Impressions from Cambodia and Vietnam

I love to travel. Mostly to eat and experience food from different places, meet friends and acquaintances in the industry who share the same passions as I do, and to experience and see another culture.

Living in Denmark, we are lucky enough here to have 5 weeks of vacation a year (you read it right!), and I try to take advantage of putting the weeks together, getting out of the Danish winter, going to a hotter country, eating Asian food and visiting my family. This year I went to Cambodia and Vietnam.

This will be a brief post about some of the food that I enjoyed, and some of the impressions that I had.

Let’s start with Cambodia.

Firstly, I think whatever health regulations might exist there in food service would not fly here in Denmark…

Is that pork blood on my mango? Boeung Keng Kang Market, Phnom Penh

Chinese chive cakes are probably my favourite street food, but the sauce they usually serve with it is too sweet for my liking. If you see these on the street, ask for it without the sauce because sometimes they won’t put the sauce in a bag on the side, and you’ll end up with beautiful chive cakes swimming in sugar water. If you see any spicy chilli paste, ask for that instead.

Chinese chive cakes – you can get them fried, or just steamed. My preference is fried.

Actually, my preference is deep fried!!

A very Cambodian dish is a green fish curry soup served on top of cold fresh rice noodles, and a variety of fresh herbs, leaves, shoots and edible flours. Unfortunately, I am allergic to fish, which I found out at the age of 5 by I devouring an entire bowl of this and ending up in hospital. While my family was enjoying this meal one day, I found out that fried Chinese chive cakes, cut into pieces, and mixed with the fresh sides and a spicy chilli sauce, was and exceptional dish. It was like a Chinese chive cake salad – hot, fatty, yet fresh, healthy and spicy!

Family lunch of green fish curry soup, with cold rice noodles and fresh lotus shoots, Vietnamese mint, banana blossoms, Sesbania flowers, purple (?) flowers and cucumber. That’s my Mum!

I love Cambodian food and I love Cambodia, but my impression of Cambodian cuisine is that it’s somewhat ‘ghetto’ – especially when you compare it to Thai cuisine – which, can be ghetto too, but they have a huge history and tradition for their food. They even have a series of dishes which classify as ‘Royal Thai cuisine’ and the food is really ‘rich’ in that way. Similarly, for the food of China. There are recipes that date back to the Ancient times, for the Emperors – Chinese Imperial cuisine. And there’s no doubt why Chinese and Thai cuisine are major popular cuisines of the world, alongside the heavy hitters, French and Italian cuisine. In defence of Cambodian cuisine, it has a dark past, in which it was eliminated completely for a number of years. Between 1974 and 1979, a very corrupt leader named Pol Pot forced everyone in the country into rural labor to make rice for export. People starved and suffered while they worked and worked literally to their deaths. Enjoyment of food no longer existed since people only got to eat a small amount of plain congee each day, if they were lucky. People were even killed if they were found with a banana in their pocket. Even long after the end of the Khmer Rouge regime, Cambodia was still in civil war for years. It’s no wonder people weren’t interested in focusing on cuisine when they were just trying to survive.

Instant noodles served at a small shack at a boat harbour in Sihanoukville.

Cambodian cuisine borrows a lot from their neighbours. There’s a lot of Thai, Vietnamese and Chinese influence and Indian as well. A lot of dishes are adaptations or copies of dishes from their neighbouring countries, such as steamed buns, spring rolls, papaya salad, and bahn xeo. Cambodia curries have their own particular style and tastes which are quite different from Thai curries – my favourite being a dry beef curry made with thin slices of beef, long green chilli, lime leaves and sometimes some vegetables like string beans, stir fried in a strong paste made from lemongrass, shallots, garlic, turmeric and chilli.

Spring rolls and papaya salad at a street stand in Kampot.

It was my first trip to Vietnam and I was really impressed with the food there. I have always been a fan of Vietnamese cuisine and was so delighted to discover that it really is good as I wanted it to be. The Vietnamese have had a very diverse culinary history and the cuisine varies from region to region, with specific dishes gaining their names from their regions, such as bùn bó Hué, a beef noodle soup flavoured with lemongrass and star anis and spaghetti-sized rice noodles which originates from Hué, a city in central Vietnam.

Bún bò Huế at a street stall in Saigon.

My eating strategy in Vietnam was to find the Vietnamese dishes that I grew up loving, and try them out in their home land as well as eat anything I saw that looked and smelled amazing, regardless if I knew what it was or not. To find the best of the dishes I knew, I followed a blog called Migrationology.com for where to eat in Saigon and was never disappointed.

Bò kho – Vietnamese beef stew with lemongrass, tomato and star anis, eaten with baguette

Bánh mì – Vietnamese sandwich

Banh cuốn – Vietnamese steamed filled rice noodles

What I never tried before was broken rice. I had always read about that some congee (rice porridge) is normally made from broken rice, since it’s going to be broken up in cooking anyway, which makes total sense. But I had never really eaten it before. Broken rice is the small, broken pieces of grains of rice that are sifted out in the process of making rice. It’s second-grade rice used industrially for brewing or bird feed, but is also eaten a lot in Vietnam. There’s a common street food dish called Cơm tấm which is broken rice served with grilled pork.

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Cơm tấm – Broken rice with marinated grilled pork, steamed egg, pickles and fish sauce dip

Broken rice is supposedly less nutritious than whole grain rice, and is the commonly eaten rice in poorer countries such as Vietnam and India. Eating a lot of broken rice in Vietnam made me feel really spoilt for the rice we get here. For something considered so cheap and plain as rice, it really made me realise the value of it. One should never waste rice. Always save old rice for stir fry, congee or at least freeze it for making congee with it another time.

Carol Choi & Lisa Lov

Carol Choi & Lisa Lov

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