center of town). All serve various incarnations of the chicken-noodle combo.
Our favorite was the dish in the opening photo, a bowl of cool rice vermicelli topped with chunks of crispy chicken-filled spring rolls and shredded chicken meat. Reminiscent of Vietnamese bun thit nuong, each bowl holds a bit of pickle and fish sauce-y sweetish dressing at the bottom. Add a dab of Cambodia's ubiquitous chili sauce, mix and eat. These places also serve fresh rice paper-wrapped salad rolls, light on meat and heavy on crunchy lettuce and herbs.
No, Cambodia isn't a street food bonanza. It's streets offer a lot of frankly funky stuff. But there's good street eats too. They are there (but not everywhere) -- if you want to look for them.
The pork/chicken rice/congee lady is at the very corner of Psar Chas prepared food section, right in the center of the market. Which corner? I couldn't tell you. But you'll know her when you see her. If you get there past 9am you might not see her at all.
The cool rice vermicelli stalls is on a street perpendicular to the river north of the center of town. I drew it on a map, which you can see here.