I don’t profess to have a lot of knowledge about Cambodian cuisine, apart from the couple of times I ate on the streets not too far from the massive temples of Angkor Wat. The food there by and large was mediocre at best. The most popular street food there at the time was probably Mama-brand instant ramen imported from neighboring Thailand. Even if you order fried noodles, you’d probably get rehydrated Mama noodles, which are then stir-fried. Quality ingredients were simply hard to get, which in turn affects the overall quality of the dishes you get there.
Just south of Los Angeles proper, the city of Long Beach here hosts a large community of Khmer immigrants and by extension, a large number of Cambodian restaurants. A few of us went to one of the largest, Siem Reap restaurant, to check out the food.
The first problem we had was weeding out the Thai, Chinese, and Vietnamese items from the menu. We drove 40 miles all the way down here specifically to eat Khmer food, not damned pad thai or banh xeo (which they have listed here as banh chiao).
After consulting with our friendly waitress we settled on four Khmer dishes: amok trey, sadaw salad, pahok ktiss, and a beef soup whose name escapes me right now.
After some time fixated on the Cambodian karaoke videos playing on their TV screens, the pahok ktiss came out of the kitchen. It kind of looked like a platter of crispy raw vegetables with dip you’d likely serve at a lame party. But instead of cauliflower this has Southeast Asian veggies like Thai eggplant, cabbage, long beans and carrots, and instead of blue cheese dip this came along with a small bowl containing a savory dip of ground pork, coconut milk, chili and spices, not too much unlike a thin curry. I think most of the Southeast Asian cultures have dishes similar to this, anywhere from Thai nahm prik to Indonesian lalap. If you could imagine dipping into a bowl of Thai curry with a cucumber slice or a wedge of cabbage, you’d get a rough idea od what this tasted like. Superb.
Our soup emerged next. This is a homey, rustic peasant soup, with water spinach (sometimes called
The sadaw salad was the most unfamiliar dish I had that night. I didn’t know what sadaw was when I ordered it, but whatever it is, it announced its presence in a huge way. The bitter herbal flavor easily cuts through that of the bean sprouts, cucumbers, and all the other stuff–I can’t remember all that was in the salad because all I could taste was the sadaw. I didn’t think it was bad–not exactly–but the flavors were so alien to me that I had to take some time to figure out whether I like it or not.
Amok must be Cambodia’s national dish. When I was in Siem Reap (the town, not the restaurant) last time just about every single eatery there proudly featured their amok. Amok is a kind of light curry made with young coconut. Here it’s attractively served in a coconut shell. Thai restaurants have a similar dish called ho mok. The main difference between is that the amok’s flavors are more nuanced and delicate, as to not to overwhelm the subtle flavors of the fish, while in the ho mok the red curry spices is predominant. I don’t know if it’s because the ingredients are fresher or what, but this amok is probably better than the ones I had in Cambodia. The fish is velvety tender, and the spices are very delicately balanced.
In the end if I had to rank the dishes, I would definitely put the amok trey on top, though the pahok ktiss is a very close second. The soup (ahhh, dunno the name of it) follows, with the sadaw salad (which I’ve decided that I like after all–but it’s definitely an acquired taste) last.
Siem Reap Asian Cuisine
1810 E Anaheim St
Long Beach, CA 90813