A trip to Siem Reap often revolves around early morning starts, historical tours and Instagram battles of who captured the best sunrise, temple or jungle scene. Rarely do you think of it as a place for a different kind of education – the palate!
Having been a food and travel writer for over 14 years, Cambodia is a place I missed off the map. If I am really honest – I did cross the Cambodian border (by bus to get my passport stamped) then returned to Thailand…oh the joys of youth and island parties.
Now, I am finally here and hungry! My gourmet retreat for a few days is Belmond La Residence-D’Angkor. La Residence is a boutique hotel which feels like a cocktail: one part jungle tropics, one part traditional Khmer design. I cross a pond studded with hundreds of lotus flowers via a traditional wooden bridge and are welcomed with chilled hand towels. Having reopened following extensive renovation in 2016 the makeover is a beautiful sight. White tiled floors, soaring teak ceilings and a winding staircase up to the Martini Lounge. From here I set my eyes across the compact resort. All rooms are set around the impressively lengthy swimming pool fed by stone Khmer lions shooting water from their mouths as coconut trees sway in the inconsequential humid breeze.
I have booked one of the swanky garden one bedroom suites. Ladies – who doesn’t love a designer who dedicates a quarter of the floor space to all things splashable? Wet room, standalone oval bath, double sinks and peek-a-boo plantation shutters onto your kinda- private garden. The main bedroom has a generous sofa and kingsize bed whilst patio doors slide back to reveal a small garden with a four poster double day bed draped in muslin at the pool edge. It’s 5 seconds from bed to pool, (not allowing for any time to take the PJ’s off). Within minutes the pool attendant arrives with bambino sorbets. Mmmm am going to like this place, tomorrow it’s pineapple on sticks dusted with chilli. It’s tempting to lounge and be fed like Cleopatra. Let’s not forget complimentary straw hats and hand held fans which dress my glam lounger each morning.
Sunset beacons, as does happy hour at Martini Lounge. It’s irresistible to go all out James Bond – shaken not stirred.
Ember – Fusion Cambodian & Mexican
Dinner tonight is at Ember, an open plan kitchen close to the pool. Normally hotel dining for a foodie is to be avoided. Not here! Cambodian with a flourish of Mexico makes complete sense as exuberant Mexican chef Saul Garcia Ramos explains his travels across Mexico, USA, London and guess what? Bathers Pavilion in Sydney. We chat about his crazy commute from Randwick to Mosman – today Saul’s commute is closer to 10 minutes.
Dining starts with seabass ceviche and barfish poke tossed with green mango and lime. Shrimp tacos are coriander topped soft tortilla pockets with a salsa on the side. Whilst it’s tempting to order wood fired pizza from the outdoor oven, hot honey duck breast on bok choy and a nest of egg noodles crowned with seared seabass with Mexican red pepper jewels is just perfect with a glass of Vin de Bourgogne Macon Villages. Who would have thought? Mexican using locally sourced Cambodian produce. It’s a new take on fusion food I am not sure many would dream up or ever taste.
To Market To Market
The foodie indulgence continues. I am up early to go to the markets escorted by my new chum (in his chef’s whites), Saul and his sous chef Aked, who has cooked at the resort over 12 years.
Psar Leu street food market is a ten minute ride by tuk tuk and we arrive to a melting pot of noise, sights and smells (many not so charming!). It’s a maze of muddied streets, brightly coloured produce with baskets brimming with dragon fruit, oranges, limes, lychees, spices of ginger, galangal, cumin and turmeric. Cambodian cuisine and spice pastes are similar to Thai (without the fiery chilli but the addition of aromatics cumin and turmeric). Influences of French, Vietnamese and Chinese create a fusion cuisine many Australian’s are unfamiliar with.
Tubs of Kroeng hit us next – it’s a staple spice paste made from lemongrass, turmeric, garlic galangal kaffir lime leaf, followed by pungent Prahok – a fermented thick paste of crushed, salted mudfish beloved by Cambodians. Goes to show true love runs deep; it’s certainly not due to looks or smell, but wow! Its magic stuff.
As we push our way up people -impenetrable streets. The meat section is not for the faint hearted; frogs are lying belly up as their heads get chopped off, catfish are wriggling in open baskets, unbelievably still alive. Are these the fish equivalent of roaches who survive ‘Raid One Shot’ or any manner of natural disasters? I witness a catfish in his own personal ‘Great Escape’ movie, managing to hide undetected by his seller’s foot. A comical moment in a whirlpool of raw meat which would break every EU and world health safety law. It’s 10am and about 120 degrees and I have my personal ‘oh crap’ moment as I start to faint. Fortunately Saul & stall holders come to the rescue. Let’s face it who would want to pick me up once I have landed face first in ‘that’!
Back at Belmond base camp, refreshed, revived. I man up. I am ready for stage 2, cooking school! I am pleased to report no frogs were injured in this class. I have a 121 tuition in the garden of their restaurant, Spice Circle. The main dining room is entertainingly graced with a full size tuk tuk which turns into a serving table for breakfast and dinner. Out in the garden I am set to work making fresh spring rolls, followed by fish amok – a beautiful fish coconut curry, along with a refreshing aromatic soup and a chicken basil stir fry. Over the next hour of chopping, swirling, tasting and frying I create a mini banquet which goes down nicely with a refreshing beer. Yes the trip was all worthwhile.
Out and About
On my last night I am dining at the icon, Raffles. In the torrential rain the tuk tuk breaks down three times (in the middle of an intersection which has now turned into a moat, removing any possibility of making a dash for it). Bedraggled I arrive at a white columned imperial room where traditional music is booming along the hallway as the cultural performers have been forced indoors. We settle ourselves in The Restaurant Le Grand. Selection Khmer starters which is a delicate array of vegetarian spring rolls, smoked chicken and soft shell crab. Fried rice with Cambodian sausage is a stand out and steamed elephant fish (first for me) with ginger proved a winner along with red curry of coconut milk and sweet potato – all much milder and more refined than any of it’s Thai lookalikes. We retire to the Elephant Bar and sink into Chesterfield sofas enjoying our mango and sticky rice, as we admire all things Elephant – pictures, elephant candles, cutlery and listen to the piano as the sound echos around the hotel.
Siem Reap is a city of culinary contrasts, from fine dining to street food, it’s as raw and real as you can handle. It’s a hotpot for sure, but Cambodia has a bonus -it’s chillies are always optional!
Other spots to try:
Marum – An NGO training restaurant for disadvantaged young Cambodians. Lovely service by the new recruits. Make sure you try the red tree ants with beef and chili stir fry.
Malis – Suggest you don’t do what we did. Turn up for lunch in our not so best dressed! This is a stunning restaurant, fine dining at a fraction of the price. Master Cher Luu Meng creates magic in a beautiful setting. The crab salad is amazing, so too the crispy noodles which arrives on a trolley and is made in front of you a la mode.
Miss Wong – Fun cocktail bar in the thick of the action with a 1930s Shanghai atmosphere, good cocktails and free plantain snacks! We had espresso martinis, had better but cracking atmosphere.
Mie Café – Not far from the Sofitel, away from the maddening crowd down a little used road. It’s absolutely worth the tuk tuk ride. Spotless kitchens. Dine in a traditional Khmer house with outdoor patio and garden. Don’t miss the crab chowder no matter how hot the day is, BBQ glaze ribs and fish amok were outstanding.
Check more travel stories below: