“I remember stealing my first potato.” Our guide, Mr Lee, takes off his glasses and rubs the bridge of his nose. He is small and smiley. Even in the midday heat, a crisp crease runs down his khaki trousers.
We are standing at the exit to Choeung Ek, the most famous of the Killing Fields, south of Phnom Penh, after our official tour. “The Khmer Rouge had moved us to our final village,” says Lee. We ate watery rice in the evening. They pretended they ate the same, but we knew they had food after dark. It was all you could think of. Everything became edible.”
It is a legacy that lives on, perhaps, in Cambodia’s cuisine, where seemingly few things are off the menu. As a food enthusiast, I have come with an open mind and an empty stomach, keen to get to grips with the country’s unusual fare. My journey starts with me joining the intriguingly named Ducky and Mr Smiley (an animated Australian ex-pat and a toothy tuk-tuk driver) from Urban Forage for a food tour of the night markets of the capital.
In a fug of alien noise and smells we pass neat pyramids of tiny glistening brains, huge papillated curly tongues and duck-egg foetuses (pong tia koon). The latter, boiled and eaten with pepper and lime juice, supposedly give strength to the consumer. Holding the smooth white eggs up to the stall’s strip lighting reveals a fluffy silhouette curled inside, beak and feet tucked in tightly. It’s a bit too “out there” for me but some locals seem to be enjoying it.
I spend too long inspecting a spiky green rugby ball, which I find out is a jackfruit. The stall-keeper smiles, takes the knife she has been decapitating prawns with, and scoops out a bright yellow section. It tastes of bubblegum. And, of course, prawns.
Sleepy children sit atop piles of shiny vegetables while mopeds carve non-existent routes between tightly packed stalls. Trays of deep-fried grasshoppers are frozen in tableaux mid-leap. A man inspects a basket of black “thousand-year” eggs: duck eggs that have been stored in ash and salt until the shells blacken, the whites turn to a brown fetid jelly and the yolks to a gentle green slime. Nearby, a purple-edged crab scutters past my toes as it escapes from a bucket and makes a bid for freedom, only to find itself square in a moped’s path.
Ducky encourages us to try the offerings from the stalls surrounding the market. We start with kaw sach tru, wobbly pork belly oozing over hot coals, followed by muscular frogs’ legs dipped in lime, salt and pepper – both surprisingly delicious. We drink sharp pomelo juice from a plastic bag with straws and round off our Cambodian canapés with a handful of rambutans: delicately perfumed fruits encased in hairy, scrotum-like packaging.
The next morning we join a cookery class run by Frizz restaurant (half-day course £10, full-day course £14). Together with a dozen other inept barang (foreigners), we are coaxed through the basics of making fish amok: coconut fish curry steamed in a boat of banana leaves. Pummelling spices in a huge wooden pestle and mortar takes its toll on three American ladies, who opt instead for a seat and a cold Angkor beer. A small serious-faced Cambodian boy quietly takes over, swiftly producing perfect curry paste for each of them. In a nod to bushcraft specialist Ray Mears, we are encouraged to make a vessel for the steaming curry using only a banana leaf and two toothpicks. My husband tests his banana boat by filling it with curry and holding it over my head.
That evening we have dinner at Romdeng, a training restaurant for former street children housed in a handsome colonial villa. Our waiter’s trousers are two inches too long for him and he introduces himself timidly. His face beams when we order the deep-fried tarantula. “Scary, but very tasty, yes?”
When they arrive, the arachnids have been arranged as if they are chasing each other around the plate. Their legs crunch like hairy Twiglets; their abdomens are full of nondescript bitter brown sludge. I can’t imagine developing a taste for them.
The next morning we board the bus to Siem Reap where we are welcomed by a rotund lady with goody bags containing a plain baguette and a bottle of water. She informs us over the PA that we are “about to travel a very bumbly road” and advises that seatbelts must be worn at all time. She subsequently unfolds a battered red deckchair and sits in the middle of the aisle, eating crisps and watching Spiderman on the DVD player.
We spend our days exploring the incredible sights of Angkor Wat and our evenings exploring the vast choice of local restaurants. On our last night, we treat ourselves to the six-course tasting menu at Cuisine Wat Damnak. We sit in a cool, quiet courtyard drinking dry French wine. Heavy cutlery clinks politely and impeccably observant waiters anticipate our needs. But even here, in the most renowned of the city’s restaurants, there is still no ingredient that is out of bounds. The menu includes crispy beef tongue, stir-fried frog meat, and a salad of lotus: lotus roots, lotus stem and fresh lotus seeds.
The cooking may be fancy but the flavours are strong, proud and true. We are a world away from a stolen potato, but even here, in the long shadow of the regime, food serves as a reminder that everything is precious and nothing should be taken for granted.